One day, I was just chillin’ in Duncan commons, chatting with a friend and sort of studying at the same time when out of nowhere an insect commonly known as a “ladybug” came and landed on my arm. Of course, my instant reaction was “Insect Blog Moment!! Must. Get. Camera.” So of course I scrambled to get my phone out of my bag, but I was certain to not scare the lady bug off of my arm. Why? Well, there’s the obvious reason of needing it to take a picture, but then there was also a secondary reason, a more instinctual reason, something that has become ingrained into me over the course of my life: Having a ladybug land on you is good luck, but scaring it away will bring you bad luck. Being the superstitious person that I am, my subconscious would follow this rule just as religiously as knocking on wood and throwing salt over my shoulder. However, after thinking about it, I realized that this one is a bit more strange. Generally, people try to avoid insects, or at least avoid having them land on their arms. Even your body reflexively has you swat at things that land on your skin and move the hairs ever so slightly. There generally are only a few exceptions to this, one being butterflies and the other, ladybugs.
But why? Butterflies have the advantage of being beautiful as well as having a fragile and harmless appearance. However, I wasn’t buying the idea that simply the red coloration and polka dot pattern was enough to make ladybugs lucky, so I did some research.
The first thing I found was that, as you may have guessed, ladybugs are not actually bugs. Instead, they belong to the order Coleoptera (aka beetles) and more specifically, the family Coccinellidae. It’s estimated that in this family there are about 6,000 species with a diverse range of colorations and patterns. I also found that in the UK, they are commonly known as “ladybirds” and “ladycows,” which both confused me and made me proud that even if it is still incorrect, at least the American common name is within the right phylum.
But still, even all of this information does not answer my question of why Coccinellidae are considered lucky. To my surprise, I found the reason for their luck as well as the origin of their common name in the same article. As we have discussed a bit in class, one of the main niches that Coccinellidae fill is as a predator for aphids. In the act of preying on aphids and other insects, they aid in crop protection. This act has been appreciated by farmers for centuries and it is speculated that it is exactly this role that has earned the Coccinellidae the universal reputation for being lucky. And, in fact, unlike other superstitions, this one may hold some validity since the scaring away or killing of these insects might actually bring you “bad luck” as you watch the aphid population spiral out of control and destroy your crops. Now, the name “lady bug” stems from a related superstition started by Catholics that states that it was the Virgin Mary (also known as Our Lady) who sent these insects to help protect the crops, resulting in their iconic name as well as providing the inspiration for yet another depressing British nursery rhyme.
There has actually been a bit of research done into using Coccinellidae as biological controls for pests as was seen in the presentation on Citrus Greening. However, there is still much research to be done to be able to effectively use and quantify the benefits of using these insects for that purpose. Specifically, more research into the effects of pesticides, proper conservation techniques, and effective sampling techniques is crucial for gaining a better understanding of the effects of the use of Coccinellidae as a biological control. To learn more about this, read this paper from the Annual Review of Entomology.
And after explaining the origins and potential validity of this superstition, I have to tell you that to get a good enough picture I actually had to take this little member of the Coccinellidae family off of my arm and put it onto a plant. Although it pained me to do so, I reasoned that since I was actually bringing it into a habitat that it is more likely to enjoy, it should spare me from any bad luck curse…hopefully.