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Where have all the ladybirds gone?

Outdoor Living

‘LIVING JEWELS’ Ladybirds survive the winter by cuddling together in groups under logs or leaves to sleep out the cold weather.

Country Sights and Sounds

John Shelley

“So when did you last see one?”
The question brought me up short. I struggled back over the summer, through the occasional foray into the army of wild plants (I used to call them weeds and fight them) that threaten to engulf the garden, to wild orchid hunts along the shore of lovely Lough Carra. That time I sat on a rock, unaware of the ticks that were working up an appetite while sunbathing, surely there should have been ladybirds. Or the day I went to the fledgling Robe to pick small trout from every stickle; had I been unobservant and failed to see? Or were they absent?
It’s not too late, I told myself, and went to look, first at nettles, then at thistles and elsewhere. There were no ladybirds to be seen. Nor were there many aphids, upon which ladybirds like to dine. The absence of prey would partly explain the absence of predator. But why really are we missing these little living jewels that occupied so many childhood hours?
The answer... I don’t rightly know. Perhaps the widespread use of chemicals has something to do with it. But I haven’t used a chemical spray this year. Maybe it’s to do with the weather, and when the sun shines next summer we shall have our family of Coccinelidae back with us. In the meantime we can help those that are still around, and surely there are some, by leaving a corner of the garden for the lesser creatures that support our existence.

Give them a hibernation home
Lots of insect species, including ladybirds, will hibernate through the winter, provided they have a cool, dry place in which to sleep. Some will come into the house or head for the garden shed, but many more will settle down behind flaking bark, in holes in trees, under rocks or in earthen banks where they are more susceptible to bad weather and much more likely to be discovered by birds or mice.
Building a special place for creatures to hibernate can be a rewarding way to introduce younger family members to the wild things that surround them, and such a project can be easily undertaken.
The simplest way to go about it is to head down to the local builder’s yard and pick up a couple of old pallets. Place the strongest one on the ground and fill it with a variety of things. Old roofing tiles, broken slates and terracotta pots, together with handfuls of straw and plenty of dead wood, together with plenty of dry leaves, avoiding plastic or glass or other man-made materials as much as possible. Once the pallet is filled the next one goes on top and the process can be repeated.
A log or two sacrificed from the log pile will make an interesting addition to the project. Holes of various sizes should be drilled into the end of each one, and the logs positioned with the drilled ends facing outwards. Some of the holes will quickly be claimed by spiders, others by solitary bees, and who knows what else might move in?
Half a dozen pallets would make a sizeable winter bed for a good many creatures. If we are fortunate we might get a hedgehog on the ground floor, provided he has a dry corner. If conditions are damp then frogs will move in. (If a hungry hedgehog and an overwintered frog emerge from hibernation together there might only be one standing at the end of the day!)
The upper storeys will be occupied by various insects and even by small birds, and if the robins and wrens that make their homes in the nooks and crannies we provide they will likely stay and nest next spring.
But back to the ladybird. Why should we look out for them in the first place? For one thing they, or their ancestors, at least, were probably here long before we, or our ancestors, appeared on the scene. And for another, they are positively beneficial. One ladybird will eat thousands of aphids during its lifetime, and might produce countless offspring which will do the same.
Another reason we should care might be the simple sense of wonder in the eyes of a child as yet another climbs the length of a forefinger and spreads its wings to ‘fly away home’.
I could ask the same question that was asked of me: When did you last see one?