It is a bug not a bird, but use­ful to be sure

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CELIA STOREY

While clean­ing up af­ter the last Old News, the one about the so­called Pop­u­lar Su­per­sti­tions col­umn of 1917, I ran across the fol­low­ing item and stopped ev­ery­thing, be­cause … be­cause …

I don’t know why. Just read this. It’s ver­ba­tim from the Aug. 10, 1917, Arkansas Gazette. Be­cause it’s so long, I’m not ital­i­ciz­ing and in­dent­ing it or mak­ing lit­tle nests with quo­ta­tion marks. In­stead, I’m trust­ing you to rec­og­nize that it ends just be­fore “ALRIGHTY THEN.”

Pop­u­lar Su­per­sti­tions

A horse with more than one white foot is looked upon with sus­pi­cion, both in the United States and in Eng­land. A say­ing here is: One white foot, buy him; Two white feet, try him; Three white feet, put him in the dray;

Four white feet, give him away:

Fear white feet and a white nose,

Take off his hide and give him to the crows.

An English say­ing:

“One white foot, ride home for your life;

Two white feet, give him to your wife;

Three white feet, give him to your man;

Four white feet, sell him if you can.”

If a horse can­not roll over, do not buy him. The num­ber of times he rolls over will be the num­ber of hun­dred dol­lars he is worth.

It is said that a horse, cow or dog whose tail hangs to the left will be of no use and will bring bad luck.

To meet cer­tain an­i­mals is con­sid­ered lucky, while to meet oth­ers is the re­verse. To meet a sow with a lit­ter of pigs is lucky, but it is un­lucky if a sow crosses a trav­eler’s path. It is lucky to meet a weasel, but it is a sign of mis­for­tune for a hare or a black cat to cross the road in front of you. It is a sign of good luck to have a black cat come to you.

Ac­cord­ing to an old su­per­sti­tion, the thing a per­son hap­pens to be do­ing in the spring when he hears the cuckoo’s call for the first time is the thing he is des­tined to do most fre­quently through­out the en­su­ing year. This is also said of the whip­poor­will and the frog.

An­other cuckoo su­per­sti­tion is that the un­mar­ried maid or man will re­main sin­gle for as many years as the times such a bird ut­ters its note within their hear­ing.

If the first robin you see in the spring flies up you will have good luck dur­ing the year; if down, bad luck.

In Maine when crows are seen fly­ing over­head they say:

“One crow, sor­row; two crows, mirth;

Three crows a wed­ding; four crows, birth.”

There are many birds that the superstitious con­sider it un­lucky to kill. Among them are the la­dy­bird, martin, robin and stork. To kill a wren means that you will break a

bone be­fore the year is over.

It is un­lucky to kill a cricket or a spi­der. It is be­lieved by some that if a daddy-long-legs is held by one leg it will point with an­other to the di­rec­tion the cows have gone.


The “la­dy­bird” in that 1917 list of birds is what stopped me.

La­dy­bird is a com­mon name for the la­dy­bug or lady bee­tle — a small, red fly­ing hemi­sphere with an amaz­ing, re­cently demon­strated abil­ity to tuck away its huge hind wings when not in use. “La­dy­bird bee­tle” is the term pre­ferred in the United King­dom.

Bug or bird, the lady in ques­tion was Mary, mother of Je­sus Christ, in some an­cient tra­di­tions de­picted as wear­ing a red cloak.

Was there a bird that was called la­dy­bird in the early 20th cen­tury? Car­di­nals are red. Was the car­di­nal the la­dy­bird?

Ap­par­ently no. The on­line En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Life lists 28 com­mon names for car­di­nals, not one of them la­dy­bird. Nor did I find “la­dy­bird” ap­plied to an ac­tual bird in the Gazette, and I searched back to 1820.

Per­haps the au­thor of the Pop­u­lar Su­per­sti­tions col­umn (and we still don’t know who that was) didn’t re­al­ize the word re­ferred to bee­tles and not to birds?

But how likely would that have been in 1917? Lady­bugs are such fa­mil­iar cuties that, today, tod­dlers know them. But the bee­tles aren’t na­tive to this con­ti­nent and, turns out, they weren’t an Amer­i­can gar­den icon in 1917.

The first la­dy­bird bee­tles had been in­tro­duced into Cal­i­for­nia only 29 years be­fore as a farm-sci­ence ex­per­i­ment. Al­bert Koe­bele was a Ger­man-born botanist work­ing on cit­rus pests in Cal­i­for­nia for the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture in 1888 when he sicced im­ported-from-Aus­tralia la­dy­birds on some doom called cot­tony cush­ion scale.

Ac­cord­ing to his ci­ta­tion in the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of En­to­mol­ogy (Springer Nether­lands, 2008, $709), he saved the cit­rus in­dus­try. Later he loosed other la­dy­bird species in Cal­i­for­nia, where they ate plant lice (aphids) with alacrity.

The de­lighted grow­ers as­so­ci­a­tion gave him a gold watch and di­a­mond ear­rings for his wife.

But “his suc­cess earned him the ire of some col­lab­o­ra­tors who were jeal­ous of his recog­ni­tion,” the $709 en­cy­clo­pe­dia says. He re­signed from the de­part­ment in 1893 and moved to Hawaii, where he pi­o­neered the use of bi­o­logic pest con­trols on sugar plan­ta­tions un­til his health failed in 1908 and he re­turned to Germany.

And there he died, in 1924.

The term “la­dy­bird” ap­peared only a hand­ful of times in the Gazette be­fore 1917, most in ref­er­ence to Koe­bele’s mirac­u­lous crop-savers — none in ref­er­ence to any ac­tual bird. But there was an­other use: An obituary list in the Feb. 2, 1911, Gazette in­cludes one “La­dy­bird Davidson, aged 4 years, near DeWitt.”

Also, you may re­mem­ber, Clau­dia Alta “Lady Bird” Tay­lor — first lady Lady Bird John­son — was born in 1912 in Kar­nack, Texas.

Sup­pos­edly her nurse ex­claimed that she was “as pretty as a la­dy­bird” when she was 2.

And La­dy­bird was a pet name for chil­dren long be­fore. In Shake­speare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1594), Juliet’s nurse calls her “la­dy­bird.” And in the 1859 Charles Dick­ens novel A Tale of Two Cities, stout, grim, red-haired Miss Pross goes to any length to pro­tect her for­mer charge Lu­cie Manette, call­ing her “my La­dy­bird.”


Why call a bee­tle a la­dy­bird? Ac­cord­ing to the (four vol­ume!) En­cy­clo­pe­dia of En­to­mol­ogy, the name has been used more than 600 years for the European bee­tle Coc­cinella septem­punc­tata L. The name was later ex­tended to re­lated species. “Of course these in­sects are not birds, but but­ter­flies are not flies, nor are drag­on­flies, stone­flies, mayflies and fire­flies, which all are true com­mon names in folk­lore, not in­vented names,” the book says.

An­other com­mon name for the la­dy­bug, and one that in Europe ap­pears to pre­date la­dy­bird, is “lady-cow,” on ac­count of the spots.

I con­sider “lady-cow” a splen­did name. These things do eat aphids, which are tended by ants. And ants use their an­ten­nae to “milk” aphids for the sweet hon­ey­dew they con­tain (af­ter suck­ing the life out of daylilies) — which is some­times cast as the ants herd­ing the aphids like lit­tle cows.

Which would make the lady-cow an eater of lit­tle cows.

You’re wel­come.

Next week: Mayor De­nounces Vi­cious Ru­mors

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