A-Z of na­ture:

Dr Ben Ald­iss on the lit­tle spot­ted won­der many know in Nor­folk as a bishy barn­abee

EDP Norfolk - - EDP NORFOLK MAGAZINE - Dr Ben Ald­iss wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture Dr Ben Ald­iss is a wildlife jour­nal­ist and broad­caster, deputy man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of World Agri­cul­ture and an ad­viser in bio­di­ver­sity and ed­u­ca­tion on farms. wasp

It’s L for... bishy barn­abee

Ls­tands for Lady­bird in this month’s look at the Na­ture of Nor­folk, but I’ll take the op­por­tu­nity to delve into the world of other bee­tles too.

I was lucky enough to be a stu­dent of ecology at Royal Hol­loway College at the same time as Mike Ma­jerus, who later be­came Pro­fes­sor of Evo­lu­tion at Cam­bridge Univer­sity. As we were both fas­ci­nated by in­sects, we stud­ied entomology as one of our mod­ules, then went our sep­a­rate ways to do re­search. Years later we met again as guest speak­ers on a con­fer­ence about in­va­sive species. I spoke about wasps and he fol­lowed with a talk on the har­lequin lady­bird. Sadly, he died aged only 55, but his legacy as a lady­bird ex­pert lives on.

La­dy­birds are bee­tles and be­long to the fam­ily Coc­cinel­l­i­dae. The word means scar­let and comes from the Latin descriptio­n of the colour of the fa­mil­iar seven-spot lady­bird. There are around 3,500 species known to science, only 46 of which are found in Bri­tain. Of these, 26 are in­stantly recog­nis­able as la­dy­birds and we have 21 of them in Nor­folk. As a school­boy, I knew them by their Nor­folk name of bishy barn­abees, ap­par­ently af­ter the no­to­ri­ous 16th cen­tury Bishop Bon­ner and his red cloak.

All bar three of our la­dy­birds feed al­most ex­clu­sively on aphids, so they’re very wel­come in the gar­den if your roses are in­fested with green­fly. The other three are her­bi­vores, feed­ing on moulds, pollen or leaves. One of these veg­e­tar­i­ans – the rus­se­tor­ange 24 spot lady­bird – has ar­guably the long­est Latin name of any an­i­mal: Sub­coc­cinella vig­in­ti­quatuor­punc­tata.

Apart from their oc­ca­sional in­flux in huge num­bers from the con­ti­nent on to Nor­folk beaches, la­dy­birds have en­joyed a good rep­u­ta­tion, but things have changed since the ar­rival of the no­to­ri­ous har­lequin lady­bird. Named af­ter its huge va­ri­ety of colours and pat­terns, it’s also called the Asian lady­bird or, in the USA, the hal­loween

la­dy­bee­tle, as it tends to in­vade homes in late Oc­to­ber to hiber­nate. Hun­dreds have re­cently emerged from their winter sleep in our house in north Nor­folk.

The har­lequin lady­bird has spread through­out the world from its home in Eastern Asia as a re­sult of un­con­trolled in­tro­duc­tion by mar­ket gar­den­ers for its ef­fi­ciency in con­trol­ling scale-in­sects and aphids on green­house crops. Be­ing gen­er­ally larger and more ag­gres­sive than our na­tive species, the Har­lequin not only com­petes for food, but will eat other la­dy­birds if the aphid sup­ply runs out, so it’s a gen­uine threat to the other 21 kinds liv­ing in Nor­folk. As if that’s not enough, it has been known to bite and – like other la­dy­birds – it can ex­ude a foul-smelling, yel­low fluid from its leg joints by a process known as re­flex bleeding.

There are two other bee­tles

I want to dis­cuss in this look at the na­ture of Nor­folk. Both are im­pres­sive and can be found in var­i­ous parts of the county if you look care­fully in the right places. The first is the glow-worm. It gets its name from its two most ob­vi­ous fea­tures: the fe­male is long, flightless and worm­like and she has the abil­ity to glow with a green­ish light at her rear end. The male is every­body’s idea of a stan­dard bee­tle, be­ing small and brown with hard wing cases.

The glow-worm’s life-cy­cle is a fas­ci­nat­ing one. In the months of June and July on calm, warm sum­mer’s evenings, the fe­male creeps out of shelter in grassy ar­eas at the edges of her wood­land or hedgerow habi­tat to sig­nal her in­tent to mate. Males flying at the same time are at­tracted to the steady green light she emits from a spe­cial chem­i­cal re­ac­tion tak­ing place in the seg­ments at the end of her ab­domen.

This re­ac­tion pro­duces light with very lit­tle en­ergy wasted as heat, so she can glow for up to two hours a night for ten con­sec­u­tive days, all with­out food, as ap­par­ently the adults don’t feed.

If a male spots her he im­me­di­ately flies to­wards the light to mate. Big­ger fe­males produce brighter light, so they’re more likely to at­tract a male. The fe­male then switches off her light and even­tu­ally lays tiny eggs that glow faintly yel­low. The grubs or lar­vae that hatch from these eggs look sim­i­lar to the adult fe­male as they grow big­ger. They can also glow, but only from twelve tiny spots down their sides, rather than the big light-show pro­vided by their mother.

The diet of the glow-worm lar­vae is un­usual and rather grue­some. They feed on live slugs or snails that may be up to 200 times heav­ier than them­selves.

Creep­ing up on damp nights un­der the cover of dark­ness, they lo­cate their snails or slugs by scent, then bite them to in­ject a mix­ture of poi­son and diges­tive en­zymes. The ill-fated mol­luscs then be­come paral­ysed, af­ter which, de­pend­ing on their size, some or all of their juices are sucked out.

Amaz­ingly a few survive this treatment and survive to live an­other day, de­spite be­ing rather slim­mer than be­fore.

I was go­ing to speak of an­other fear­some car­ni­vore – the for­mi­da­ble great div­ing bee­tle – but it’s oc­curred to me that I’ve talked about preda­tors for three weeks run­ning, so I’ll end on an al­to­gether more gen­tle note in­stead and tell you about the bloody nosed bee­tle. I’m sure you’re think­ing that this is yet an­other pug­na­cious meat-eater that keeps get­ting into fights, but you’d be wrong. It’s ac­tu­ally

a lum­ber­ing and rather com­i­cal her­bi­vore that wouldn’t hurt an aphid or a snail. In fact it hap­pens to be a fam­ily favourite of ours, ea­gerly looked for on sunny days in grassy mead­ows and hedge­banks, where it feeds ex­clu­sively on bed­straw. A pon­der­ous, shiny blue-black bee­tle, it has six rather long legs end­ing in sticky feet that look like big hob-nailed boots.

Not only is it slow, but it’s lost the power of flight, so it would ap­pear to be the per­fect snack for any pass­ing car­ni­vore. But no – it has a cou­ple of tricks up its six metaphor­i­cal sleeves.

Spi­ders and other arthro­pod preda­tors stand no chance, ow­ing to the in­cred­i­bly thick ar­mour that cov­ers the bee­tle’s en­tire body. You may think that birds and mam­mals would fare bet­ter, but just as they’re about to take a bite, the bee­tle plays its sec­ond trick and spews a large blob of bright red, bit­ter liq­uid from its mouth, giv­ing a very pass­able im­pres­sion of a bloody nose.

Not only is this visu­ally star­tling, but one taste and the preda­tor learns never to mess with this creature any more.

There are more species of bee­tles in Nor­folk than any other in­sect, so I’ve hardly done them jus­tice, but there may yet be a chance to re­visit them be­fore we reach the let­ter Z.

‘The diet of the glow-worm lar­vae is un­usual and rather grue­some. They feed on live slugs or snails that may be up to 200 times heav­ier than them­selves’

ABOVE: The in­va­sive har­lequin lady­bird munch­ing through some aphids BE­LOW RIGHT: The fa­mil­iar seven-spot lady­bird

ABOVE: A bloody nosed bee­tle spews a large blob of bright red, bit­ter liq­uid from its mouth to de­ter preda­tors if at­tacked

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