Invading cannibal ladybirds take over Britain's homes

Asian interlopers devour native insect populations and exude chemical that could ruin your curtains


It started with the squirrels – Britain's native reds being ousted by their ruthless grey American cousins. Now another battle is unfolding, one which could be even more catastrophic for an iconic species. Ladybird wars have broken out in the UK – and this time humans are caught in the crossfire.

An explosion in the number of harlequin ladybirds has led to people's homes being infested with the creatures – and threatened native ladybirds.

While the two-spotted and seven-spotted varieties are emblematic of the British countryside, the larger harlequin, first seen in the UK in 2004 and now numbering billions, has become the nation's most abundant species. Rather than feasting on aphids and greenfly, the harlequin also eats lacewings, hoverflies and even other ladybirds.

Dr Helen Roy, head of the national survey, said: "They are spreading at 100km per year, one of the fastest spreading insects worldwide."

The harlequin is a formidable opponent – in particular for the two-spotted ladybird with which it shares an ecological niche. Since the arrival of the harlequins, the two-spotted population has declined by as much as 30 per cent.

Ladybirds are brightly-coloured because they contain defensive toxic chemicals. The harlequin carries a more potent toxic cocktail and is larger than the two-spot. The invaders eat the larva of their British country cousins.

The two-spot, once the second-most common of Britain's 47 species, would not make the top 10 now, Dr Roy said.

The Harlequin, native to Asia, was introduced to America in 1988 and has become the dominant ladybird species on the American continent. The species has invaded most of western Europe, with the UK population growing from a small corner of south-east England to dominate the entire country, as well as parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

They have been known to hibernate in great numbers in dry places like garages and sheds in the autumn.

The harlequin menace is not contained to the insect world. Although they pose no threat to human health, they can be murder on the wallpaper. Last year's wet summer led to an explosion in their numbers and they are now taking winter refuge in houses.

Dr Trevor James, entomologist at the Biological Records Centre: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "The harlequin has a preference for buildings, and goes into a dormant phase over the winter time. If disturbed, they exude a yellow substance from their knees, which can stain wallpaper."

Noel Shiel, sales technician for rug and upholstery cleaners Pilgrim Payne, which has two Royal Warrants, for both the Queen and Prince Charles, said staining from ladybirds has increased threefold this year.

"There's a real epidemic, they are in almost every home. They seem to be attracted to sash and wooden window frames, and crawl up curtains, leaving orange stains." He said he had seen ladybird damage in some of London's smartest homes, including those in Eaton Square and Sloane Square. The Syrian Embassy had a big problem with ladybirds earlier this year.

Dr Roy does not recommend killing the harlequin, because insecticides could also harm the two-spot. But Tony Halliday, managing director of pest control company Biopest, said he treats ladybird call-outs with a residual insecticide.

And Dr Roy, who currently has more than 400 harlequins gathered in her window frame, believes the insects are here to stay.

It is bad news for the 0.1 per cent of the population estimated to have a phobia of ladybirds. Emma Citron, consultant clinical psychologist from the British Psychological Society, said: "It's not as common as a phobia of spiders, which affects up to five per cent of the population, or dogs, which affects around two per cent. I have helped people with a fear of ladybirds, and there is very little research to suggest it's caused by a bad experience or trauma.

"If someone is trying to tackle a fear, they should start by looking at pictures of ladybirds, using the words 'lady' and 'bird' in their conversation. Next, approach ladybirds, holding them in one hand, firstly far away from the body, then closer.

"People can try to help themselves get over their fear, but in extreme cases - if for example they would turn down invitations to parties in gardens because they are scared - they need help."

A bug's life: know your ladybirds

Harlequin ladybird

First seen in the UK in 2004, the harlequin is now the most populous species of ladybird. Feasts on aphids, other ladybirds, lacewings, hoverflies. Spreading at more than 100km a year, it is rapidly conquering the country. 

Seven-spot ladybird

Goes into leaf litter over the winter months. Historically, the most populous species seen in gardens. Now the second most numerous species, with distribution remaining high. 

Two-spot ladybird

Suffered dramatic decline since the arrival of the harlequin. A decade ago, it was the second most populous species, now not in the top ten of the 47 ladybird species in the UK. Feeds on aphids, shelters in people’s homes over winter months. 

14-spot ladybird

This aphid-feeder yellow ladybird has square spots. A common species, which has seen a rise in numbers this year. 

Kidney spot ladybird

This small, black ladybird with two red spots feeds on tiny insects. Often seen on deciduous trees, and hides in the cracks of deciduous trees over winter. 

Orange ladybird 

This ladybird feeds off mildew. Experiencing a huge distribution increase, thought to be because the warmer, wetter weather in the UK gives it more food. 

Eyed ladybird

Britain’s biggest ladybird, feeds on aphids, most usually found on conifer trees or sheltering in leaf litter over winter. 

Suggested Topics
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering