Invading cannibal ladybirds take over Britain's homes

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

A A A

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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links