It’s an odd thing to be bitten by a ladybird. First comes a vicious little nip, and you look down to see, my goodness, a ladybird! This was me on holiday in the States so I just assumed the US version was more assertive, armed to the teeth and primed to repel tourists. Quite unlike our own British varieties – tickly, sweet little creatures that scurry upwards to alight delicately from an upheld finger in order to fulfil their nursery rhyme duties.
Then came the Harlequins, creeping through the cracks in my closed sash windows and colonising my curtains…
They cut down the trees in our road today: the big old sycamore outside my bedroom window, the entire row of stately limes at the top. All day I could hear the high-pitched whine of the chain saws, the shriek of the mulching machine. The men wore complete bodysuits and scary masks.
They’d come to the door earlier to check we were prepared. We hadn’t been able to get proper screens for the windows so we’d done a DIY job – extra strong gaffer tape around the edges of every wooden frame and a plastic sheet over the door, inside and out. I closed all the curtains, couldn’t bear to watch.
And what did I do? Googled ‘Harlequin ladybird’ of course. Invaded the UK in 2004 apparently, arriving in the South East and subsequently spreading in all directions of the compass. Since then, during the past two decades, has effectively wiped out all native species of ladybird, due to its long breeding season. The five-day-old Harlequin female can lays about a thousand eggs and a single female can breed for up to two years. In 2004 the voracious alien larvae wiped-out all those pesky aphids in our gardens, but they moved on to cannibalise their own native cousins.
First reported death from an allergic reaction to a Harlequin bite, August 2015. Which was also remarkable for the fact that Harlequins had been thought to bite only in the winter months, if woken out of hibernation in a state of extreme hunger. Since then, on average a couple of deaths a week. So you could say you’re more likely to step under a bus or to fall to your death in your own home than to die from the bite of a Harlequin. But that would ignore the fact that deaths have actually risen each and every year since that first fateful nip in 2015.
In the kitchen I tuck my trousers into my socks and wrap a scarf over my head. I pull on my gloves and reach for the car keys. I click open the car from the porch and jog the distance to the driver’s door. I’ve timed it just right so I’ll be able to park in my usual spot, right next to the school gates.
He has eczema and asthma and you let him out of the house, my mother said on the phone. She thinks he’s the perfect candidate for a reaction. Jake’s a teenager, I told her, with friends, a life. And they’re ladybirds for heaven’s sake; they can’t target the risk group.
They cut down the trees in my road today and I sat behind the curtains and googled ‘Harlequin Ladybird’. Ancient origin possibly ‘Herlequin’, leader of a legendary troop of demon horsemen. Now stay rational. They cannot think; they cannot single out a victim.
Form my parking space I hear a distant school bell as it echoes down corridors and around classrooms. I lean forward, nose to the windscreen, ready to scan the crowd of identikit hooded kids for my precious, vulnerable boy. The hood: once a statement of disaffection, now a protective necessity.
So here they come; hands in pockets, hoods up, swarming out into the open air.
M J Lewis © 2015
Photo of Harlequin ladybirds mating, Cumnor Hill, Oxford by Charlesjsharp