You might have been told at some point that squishing ladybugs is a bad idea. Mostly because killing them is bad luck. If you were the kid who always asked “why” you were probably just told that it was because ladybugs brought good luck. Logically, that’s not much of an answer to the question “why are ladybugs good luck”, so let’s get started.
Oh, also as a bonus, we’ll talk about the time ladybugs were literally the worst ever.
It’s in the Name
The family of beetles we call ladybugs (in North America) is Coccinellidae, derived from the Latin coccineus meaning “scarlet”. This family covers about 6,000 different beetles. Outside of North America, ladybugs are more commonly called ladybirds–especially Great Britain. Ladybugs themselves aren’t actually considered true bugs (it turns out the definition of “bug” is quite specific), so maybe the Brits were onto something when they settled on ladybird.
Well they’re definitely not birds either so maybe not.
Further Reading: What’s the Difference Between Bugs and Insects?
Anyway, you’re probably more concerned with the “lady” part of the ladybug name and not the “bug” part. Well “lady” refers to a pretty specific lady; it refers to the Virgin Mary (Jesus’ mom). While the Coccinellidae family covers thousands of beetles, it was specifically the seven-spotted ladybugs that caught the attention of the British. The seven spots of the ladybug symbolized the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary to European Christians, further helped by the fact that ladybugs were commonly found in fields and gardens–where people were often laboring. It’s not just the British who found the ladybug to be a Christian symbol, almost every European country’s name for the ladybug is a reference to Christian symbology. The English “ladybird” appeared first in the late 1600s
Apparently, at some point in the late 16th and in the 17th centuries, the name “lady cow” was used.
It’s no secret that ladybugs are actually pretty good for farms. One of the few things about them you probably picked up over time is what ladybugs eat: aphids. For this reason, ladybugs are considered beneficial insects and often used for pest control. Seven-spotted ladybugs aren’t even native to North America, they were introduced for pest-control purposes. For this reason, it’s not an uncommon argument for ladybugs being lucky: their presence can lead to healthier crops.
That doesn’t mean ladybugs are all good, though. A subfamily of Coccinellidae named Epilachninae don’t eat plant-killers, but also eat plants. Which is, intuitively, really bad for your crops. Since some species of ladybug were introduced to new places, particularly North America, they can outcompete native coccinellids. They also don’t like the winter, and will sometimes hide inside or near homes when it gets cold. Speaking of having too many ladybugs in your home, ever heard of the Summer of 1976?
That Time Ladybugs Became a Nightmare
Anyway, what makes 1976 so fun (or not fun, really) is the ladybug. That summer an estimated 23.6 billion ladybugs swarmed the coasts of England, which was so many they covered the ground, obscured aircraft, and even jammed up combine harvesters with their bodies.
Also did we mention that summer was accompanied by a massive drought? Because there was no water, and the ladybugs were thirsty. It turns out humans sweat when it’s hot, and that’s an acceptable water source. Also our eyes are wet. Also ladybugs can bite people.
If you want to conceptualize how much 23 billion ladybugs are, one ladybug is about 0.2 grams, which is 4,720,000 kilograms of ladybug. That’s 10,405,818 pounds. 3 blue whales is about a million pounds, which means that summer was plagued by like 30 blue whales worth of ladybugs.
See if you know what taxonomic order has the most insects in it here.