Nature Notes

Jenny Dixon

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

HORRIFIED, I read in the press recently that some tidy person had hoovered up a collection of hibernating ladybirds. I guess she assumed they were dead. Ladybirds can escape the cold, prey-less months in a dormant state and often crowd together. Friends had such a group – a red, white-speckled crust - in a corner near their front door. Occasionally a few would take a stroll but mainly they waited torpidly for warmer days, then, miraculously, disappeared.

The vacuum cleaning story was particularly horrifying as the ladybird is our most loved member of the beetle family. Named for the Virgin Mary, traditionally depicted in a red cloak and with the commonest form’s seven spots denoting her seven joys or seven sorrows, this pretty insect has given its name to brands of children’s books and clothing, and, of course, every child learns the (rather tragic) rhyme: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home!”

We feel honoured if a ladybird condescends to land on us. Recently, as we sat sunning ourselves on a garden bench, a three-spot landed neatly on my husband’s leg. It was reluctant to leave; no doubt the brown texture of the corduroy was like tree bark with the added advantage of underfoot heating. It eventually plopped onto the lawn, exploring the grass tussocks - perhaps for a suitable hibernation spot.

Though some are spectacularly beautiful, beetles are not usually viewed with affection: they scuttle, infest cellars, and many have rather unsavoury, though extremely useful, habits - think dung beetle. We had a spectacular example in a photo texted by stepson, Rob. He had encountered a mystery creature on the pebbly beach near Whitby. It was Whitby-jet-black, about an inch long, with a disquieting habit, when disturbed, of cocking its tail over its back like a miniature scorpion. Not something to take liberties with, we all felt.

At first, I was misled by the location into thinking it might be a larval form of some unknown, to me, aquatic creature. However, consultation with our WNS insect expert brought the answer. Despite its negligible wing cases it was a beetle – a Devil’s Coachhorse beetle: not uncommon, but generally only active at night. It’s a fierce predator, can give a nasty nip with those massive jaws, and, in its Latin name, Ocypus olens, “olens” means “smelly”. It shoots stinking liquid from that raised abdomen if challenged. Folklore explains that it ate the core of Eve’s apple!

Two creatures with very different reputations – but just beetles, living their beetle lives.