When I was a little girl, I was girly about ladybugs. I loved them. I loved in particular the idea of taking a VW Bug and decorating it like a real-life, breathing, belching personification of all things ladybug. I loved them so much, I wrote stories about the little Ladybug I’d own someday. Thank goodness those stories were long since lost, but my ladybug fascination would one day come back to haunt me.
It all started one hot October afternoon. I was sitting there minding my own business, or minding my kids’ business, or minding my characters’ business, and I feel this sharp, this violent and brutal attack, to my forearm. I’m thinking a wasp has gotten in through the screen, so I look down like I’m gonna slap this thing, and I freeze. It’s a sweet little red and black thing. And it’s biting me.
Now, a word about these red and black . . . things. I did some research on them and it turns out they cause all sorts of outraged argumentation among entomologists. I of course am no entomologist (though I did take a course on Entomology in undergrad, but that was only because it didn’t require a lab and I wanted an easy A; it was not, as it turns out, an easy A but that’s another matter—suffice to say I have a weak fortitude for all things insect-related). Anyway, a ladybug is not really a bug—it’s a beetle. And it’s actually a ladybird. As an entomologist from the University of Florida explains it if not clearly, at least in a way that will amuse all but the most dour of readers:
Ladybird is a name that has been used in England for more than 600 years for the European beetle Coccinella septempunctata. As knowledge about insects increased, the name became extended to all its relatives, members of the beetle family Coccinellidae. Of course these insects are not birds, but butterflies are not flies, nor are dragonflies, stoneflies, mayflies, and fireflies, which all are true common names in folklore, not invented names. The lady for whom they were named was “the Virgin Mary”, and common names in other European languages have the same association (the German name Marienkafer translates to “Marybeetle” or ladybeetle). Prose and poetry mention ladybird, perhaps the most familiar in English being the children’s rhyme: Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children all gone…
Okay, so honestly, I reread it three times and I didn’t understand that either. See, I got stuck on the song:
Ladybird, ladybird (BUG damnit), fly away home,
your house is on fire, your children are all gone.
After years of bewilderment, I understand what this song really means. The little beasts are taking over your home. They’re biting you so hard your arm burns! RUN!
Seriously, I now know that the Ladybug is really a ladybird, but the ladybird is neither a real bug nor a bird so much as a beetle. And it can be a good or bad visitor. Good ladybugs eat harmful pests like aphids (those are the critters that destroy rosebushes). Bad ladybirds swarm into your home, eat your food, and bite you. They’re like flying sharks with fangs. In fact, according to the University of Florida’s entomology page, some ladybirds knock out plant pests, or pests who kill plants, but some ladybirds are themselves pests.
The latter invaded my home, beginning on that hot October afternoon. They came two by two and then two hundred by two hundred, and they wouldn’t sit still or stop hopping and flying from one light to the other in our overrun Chalet. I didn’t know anyone up on the mountain yet, so I didn’t realize our situation was a common one for Shenandoah dwellers. I thought at first the ladybirds were just welcoming us to our new home. Until, that is, I counted more than one hundred of them circling our dining room table like airplanes flying the pattern awaiting a spot to land.
When the cute killers passed from hapless messengers bearing good tidings to home invaders with teeth, I reassessed my position. I was like a general surveying the battlefield. And thus I became a killer. As usual, the boys launched into action and joined the assault. We became killers, but we never defeated the enemy.
To my shock, Madeline joined the ladybird team, and like the Virgin Mary after which they were named, she protected them from harm. As she later explained with a smile, “We all know my room was the bug emporium, so they gathered there and kept me company. One would land on my fingers and I would kiss her and tell her about my day. Others would sit on my windowsill, waiting for their turn to visit.”
Two years later, I would ask her about the ladybirds. “How did you go from terrified of all insects to befriending these Coccinellidae?”
“Aw that’s a great word, do you think it will be on the SATs?”
“No.” I laughed. “You’ll be seeing words like bellicose and consternation. Which would be a good description of your ladybirds.”
Madeline gasped. “No, no,” she said. “That’s a calumny. A better word for my lady friends would be innocuous, mellifluous, peripatetic or resplendent.”
“Gah, that’s hyperbolic, at best they’re Flibbertigibbets. In truth, they cause an imbroglio, an absolute effrontery to household harmony.”
“Mom, you launched an all-out dragoon, you forced the boys to join in your brouhaha—”
“Yes, the word means to compel into compliance, often with violent measures—”
“And the results were draconian, did you know that word comes from Draco, a politician from Athens whose codified laws were notorious for their severity, such as death for minor offenses?”
“I need to talk to your history teacher.”
“And tell him what exactly?”
“Oh, well, I’ll tell him you went from being a cold-blooded killer to being an ignominious protector of pests.”
“Oh,” she said, “Well if you do that, remember to make a good comparison.”
“Like what? I know you created a list of the worst lady killers, ha did you like my pun?”
“No, but go on.”
“Oh, well, give me a name from your list of female baddies I can compare you too before you became Florence Nightingale.”
Madeline’s eyes gleamed. “Perfect one is the lady who ordered the . . . what was her name?”
“Uh, I see where’s you’re going with it, nope that’s not appropriate really.”
Madeline looked up from her notebook and frowned. “Yeah you’re right, but in a way it’s perfect, like you ordered the death of all stinkbugs and all other flying insects—”
“—What else you got?”
“The lady who washed herself in the blood of the children she killed?”
“Ew,” I said. “And what’s more, you wouldn’t touch a dead bug, nor would you even view their dead carcasses, you just pleaded for their death.”
“Yeah,” I said, “And it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up the woman who ordered John the Baptist’s death.”
“No, probably not.”
“It’s actually downright offensive, he was, after all, my favorite prophet, well, after Jesus,” I added.
“And Elijah, you love him too, uh, what was the name of the one who ordered Herod to kill—”
“—Herodias’ daughter Salome they were horrid, we need someone else.”
“Okay.” Madeline shut her notebook and grabbed her backpack. “I gotta go, I can look for other alternatives after school, but I think you deserve the comparison to the serial killers. After all, you killed my friends.” And with that, she got the last word.
In the end, there was no true end to the ladybird invasion. In time, I gave in and stopped trying to kill them. They never bit me again, and I didn’t really hate them. In fact, I grew rather proud of them, so much so that when my parents came to visit, I introduced them to my ladybird swarm. “See, they like us, aren’t they kinda cute?”
“Very nice, sweetie,” my mom said.
“Yeah, we don’t usually have quite so many as we have today, but it’s hot. Goes above eighty, we get over a hundred.” I scanned the main living area. There were well over a hundred red and bug ladybirds crawling around and circling the light fixture. “But when it cools off, numbers will go down, especially on cool nights.”
My dad looked up from his newspaper. “I think you’re getting used to mountain living.” As always, he was laconic in his remarks.
“Yes,” Mom beamed. “Crab cakes will be ready soon, sweetie.”