Friday, 25 April 2014

Small wonder

A glint of shining black catches my eye. Like a bead of liquid jet it seems to flow down the trunk of this sycamore with a slow but steady pace. Closer inspection reveals that the bead is a tiny beetle, just a few millimetres in length and with subtle patches of red on the shining dome of black. This is a pine ladybird, a widespread but easily overlooked species, whose range includes much of England, parts of Wales and a scatter of sites across Scotland.

Although the name of this delightful little ladybird would suggest a close association with pine, the species can be found a wide range of plants, including Pyracantha (firethorns), nettles, thistles and many deciduous trees. The pine ladybird is so named because it happens to be the most common species of ladybird on pine, even if it is equally happy on so many other plant species. Late March and early April is the period during which the pine ladybird is most often reported, the individuals that overwintered among the leaf litter or crevices within bark now active in their search for aphid and scale-insect prey. This earlier start to the year makes them one of the first ladybird species to emerge come spring.

Ladybirds are well known for their diversity of colour forms and many species show variation in both colour and in the size, number and placement of their spots. The pine ladybird is a species that shows little variation – the number of spots may vary from two to four but that is all – and its identity can be confirmed by the additional presence of a distinct rim around the edge of the wing cases. There appears to be just a single generation each year within the UK but elsewhere they may manage two.

This particular individual seems so tiny when viewed against the large trunk of the sycamore and it is tempting to imagine how it must see the world so very differently from our eyes. Observing such a creature close-up also underlines how little we really see of the world around us. Taking that time to ‘stand and stare’ to focus on the small things that make up the world can provide perspective to everything else.

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