Sunday, 10 November 2013

What’s in a name?

How something is named colours our perception, even our experiences with it – they’re the same thing but the Killer Shrimp is perceived very differently to Dikerogammerus villosus!

In wildlife, common names have generally been given to those species which people care about enough to talk about.  Species or groups which are big and colourful, or useful, or dangerous, or just those which are common enough around people to be seen every day, get common names – more obscure species get left with just a scientific binomial.  Ladybirds get the common name treatment: in fact, they’ve got a lot of common names in the British Isles alone!  
Ladybird common names in the British Isles
The now-standard common name – ‘ladybird’ – is an odd one: they’re definitely not birds, and they’re not all female.  ‘Birds’ is the easy one to explain.  If you go back far enough, pre-Linnaeus, names didn’t have quite the zoological precision of today.  Anything that lived in water was a fish (have you ever wondered about crayfish & shellfish?), and everything that flew was a bird.  The little shiny red beetles did a lot of flying: hence, they were birds.

‘Lady’ is the more interesting bit, and a look at the names for ladybirds from around Europe shed a bit more light on the reason why.  In the pre-insecticide era, infestations of pests were hugely damaging, and so when aphids were spotted accumulating in the crops, farmers would pray for help (alongside taking more useful action like squashing as many as possible).  Shortly afterwards, as the aphid colonies hit their peak, hordes of ladybirds would descend on the crops, devouring the pests, seemingly in answer to the farmers’ prayers.
Ladybird names across Europe
By far the commonest species would be the 7-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata.  Each beetle bore seven black spots, signifying the seven sorrows and seven joys of Mary, and each was bright orange-red, the colour that Mary was often depicted wearing (before the Vatican banned her being shown wearing red, and use of lapis lazuli blue as a high-status colour became standard).  Therefore, the tiny predators were thought to have been a gift sent from the Virgin Mary, and many of the local names reflected this - ‘The Virgin’s beast’, ‘Mary’s beetle’, ‘Marygold’, ‘Lady-clock’.  Others reflected the luck implicit in receiving a gift from the gods – ‘Lucky beetle’ and the ‘Good luck bug’
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A seven-spot ladybird, Coccinella septempunctata, featuring 7 spots and a red background