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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

13) Ladybird


This winter my garden’s been thick with Ladybirds. Whether this population boom is attributable to the very wet summer Melbourne experienced this year, whether it’s city-wide or only in my garden, I don’t know; but lately barely a week has passed without me seeing scores of Ladybirds: on the rose bushes; in the folds of the curtains; accidentally crushed underfoot.

They remain as beautiful as they ever were.  Some animals lose their appeal with familiarity; Ladybirds, though, are never anything less than a joy to behold.  The ones in my garden are all a certain shade of orange, and I suppose they must be a particular species, but insects are so tiny and so numerous and so incremental in their variations from one-another that for those of us not an expert in their identification, it must remain sufficient to name them by only their broadest classifications.  So, my garden is thick with Ladybirds – that’s the best I can do.

Ladybirds must be one of the first animals, certainly one of the first insects, any of us ever learn to identify.   A simple Google image search will demonstrate just how much we’ve taken them heart: between the corporate logos, wallpaper, and cake decorations, images of the actual insects themselves are few and far between.  Of course, we humans are readily pleased by anything bright and colourful and boldly patterned, and it’s something of a chicken-and-egg question to wonder whether Ladybirds are so dear to us because they’re so recognisable, or whether they’re so recognisable because we love them so much.

There are plenty of insects which are just as dazzling but which haven’t caught our collective imagination in anywhere near the same way.  If you ever stop to look closely at a Fly (Order Diptera) you might find yourself surprised by how beautiful some of them are, with their iridescent blue and green carapaces.  In my various attempts at gardening there are few sights that have delighted me as much as the yellow-and-black-striped Hoverflies (Syrphidae) clinging to the air around a California poppy that briefly prospered in the front garden of my previous house.  Among insects, perhaps only Butterflies (Order Lepidoptera) come close to Ladybirds in our popular imagination.

Apart from their colours, I suspect one of the reasons we love Ladybirds is that they appear so harmless.  We like small, round, bumbling things, and while we’re easily discomforted by the sight of insects’ legs and heads, so angular and grotesque and alien to our own, those offending parts of the body are well-hidden in Ladybirds.  Instead of claws and mouthpieces the Ladybird presents to us a smooth, pleasantly curving back and a cheerful colour scheme.

It’s a little distressing, then, to learn that this beloved childhood idol is in fact a voracious predator, with a fondness especially for aphids.  Even those of us who eat meat without compunction are inclined to get a little squeamish at the thought of one animal falling upon a smaller one and eating it alive.  Frankly, it would be much more comfortable for us if the Ladybird was a gentle herbivore – but by and large it’s not, and we can’t wish it to be so.

If we’re disappointed to realise that the Ladybird isn’t quite the animal we’d want it to be, then perhaps that’s just the price we have to pay for our curiosity.  Humans like mystery, but we also like to have mysteries solved: it’s an impossible dilemma.  Often the things that catch our attention do so because they’re unknown to us, and we can fill in the gaps in our knowledge with our own supposition and wishful thinking; yet our curiosity about something that’s caught our attention drives us to find out all we can about it.  Even if that newfound knowledge doesn’t disappoint us, it’s inevitable that the initial excitement of the unknown will eventually fade away.  In this way science, the quest for answers, is in endless tension with what we might consider a more romantic view of the world, one that desires to keep life mysterious.

Yet that tension is, I think, largely illusory: because in practice science is not so much the quest for answers as it is a series of endlessly unravelling questions.  If the mysteries of the universe are not infinite, they are so innumerable and vast in scope that an end to them is impossible to imagine.  Science is often viewed as a cool, dispassionate pursuit, and certainly in the design of experiments and the interpretation of data that’s what it is – and yet underpinning it all is an intense and very human fascination with the mysteries of the universe.  Science is in fact utterly, unequivocally romantic, because its whole raison d’être is a deep engagement with the world at every level.  If you ever talk to a scientist about his or her chosen field of study, you’ll find yourself in the company of an individual who is intensely and infectiously passionate about one particular segment of the universe.  Human endeavour is now moving at such an extraordinary pace that it’s baffling to think that there was once a time, and not so long ago, when somebody could reasonably aspire to be an expert in all fields of knowledge.  Yet for all our knowledge, there’s no end in sight.  We still barely understand how our world works.  Nobody knows what’s still out there, waiting to be discovered.

A little basic online research has led me to conclude that these orange Ladybirds in my garden are probably Common Spotted Ladybirds (Harmonia conformis).  They’re found in Australia, and they’re the right colour and the right shape (because there is some variety of shape among Ladybirds).  I’m satisfied with that identification.  For all my research, though, I still don’t know why there are so many of them in my garden this winter, or even if they’re common elsewhere at the moment or not.  I’ve seen more Ladybirds in the last two months than I have in my entire life, and I don’t know why.  I’m looking forward to trying to find the answers.

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