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The ladybird killers fly in

By David Derbyshire
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 05/10/2004

A deadly species of ladybird with the potential to wipe out half of Britain's native species has arrived in the country.

The voracious Harlequin, also known as the multi-coloured Asian ladybird, was discovered in a pub garden two weeks ago.

The common ladybird is in danger from the vicious Harlequin

The insects are larger, hungrier and more adaptable than their domestic rivals. If they become established, they could drive traditional species, such as the seven spot or two spot, to extinction within decades, scientists say.

Dr Michael Majerus, a ladybird specialist from Cambridge University's genetics department who identified the "odd-looking" Harlequin, said: "This is the ladybird I have least wanted to see here. Given its proximity in Holland, I knew it was on its way. But I hoped that it wouldn't be soon.

"Now many of our ladybirds will be in direct competition with this aggressively invasive species. Some will not cope."

Harlequin ladybirds, Harmonia axyridis, originated in Asia. They were introduced to North America in the 1970s as an "environmentally friendly" alternative to pesticides and quickly swept across the continent, driving out domestic species and other aphid-eating bugs. Numbers of the insects are also rising steeply in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.


Harlequins are more adaptable than most species, living in trees as well as the ground. In the spring, they out-compete rivals for aphids. Once aphid numbers start to fall in the summer, they turn their attention to hoverflies, lace wings, butterfly eggs and even other ladybirds.

The species is a threat not only to other ladybirds: in America in the autumn, some houses are inundated with swarms of harlequins seeking warmth for the winter.

When stressed, they release oily, foul-smelling yellow blood from their legs which stains carpets and fabrics, and may trigger allergic reactions. Reports of harlequins biting people as they run out of aphid prey have risen, Dr Majerus said. They also damage soft fruit.

Two weeks ago, Dr Majerus's colleague Ian Wright spotted an "odd" ladybird in the garden of the White Lion in Sible Hedingham, Essex. Dr Majerus identified it as a harlequin.

"As far as we know, this is the first to be reported in Britain," he said. "If it becomes established, I could well imagine we could lose half of our 40 species of ladybird." There are around 40 species of ladybird in Britain ranging from the common seven spot and two spot to the more unusual and specialist pine and orange ladybirds.

Ladybirds can travel long distances on the wind. The Essex harlequin is likely to have been blown across the Channel. Dr Majerus called on anyone who finds an unusual ladybird to post it in a sealed matchbox or film canister to his laboratory at Cambridge with details of where and when it was found.

"It is critical to monitor this ladybird before it starts to annihilate our own British ladybirds," he said. Harlequins vary in colour and pattern. Some have black spots on orange wing covers, others have big orange or red spots on black wing covers.

They are around 6mm to 8mm long. Most also have a distinctive W or M mark on the area separating their heads from their wing covers.

Send them, in clean, dry containers, to: Dr Michael Majerus, Department of Genetics, Cambridge University, CB2 3EH.

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