Insects with common names are usually those that are notable in some way, be that because they are causing us harm or are beautiful, brightly coloured and give us joy. Vernacular names for agricultural pest insects usually refer to the crop they are harming, such as the grain aphid, the apple moth, the large pine weevil. For non-pests however, names appear more arbitrary. One of the most well-known and loved insect, is the ladybird, or if you are from North America, the ladybug. These are not, however, the only names that these useful animals have acquired since they first attracted human attention. They have, over the centuries, acquired a wonderful variety of names around the world.o start with, you may well ask why they have the prefix lady. In England they were originally called “Our Lady’s bird”. Leaving aside the mystery of why they were called birds, the first part of the name referred to the fact that the most commonly noticed ladybirds are red (albeit with white or black spots), and in the Middle ages images of the Virgin Mary usually showed her in a red dress. Another linkage to the Virgin Mary is that the most commonly seen ladybird is the seven spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), and this was associated with the Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of Mary.
The association with Mary is also seen in Spanish, mariquita, meaning little Mary and in German Marienkäfer, Mary’s beetle. The reference to the colour red is reflected in the fact that ladybirds belong to the family Coccinellidae which comes from the Latin for scarlet, coccineus, see also cochineal.
Other languages also make reference to the Virgin Mary, in Bosnian, as in German, they are called Mary’s beetle, bubamara. The Basques, as far as I can make out with the help of Google Translate, refer to them as Mary’s yolk, marigorringoa. The religious association is also seen in Dutch, lieveheersbeestje which means the Lord’s sweet little creature. The Russians call ladybirds Божья коровка [bozhya korovka] which translates to God’s little cow. Lithuanians have two names for ladybirds, Dievo karvytė God’s cow but also call them boružė . The Welsh have lost the religious reference and instead refer to ladybirds as red cows, buwch goch gota. The Greeks make a religious link with a reference to Easter, pashalitsa (Easter is Pasha), but also refer to it as “kind of beetle with fine plumage (feathers)”, είδος κάνθαρου με ωραία πτερά. The Portuguese have opted for joaninha (ninha means baby), whereas the Slovenians and Slovaks have homed in on the spots, ladybird being pikapolonica (pika is dot) and slunéčko sedmitečné (sedmit is seven) respectively. The Bulgarians call them калинка (kalinka) but the Finns take the prize for the most obscure name, with Leppäkerttu, which literally translated means alder warbler 🙂
It seems apposite, that as in Finnish they apparently sing, I should include these two rhymes; one that most of us have come across in some form or other
and one from Sweden that will probably be less familiar to English speakers, but which similarly exhorts the ladybird to fly away and at the same time introduces yet another feathered name for the ladybird.
Flyg öster, flyg vester,
Dit du flyger der bor din älskade!
Fly east, fly west,
You’ll fly to where your sweetheart lives.
A gold cow with wings – Kamadhenu a wish-fulfilling Hindu goddess
In Hindi, ladybirds are called sonapankhi, or golden wings and are associated with passing or failing exams, depending on whether it stays on your hand long enough for you to count the spots or not.
And finally, to prove that not all verse about ladybirds is doggerel, this poem by the poet Clive Sansom captures both the beauty and fragility of nature.
Tiniest of turtles!
Your shining back
Is a shell of orange
With spots of black.
How trustingly you walk
Across this land
Of hairgrass and hollows
That is my hand.
Your small wire legs,
So frail, so thin,
Their touch is swansdown
Upon my skin.
There! break out
Your wings and fly:
No tenderer creature
Beneath the sky.