Of the roughly 350,000 species of described beetles, and the estimated 5-8 million undescribed beetle species, the ladybug (Family Coccinellidae, lit. ‘Nature’s Homecoming Queen’) is the only one who can land/crawl on or near a human being without risking severe bodily injury or death. Even among the simplest members of Kingdom Animalia, there are advantages to being attractive.
I got pulled over for speeding once…the officer gave me a warning and then asked for my phone number.
In America and in parts of Northern Europe, tradition holds that a ladybug landing on one’s body brings good luck and makes wishes come true as the person fortunate enough to be graced with the ladybug’s presence gently releases it to the wind. Contrast this with, say, the also-harmless-but-horned rhinoceros beetle, whose impromptu appearance on a shirt sleeve is generally greeted with gasps, followed by exaggerated attempts to remove it and then murder it where it falls. Things are so much easier when you’re pretty.
Nature is always bringing me flowers.
As one might expect, the ladybug’s cosmopolitan grace and classical good looks have a positive effect on everything in her life. Not only is she never bothered with things like getting squashed under a boot heel, she also enjoys regular free meals. Because ladybugs are cute and they eat aphids (a.k.a. destructive ‘plant lice’), many gardeners love having them around to be cute and eat aphids. Who needs skills? Similarly, the Mall of America, a mega mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, has released, over the years, more than 20,000 ladybugs in its Camp Snoopy theme park as a natural form of pest control for the park’s indoor garden. The mall also gets the ladybugs whatever they want at Ann Taylor.
I’ve never been to Camp Snoopy.
With respect to their sanguine coloring, it should be noted that ladybugs are in possession of some smarts, too. Stick with us here. The ladybug is poisonous – she can emit a yellow alkaloid toxin from her joints that goes with her outfit and is, while noxious to her natural nemeses, mostly harmless to humans and other large animals who tend to adore her and thus overlook things like yellow alkaloid toxins secreted from arthropod joints.
But rather than proving this toxicity posthumously (i.e. after being eaten), she simply advertises the fact by being seen around town in bright red designer wings – a visual cue for ‘don’t even think about biting me, you loser.’ In other words, she’s broadcasting the message she’s literally drop-dead gorgeous. Or at minimum, drop dead unpleasant to take a bite out of.
Biologists call this colorful warning strategy aposematism. The idea is that a given predator eats one brightly-hued/toxic animal, gets sick and the next time they spot the same creature they think: ‘Oh, yeah. That thing.’ As this translates for the ladybug, life becomes less about kicking off her high heels and running away from small birds and more about rose bush hopping and fun and calling her friends from backstage at the Dave Matthews concert and saying, ‘Trish, you are not gonna believe this…’ And so forth.
Have I showed you this picture of me already? I did? Sorry. I was just checking to see if I showed you this picture of me already.
It turns out aposematic coloring works out well for both predator and prey, because each avoid harm with very little effort. Though nothing in the aposematism playbook says adorable and complementary colors are required. This is clearly the ladybug’s personal take on the whole thing. But it suits her, and serves as yet another reminder for the rest of us that cute pays in dividends.
Especially when the grades come in. As the ladybug always says after she’s had a few too many margaritas at the Mall of America food court, ‘Don’t hathe tha playa, hate the game, because, like, some people? Sometimes don’t like me becauthe I’m pretty and stuffff.’ Then she almost passes out and we all rush over to make sure she’s OK.
GRADE: A –