FORTY-SIX SUMMER LADIES by Nicole Crichton

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December 8: Two red ladybirds, one with an orange tinge.

The glare of the sun on the water is painful after a few seconds but I squint through it, scanning the sparkling surface of the backyard pool. Aside from swimming in this oval-shaped body of water, summer commences a benign happening of mine; scooping floundering ladybirds from the water and relocating them to a shady leaf in the surrounding garden. I say happening instead of habit because my dedication to this task is selective and not zealous. The more minute bugs are ignored (colour an advantageous phenotype) and I’ll only check the water if I’m already in the backyard, taking a slow, single turn around its edge, punctuated with brief pauses. Though, as I stand poolside and feel the sun burn my skin, a question blooms so loudly in my thoughts that it may as well have been said by someone standing next to me: why am I doing this?

 December 9: Three ladybirds, one orange and two red. One red ladybird was saved from the filter full of red hibiscus flowers yet to blemish purple and then brown before they disintegrate.

Now the dominoes fall. How many days of extra life had I granted to a creature with an average life span of two to three years? Or are days, plural, too optimistic? Why in the first case had all these ladybirds and other bugs, bees, spiders, beetles and various minute flies landed in a pool surrounded by dense, well-kept garden in our leafy suburb? Had they out-beaten their wings?

Once rescued, ladybirds don’t like being pushed onto plants; they turn away and crawl back up my finger at having the green bridge wedged underneath their bodies. A gentler approach is needed, placing the leaf to meet the direction of their microscopic steps.

 December 10: Two orange ladybirds. (Now my efforts have become more purposeful).

December 11 and 12: No ladybirds.

Ladybird or Ladybug? The former in Britain and other places, the latter in Northern America. My first instinct was to call them ladybirds. Though, cow-lady, ladycow and bishop have also been names for this insect. ‘Lady’ also has religious connotations, Virgin Mary’s hen, Virgin Mary’s golden hen, Mary’s beetle and (Our) Lady’s Bird are too recorded names. The seven spots on the species Coccinella septempunctata supposedly symbolise the seven pains of the Virgin Mary. However, it is neither ladybird or ladybug, but rather ladybeetle, these insects belonging to the Coccinellidae family.

 December 13: Eleven ladybeetles; three red, eight orange.

Do insects undergo rigor mortis too? I’ve scooped up a small, grey spider. Its back legs are caught in the net, propping up the rest of its body, and the other six legs are frozen outwards in surrender – to the water?

Scanning the surface later, I catch sight of an oval, yellow body with black spots. I dip one hand into the cool water, lose sight of it in the swell and retrieve something else, pausing at the sight of the bodyless shell resting on my finger.

Pressing my thumb on the spotted, orange shell, it feels like the shells on popcorn that get stuck in your teeth, a paradox of strength and fragility. The name for the ladybeetle’s hard shells is elytra, but I have only found one elytron. I flick it into the garden and try not to think about the rest of its body.

Almost a week into my summer-time pacifism and I want to differentiate beyond orange ladybeetle and red ladybeetle; I want to know the names of these insects. I try an identification app, one that uses a photograph to, presumably, scan a vast database and quickly retrieve extensive information. The lack of a price tag denotes quality. The amber-striped bee is most certainly not a moth and the yellow-striped wasp is not an ant, nor a locust or rhinoceros beetle lookalike. The app is abandoned before the next rescue. Instead, I compare my photographs to a gallery of images on a CSIRO website specialising in ladybeetles.

Pitch black, blue-green, green-grey, olive-green, bright green, bright purple, several shades of brown, oil-yellow and bright yellow. Spots and no spots. Checks, stripes and squiggles. These are also designs of the ladybeetle. How many of these have I dismissed as anonymous bugs?

 December 14: Five orange ladybeetles.

Four of these are Coccinella transversalis; a black face and a thick black stripe down their backs, halved over the spotted shell. Though, only two of the spots are close to perfect circles, one just behind the head and the other at the end of its domed shell. The other spots are more like splotches, like the colour has run from an original design down the sides of the shell. These splotches, four in total, are symmetrical on either side of the stripe.

The fifth beetle is most likely a Hippodamia variegata, a symmetrical pattern of eleven, truly circular spots, one halved across the shell behind its black face. The spots are of various sizes and this beetle does not have a black stripe down its back.

However, reader note well: these and the following identifications are only close to certain. Sometimes the image on the website and the photograph from the poolside vary slightly, in their shades of bold, bright or burnt orange or the pattern of spots don’t quite match, their placement off by a millimetre or a pair missing. Is an undiscovered species crawling around our garden?

 December 15 and 16: Unyielding rain and few insects are in the pool at all.

December 17: Five orange ladybeetles. Four are the splotchy Coccinella transversalis and one is the spotted Hippodamia variegata.

The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 complies a list of all extinct, extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and conservation dependent flora and fauna in Australia. The list takes careful note of the genus, species, common name and date of when the various states of survival (or extinction) have taken effect. Bornemissza’s Stag Beetle (Hoplogonus bornemisszai), critically endangered since January 8, 2009. The Alpine Stonefly (Thaumatoperla alpina), endangered since March 31, 2011. The Eltham Copper Butterfly (Paralucia pyrodiscus lucia), endangered since May 5, 2016, to name a few. Is there even the smallest chance that my efforts are averting a Coccinella transversalis or Hippodamia variegata appearance on this list?

December 18: No ladybeetles. Hibiscus flower heads and bamboo leaves are life rafts for the minute flies. Today, they are the lucky ones.

 December 19: Two ladybeetles. One is a Diomus notescens. This beetle is particularly miniscule, about a quarter of the size of the orange, splotchy Coccinella transversalis. A pair of dark red stripes cover most of its shell, the rest of it black. The second is another Coccinella transversalis.

 December 20: One orange Coccinella transversalis.

 December 21: No ladybeetles.

 December 22: Two Coccinella transversalis’.

Locating the struggling ladybeetles can sometimes be tricky. The shadows of their kicking legs and the ripples they make are easily seen but the angle of the sun skews their precise location on the surface. Guiding the shadow of my hand (or the pool scoop if the beetle is further away) to meet the beetle’s shadow is the quickest way to find them, their tiny bodies directly above the aligned shadows.

December 23, 24 and 25: No ladybeetles. Do approaching storms make them scatter?

 December 26: Two Coccinella transversalis, one dead.

 December 27: No ladybeetles. Few bugs at all.

December 28: Two spotted Hippodamia variegata, one found in the filter clinging to a curled, still-red hibiscus flower, the other floating out in the waves. Despite these identical species, I almost mistook the second for a Coccinella undecimpunctata, their patterns very similar.

I watch the first beetle dry itself off, first on the hibiscus flower and then on a bud. The process is thorough, and each of the following stages is repeated at random: The beetle uses its hind legs to rub across the edge of the shell and its forelegs to wipe around its chin area in short, flicking motions. Poking the delicate, transparent wings out like tongues, the hind legs stretch to wipe these down too. The shells are pulled upwards like the doors of a luxury car and the wings are flexed beneath them (I can make out creases in the wings. Have they been crumpled by the water or do they fold to sit beneath the shell?). The beetle also balances itself on one side to clean the opposite shell and wing, then switches sides. Its body, seen when the shells are lifted, wriggles from side to side and up and down with a worm-like flexibility. It takes twenty-seven minutes for the ladybeetle to finish cleaning, zip to a different plant (with equally spotted leaves), fold its legs underneath it and remain still. Is it sleeping?

 December 29: Five ladybeetles. Three Coccinella transversalis, one I cannot identify and one Micraspis frenata.

Despite my failings with the fourth beetle, I’m getting better at identifying the beetles. Though, it’s more of an ‘Ah yes, that looks like a –’ and then I picture the word, rather than pronounce it, an association of patterns of colour and patterns of letters. Said fourth ladybeetle is Frankensteinian. I cannot match its combination of spots and splotches to Coccinella transversalis, Coccinella undecimpunctata or Hippodamia variegata. Is there really an undiscovered species crawling around our garden?

Micraspis frenata: An oblong, mustard yellow beetle with a black and yellow face and a black stripe down its back, halved over the shell. On each wing runs a vertical stripe, reaching almost the whole length of its body, the top ends flicking inwards and the bottom ends flicking outwards. This beetle was scooped out from the filter, clinging to a curled, still-red hibiscus flower.

December 30: No ladybeetles or bugs at all.

 December 31: One splotchy ladybeetle. Today I say the name out loud; ‘Koch-in-ell-ar trans-ver-sar-liss’, though an entomologist may have turned in their grave. Has this beetle escaped the filter, crawling through a gap in the lid? Or did it, by luck, land there? It buzzes away before I get the chance to transfer it to a leaf. Do these insects really need my help?

After twenty-four days of swirling thoughts, I am certain only of this: my rescues have their origins in childhood. I remember that I was swimming and caught sight of a red ladybeetle in the rough waves and waded towards it, feet slipping and trying not to gulp chlorine water. My cupped (and probably pruned) hand lifted the beetle out of the water and the memory ends there. Was I as careful then as I am now?

 January 1: The glare of the sun on the water is painful after a few seconds.


Nicole Crichton is soon to graduate from Macquarie University with majors in Writing and Ancient History (Greece, Rome and Late Antiquity). She will be savouring the remaining weeks of summer. This is her second piece of published non-fiction.
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