May 20, 2012
I don’t know who first taught me to hold a lady bug on my finger to the sky and sing, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn.” If the ladybug won’t budge, my song is followed by pursed lips and a gust of air, like the blowing out of a birthday candle. I want to make certain the bug tends to her burning children.
I never heard my mother sing the song, and I don’t recall hearing it from my siblings, but I have always sang it, mumbled it, or swirled it inside my head like some kind of meditative garden chant. Perhaps my grandmother taught me, or maybe I learned it from a schoolmate decades ago. I’ve heard different versions of the ladybug song, softened up to adapt to kinder times. In one version the ladybug’s children are all gone, but there is no threat of burning. I sing the burning song, and have done so almost every time a polka-dotted beetle has landed on me.
Folklor origins of this rhyme are debated and may have English roots running through the midieval harvest and destruction of hop plants. Hops, used to flavor beer, are picked from plants trellising over 15 feet high. I’ve seen endless hop fields in Oregon where vines climb to the sky. Every time my mother and I drive by a hop field in Oregon, which is way more common than one might imagine, she tells this same old story about sweltering in the hot sun with my Aunt Barb, the two teenaged girls teetering on wooden ladders, picking all summer long to earn money for school clothes. Hops are harvested by machine now, but it isn’t hard to image her story, especially knowing the gumption and work ethic of my mother and aunt.
Once all the hop buds are harvested, the vines are burned in the field. This is where the ladybug song may have started. Ladybugs live on hop vines, not because they love hops, but because they love to eat aphids, a common pest in the agriculture of hops. Ladybugs eat over 50 aphids per day or up to 5,000 in a lifetime, but they also consume a variety of other soft-body insects like leaf hoppers, scales, and mites.
Burning the fields destroys the summer home of countless ladybird beetles. Adult beetles fly away, and larvae may crawl to safety, but the ladybird pupa burn, destroying a portion of the following year’s beneficial predators. It is thought that farmers would chant the rhyme before setting fields ablaze as a warning for the adult bugs and larvae to move on. And here I always thought the song was meant to send the bug back to her home to save her babies. But really, it’s a song of abandonment.
The hop burning origin is the kinder of possible explanations. Another possible origin has political and religious ties. Ladybird (the English name for ladybug) was thought to be used as a derivative to the Catholic, “Our Lady.” In this version, the singing of the rhyme was used as a warning cry to Catholic recusants who refused to attend the Protestant services as required by the 1559 & 1662 Act of Uniformity. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators were amongst the most famous recusants. Mass was held secretly in fields and attendees were subjected to heavy fines and jail time. Priests were jailed and often executed by burning alive at the stake, or by being hung, drawn, and quartered. The latter origin really zaps the charm out of the little jingle, now doesn’t it?
Today’s release of 1,500 ladybug troops into my greenhouse begins a battle with a mild aphid infestation. It also affords me an opportunity to contemplate, even if just for a moment, the meaning of the ladybug rhyme. Ladybugs crawled from the mesh bag I purchased at the nursery and flocked to the blue glaze of my wine cup. I gently blew them away before they fouled my nightcap.
I encouraged beetles to make a home within the tomatillos. I brushed them from my red t-shirt and scraped them off my orange gardening clogs. None investigated my black yoga pants or my dark hair – yet another reason I’m thankful for being brunette. They crawled up and down my arms and rested on my fingertips. I lowered by hands to the wide-opened eyes of orange and black blossoms and nudged them along the furry stems of tomatillo stalks. I did not sing, and I did not blow – a break in tradition, at least for today.