Could the ladybird plague of 1976 happen again?

The hot summer of 1976 saw swarms of ladybirds infesting towns and cities across the UK, with many people reporting being bitten by them. In the 40 years since there hasn’t been a repeat, but could it happen again this summer?

Posted by Times Publications on Monday, 30th November -0001

The drought of 1976 was unprecedented in its severity. Reservoirs dried up, as families queued to use standpipes to access drinking water. To titters worthy of a 1970s sitcom, Minister for Drought Denis Howell suggested people take baths with a friend.

And, with Milton Abbas, Dorset, and Teignmouth, Devon, having no rain for 45 straight days, the government warned some industries might have to close down because of water shortages.

Reservoirs dried up as a result of drought in the summer of 1976
But the heat wasn’t the only seemingly apocalyptic event to hit Britain that summer. A plague of starving seven-spotted ladybirds besieged villages, towns and cities. The British Entomological and Natural History Society has estimated that 23.65 billion of them were swarming on the southern and eastern coasts of England by late July.

Brenda Madgwick, who spent some of the summer on holiday on Kent’s Isle of Sheppey, remembered that "everywhere one put one’s foot, it was thick with ladybirds. The posts along the sea-front holding up the chains were completely smothered.’’

The ladybird population explosion happened at locations nationwide. "They were all over the place, on every pavement, and at times it was impossible to take a step without treading on them," recalled Frank Haiste of Leeds. The pool at Ruislip Lido in Middlesex was covered with dead ladybirds, deterring all but the hardiest swimmers.

Seven-spotted ladybirdsImage copyrightScience Photo Library
The bugs, usually liked by gardeners because they eat aphids, a class of plant-sapping pests that includes greenfly, became briefly hated. They reportedly started biting humans, particularly by the seaside.

Simon Leather, professor of entomology at Harper Adams University, thinks changes to cereal production in the 1970s could have encouraged an increase in aphids, particularly the release of Maris Huntsman wheat - which they liked eating - in 1972. The main concern among agricultural scientists at the time was to prevent crops being ruined by fungi - not potential destruction by insects - he says, adding: "These days, people are much more aware of the importance of insect-resistance."

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