Every year at this time the gardening advice columns give the same advice: remove any ailing plants or summer crops that have finished to make space for the winter veggies. Every autumn I procrastinate and when I finally follow the advice I mourn afresh whenever someone posts a picture featuring their still-going summer crops.
The runner bean plant, though, was thick, black and sticky with the bodies and 'dew' of aphids. I felt no pity for this ailing plant because I had plans. I'd rip it out and fill the bed with my latest experiment: green manure plants. But when it came time to pull out the doomed vine this week, I hesitated.
I hesitated because, as my hand reached out, I noticed a ladybird sauntering along the sinuous stem.
Ladybirds (or ladybugs if you live in the US) are beneficial insects. Both the bugs and their larvae are ferocious carnivores. They can consume up to fifty aphids a day. Surely, I thought, I can't destroy the foodstuff of these useful little predators? But, I confess, my desire to protect the ladybird came less from utility and more from simple joy. I have been a devoted ladybird lover since childhood. Instead of tugging out the offending shoot I found myself reliving my first ladybird memory.
"Lady bird, ladybird fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children have gone...." My nine year old self sang and tap-danced on the long wooden top of a pine dresser that Mum was refinishing. I didn't know the rest of the verse (or how to tap-dance for that matter) so I repeated the refrain again and again in time to my stomping feet. The tap-dancing was improved by the yellow leather and wooden soled clogs I'd persuaded Mum to acquire during our family camping trip in France. Mum was clearly regretting the purchase and tried to send me packing.
I couldn't leave though. I had a ladybird to protect. Would a noble protector to this ruby-red gem of insect loveliness leave? Of course not! I sang and danced, feeling the swishing of my luxurious bath-towel knight's cape on my shoulders. My heart soared with elated pride as I felt the scratchy tickle of ladybird feet on my skin. The footsteps trundled this way and that along my right arm. They stopped, started and wildly course corrected as the ladybird made its way circuitously onto the back of my hand and across my bridge of fingers. On my left arm it paused as if assessing my sun-bleached arm hairs as a suitable resting place.
And then, like a medieval gentlewoman lifting her skirts to step over a puddle, it raised the hard shellacked red and black coat. It revealed a pair of gossamer thin, silken-sheer flying wings. The wings unfurled and without so much as a by-your-leave-gallant-knight the ladybird was gone.
"M'lady." I whispered this weekend. I tipped my imaginary hat, stooped low and transferred the insect to the lemon verbena.