THE fight to save Ireland's ladybirds has begun, as an invader from Asia causes huge damage.
A nationwide survey on the ladybird, dubbed 'the gardener's friend' for its love of greenfly, has been launched to help establish where the 18 different species of insects can be found.
The Irish Wildlife Trust is calling on people to turn 'Citizen Scientist' for a day by keeping an eye on the much-loved colourful spotted insects to help build up a picture of the native ladybird populations.
But the survey is getting under way as a "matter of urgency" as there is now a new ladybird in town.
The Harlequin Ladybird Harmonia axyridis – an invasive ladybird originally from Asia – was reported in Co Down in 2009, spread to Cork and Wicklow the following year, and was detected in Carlow in 2011.
After first arriving on UK shores in the summer of 2004, it can now be found throughout England and is considered a serious insect pest.
"They are a very dominant species and can be detrimental to the natives," said survey co-ordinator Gill Weymann.
The invasive Harlequin, which varies in colour from an orange hue to predominantly black, causes difficulties in the natural environment as it reproduces three generations a year, whereas native species produce only once.
And it is far more greedy, beating the native ladybirds to their main prey of aphids. It even consumes other ladybird species' eggs and larvae. "We don't know the population, so that is one of the things that instigated the survey as there are poor records of these in Ireland," explained Ms Weymann.
She said there was a lot of information on www.biology.ie on the wide varieties of the insects and how to identify the particularly species – with great variations from the 'traditional' black-spotted red ladybird.
In fact, some members of the family are orange and others black. Some ignore the usual prey of aphids and dine on mildew fungus, while some are not fussy on where they live, and others are found mainly on Sycamore or Ash trees.
"These kind of projects are a great way for members of the public to make a contribution to science and conservation," said Daniel Buckley, chair of the Irish Wildlife Trust. He said anybody could submit a sighting and no expert training was needed.