Column: Ladybugs, Lady Beetles and the Trouble With ‘Birdie’

  • Illustration by Shawn Braley.

For the Valley News
Saturday, May 12, 2018

I’ve always called them ladybugs. It wasn’t until a friend corrected me last year did I learn that the red spotted insects crawling around my windowsills actually were Asian lady beetles. “They’re more pests than pets,” he assured me.

He may be right. It seems as if the number of Asian lady beetles on my windowsill are multiplying. But unlike the carpenter ants in my kitchen, they don’t bother me. And they certainly don’t bother my 19-month-old son who jumps with excitement at the sight of these creatures. “Ladybug” he mumbles in his toddler gibberish as he wiggles his pointer finger toward the insect.

Do I correct him? Nope. It’s too confusing, and I’m not that meticulous of a person. I’m such a proud mama that he’s even speaking his first insect words that I know it doesn’t matter.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve realized that perhaps I’ve been teaching my little one the wrong names for all sorts of Upper Valley creatures. Was that longed neck bird in the nearby grassy field a crane or a heron? Is the little critter occupying my woodpile a vole, a mole, a mouse or a shrew? And what about that chubby little guy living near the swamp? Is it a gopher, a groundhog or a beaver?

I was an expert at lions and tigers and bears. But when it came to Vermont’s backyard animals, birds, fish and insects, it seemed I needed an education. My “close-enough” identifications would only suffice for a few more months. I owed my son more than “it’s a birdie.”

Plus, his own children’s literature was confusing the heck out of him. While reading The Little Blue Truck, my son would look quizzically at me when mentioning the “toad.” He’d respond “frog” with his pointed finger. In his Maisy Mouse books, the Charley character was a crocodile, but my little one would insist on calling him an alligator. And in his baby animal identification book, he’d mumble “turtle” while pointing to the amphibian listed as a “terrapin.” (Close enough!)

Do these technicalities matter to a toddler? Probably not. But I certainly wanted to be a parent who could someday explain the difference between a crocodile and an alligator when my son came looking for more precise answers. These simple little animal name discrepancies were an opportunity for learning for not only my son, but also for me.

Thankfully, some recent trips to aquariums, zoos and aviaries were helpful tools in my re-education. My maiden voyage to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee gave me expert knowledge on identifying hawks versus falcons. The Montshire Museum of Science allowed me to brush up on my knowledge of salmon and trout. And during a spring break trip to New Jersey, the Camden Aquarium cleared up the difference between penguins and puffins while the Turtleback Zoo confirmed the dissimilarities between cougars and bobcats.

Fortunately, my son’s curiosity doesn’t end with animals. Unfortunately for me, it means I need to brush up on trains, sporting equipment and construction machinery. (I’m still trying to master the difference between an excavator and a backhoe.) And I know this is just the beginning. “Why is the sky blue?” is a question right around the corner. As he grows older, his questions will grow more complicated. And while I probably won’t be able to help him with calculus homework, I certainly want to keep up with his algebra.

I can’t complain about needing a re-education. One of the joys of having a child is experiencing the world through his eyes. And this spring, as we enjoy the Upper Valley outdoors, he’s bound to have questions galore. Every time he points his finger, I’ll be challenged to have the right word, the right answer, or at least the right attitude toward solving the puzzle.

We’ll learn together. But as for the Asian lady beetles? As far as I’m concerned, they’ll always be ladybugs.

Becky Munsterer Sabky lives in Norwich.