Epaulet and Meadow Ladybird Comparison

This species pair has a reputation for being easily confused but I consider the vast majority to be identifiable by examining the upper parts, either from a photograph or with an eye lens, without the need to collect a specimen or the use of a microscope.

Habitat : Epaulet Ladybird

Pine trees, ivy and evergreen garden shrubs.

Background Colour : Epaulet Ladybird

Oak brown to deep chestnut.

Ground colour contains complicated pattern of tonal variation.

Wing Case Markings : Epaulet Ladybird

The diagnostic feature are the pale epaulets on the shoulder areas. These often combine to form a complete pale curved line and many also have a pair of pale lines running down either side of the centre line.

Pronotum : Epaulet Ladybird

The sides are strongly curved, sometimes forming a right angle on the corner and the rear edges are often straight and nearly parallel sided.

Habitat : Meadow Ladybird

Grassland, also nettles, thistles, edges of ponds, ditches and sometimes in gardens.

Background Colour : Meadow Ladybird

Mostly pale yellowy buff to oak brown, a few deep chestnut, even blackish. Ground colour even, lacking contrast.

Wing Case Markings : Meadow Ladybird

Some lack any dark markings.

Others show a dark U-shape mark on the rear. A few have a dark mark at the top behind the pronotum but lack the pale shoulder stripe of Epaulet Ladybirds.

Pronotum : Meadow Ladybird

The sides are gently curved, often still widening as they reach the wing cases, although some are similar to Epaulet Ladybird.

History of Recording

Meadow Ladybird is a common native species of grassland habitats that has been well recorded for a long time.

Epaulet Ladybird was recorded in the UK for the first time in Surrey in 1996.

Early records relied on identification criteria based on the scientific literature, often including the dissection and microscopic examination of the male genitalia.

Epaulet Ladybird quickly gained a reputation for being very difficult to separate from Meadow Ladybird.

This reputation has continued to the current day and is harming the accurate recording of Epaulet Ladybird, which is now one of the commonest species of ladybird in large areas of southern England.

Specialist coleopterists tend to record this species once or twice in a recording area and having collected a few specimens move on to the many other interesting beetles available.

Wildlife enthusiasts sometimes find and tentatively identify Epaulet Ladybirds but then find the levels of proof required off putting or are steered towards Meadow Ladybird as a more likely identification.

Between 1996 and 2018 a total of 216 records of Epaulet Ladybirds were submitted to the NBN Atlas, an average of just under 10 a year. 

In 2020 I submitted a total of 318 records of Epaulet Ladybirds, mostly on lockdown walks close to home. This species is severely under recorded.

Prosternal Keel

The prosternal keel has become the main feature used to identify this species pair, largely by default as it is a binary feature which works well in a dichotomous key.

This feature is why The Field Guide, Roy and Brown 2018 used the names Pointed-keeled Rhyzobius and Round-keeled Rhyzobius for these two species.

However, I find this feature unreliable.

Meadow Ladybird has a prosternal keel described as a straight sided narrow triangle with a pointed top.

The shape is similar to The Shard building in London.

Epaulet Ladybird has a parallel sided mid section, a rounded top and the lower section widening.

This resembles a narrow bell shape.

The reality is more complicated than this.

Whilst some Epaulet and Meadow Ladybirds show the expected classic shapes, many can be inconclusive and intermediate. There is a lot of leeway with these, with observers using subjective interpretation.

More significantly Epaulet Ladybird can often show a pointed tip to the classic bell shape.

If these are routinely mis-identified as Meadow Ladybird then three issues arise:

a) Epaulet Ladybird maintains its reputation for being rare.

b) The identification criteria of the two species become confused, adding to the belief that 

     they are unidentifiable using visible features on the upper parts.

c) The habitats frequented by each species also become confused.

A classic Epaulet Ladybird showing pale epaulets, straight sided pronotum sides and grey wing case tips, beaten from ivy in Waltham Abbey, Essex.

The prosternal keel is wide with a parallel mid-section but with a pointed tip.

Another classic Epaulet Ladybird found in a garden in Nazeing, Essex.

This one shows an off centre pointed tip, although more than one photo is often required to get a true representation of this elusive feature.

This Epaulet Ladybird found in a Firethorn shrub in Upshire, Essex shows the problem with the prosternal keel as an identification feature.

The central photo shows a pointed keel shape as seen on Meadow Ladybird, whilst the right hand photo taken a few seconds later from a different angle shows a blunt ended, wide and parallel sided prosternal keel, typical of Epaulet Ladybird.

I think it is time to drop the prosternal keel as an identification feature for this species pair, especially as they can be identified from easily visible features on the upper parts.

Habitat

Scientific keys tend to avoid mention of habitats, but in the case of Meadow and Epaulet Ladybirds understanding their range of habitats is important.

Both species can overlap in gardens and in scrubby hedgerows, particularly in late season seeding thistles, burdocks, black horehound and similar woody herbage.

However, each species has a specialist habitat and surveying these is the best way to become familiar with the variation of each species and learn how to distinguish them from each other.

It also provides an opportunity to build up a reference collection of photographs of live individuals taken in the field.

Open grassland, well away from shrubs and trees, is the best area to search for Meadow Ladybird, with out the presence of Epaulet Ladybird to confuse matters.

I have swept a total of 114 Meadow Ladybirds from grassland and they have all looked like Meadow Ladybirds, with no features suggesting Epaulet Ladybirds.

This figure is quite low as my recording area is on clay soils; chalk and sandy soils are likely to produce higher numbers.

Most grassland areas with abundant 16-spot Ladybirds will also produce Meadow Ladybirds.

Ideal Meadow Ladybird habitat: Open grassy meadow with nettle patch

Epaulet Ladybirds can be abundant on ivy covered tree trunks in deeply shaded woodland and can be found in this habit throughout the winter. 

I have found c.500 Epaulet Ladybirds and no Meadow Ladybirds in this habitat.

The vast majority, have been easy to identify.

A few pale individuals are a bit tricky to categorically separate from Meadow Ladybird but as of 2020 I think I have found reliable criteria to identify even the palest specimens, although I am still refining the process.

Ideal Epaulet Ladybird habitat:  Ivy covered tree trunks in shaded woodland.

Epaulet Ladybirds are also common in pine trees and I have never recorded Meadow Ladybird in this habitat.

However, other observers have reported Meadow Ladybird in pine trees.

At May Day Farm, Suffolk, I have beaten Epaulet Ladybird from small pine trees in a grassy clearing, whilst sweep netting Meadow Ladybird from the adjacent grassland. So the two species occur alongside each other and could co-inhabit. 

Pale Epaulet Ladybirds

Epaulet Ladybirds with pale shoulder patches, pale shoulder curve or pale tramlines are easy to identify.

A small number are a pale uniform colour with a few dark streaks and are sometimes difficult to separate from Meadow Ladybird

Some Meadow Ladybirds are entirely plain but typically they show a U-shape mark at the rear of the wing cases with a single vertical line on each wing case extending towards the front.

There is sometimes a dark mark in the centre of the wing cases behind the pronotum.

This is very occasionally semi-circular and can cause confusion as it creates the impression of the pale shoulder mark of Epaulet Ladybird.

Typical Meadow Ladybird markings

Epaulet Ladybirds that have a plain background and a few dark streaks can look very similar to Meadow Ladybirds but there are still a few clues to help.

The pale shoulder curve and pale tramlines are still present even when not visible, as they create negative space where the dark marks are absent.

The dark marks are variable but they fit over a general pattern, with different sections present on different individuals.

There is often an anchor shaped mark at the central rear of the wing cases.

On some this mark extends either side of the pale tramlines and along the centre and this pattern resembles a Norman helmet with extended nose guard when viewed in reverse.

A very useful feature is a second pair of dark lines running along the outer edges of the wing cases. Whilst there is still more to learn, I have not seen any Meadow Ladybirds with a double row of dark lines, so this is probably diagnostic.

‚Äč

A well marked individual showing the classic Norman helmet pattern and a set of double lines on the outer wing cases.
Similar markings to above but thinner fainter lines.
Double lines on outer wing cases and faint anchor mark. Faint hint of the pale tramlines helps with the identification.
A poorly marked individual, beaten from Ivy, resembling Meadow Ladybird. Epaulet Ladybird features include faint anchor mark, two rows of outer wing case lines (one broken), faint hint of pale shoulder curve and tramlines and straight sided pronotum.

I did not submit the above individual, although I strongly suspect the identification to be Epaulet Ladybird.

It can be frustrating when searching a new area and finding a suspected Epaulet Ladybird but not a classic one that can be submitted. 

On the plus side, this species can be abundant where it occurs and shows good site fidelity, so continued searching is likely to produce a better specimen.

More study of the field characteristics will help refine the identification of the trickier individuals.

Conclusions

The majority of Epaulet and Meadow Ladybirds (about 95%) are easily identified from a photograph of the upperparts, or close examination with a hand lens.

Some (about 5%) can be a bit tricky and can cause confusion without experience of the full range of variation for each species.

A very small number (less than 1%) might not be identifiable on current known criteria.

As more people start to look at the field characteristics of live specimens in the field, the better we will understand the variation of the trickier specimens.

Meadow and Epaulet Ladybirds are similar to 10-spot Ladybirds, as they have a wide range of forms that can be confused with other species by inexperienced observers but can mostly be identified by a good quality photograph.

I still occasionally get caught out when making a quick identification between 10-spot, Cream-streaked and unusually small Harlequin Ladybirds, as they all have overlap colour forms. A careful check of a photograph usually sorts out the situation.

Despite this possible confusion, 10-spot Ladybird is considered acceptable by photograph because it is a common species.

Epaulet Ladybird is not universally considered acceptable by photograph because it is a rare species.

However, my records contradict this assumption.

I have submitted all my 10-spot Ladybirds records since I started recording about a decade ago.

My submitted records totals to the end of 2020 include:

Epaulet Ladybird; 538 records

Forestier's Ladybird; 74 records

10-spot Ladybird; 71 records

Meadow Ladybird; 58 records

This demonstrates just how common Epaulet Ladybird can be, at least in some parts of the SE of England.

At present, Epaulet Ladybird is under represented in the recording process. This is due to a fear of a few stray records entering the system.

The unintended consequence of this is that all published lists of the commonest ladybird species in the UK are compromised by the absence of one of the commonest species from the data set.

Copyright Andrew Jewels 2019-2021