I’m teaching Entomology this semester, and having a blast as usual. Our 80 minute lecture slots are way too long, though, so one thing I do is interrupt the flow about half-way through for “Bug Of The Day”. That’s just a slide or sometimes two about some cool bug, often with a real specimen to pass around (and with a stretch-and-water break for everyone right after). It’s my favourite part of each class, because it’s pretty easy to come up bugs that make me (and I hope make my students) say “Wow!”. I’ve featured bugs that are big, bugs that bite, bugs that are beautiful, bugs that have historic significance, bugs with interesting Latin names*, bugs that are just plain weird… I can’t possibly exaggerate how much fun this is.
I’ve been tweeting out a couple of slides from each lecture this year – usually, one slide that strikes me as especially interesting, plus my Bug-Of-The-Day slide. And that means I’ve gone public on my guilty entomological secret: I call all insects “bugs”. I’m not supposed to do that, or at least so I’ve been told – and perhaps, so have you. “Bugs”, to entomologists, are only those insects in the order Hemiptera.** So in the collage above, there’s only one bug, not twelve (it’s the one in the third row, left). Calling a fly, or a moth, or a grasshopper a “bug” is a deadly sin to some entomologists. (Some use the phrase “true bug” for the Hemiptera, as if to emphasize the falseness of every other “bug”.)
But I don’t care. I’m happy to join the enormous majority of people who use “bug” as a label for pretty much any insect, and with joyful sloppiness sometimes for non-insect arthropods too. Here’s the thing: “bug” is a common noun. Like every other common noun in the language, it means precisely, and only, what people think it means – and as entomologists we don’t get to dictate what that is. I’ve written before about the foolishness of thinking anyone – let alone scientists – can police language such that English common nouns mean what we want them to and don’t ever shift in meaning. If “bug” ever meant just members of the Hemiptera – and I doubt that it did – that horse out of the barn far, far past any utility of door-closing. And why should we worry? What harm is being done? When we want to specify just the “true bugs”, we have that phrase, and the proper noun “Hemiptera”, for the purpose.
Bugs. They’re all bugs. The most wonderfully diverse and most fascinating organisms on Earth – but bugs.
I don’t have a huge important point to make today (you’re right, often I don’t). I just thought I’d come clean. It may mean a knock at the door tomorrow with a demand to turn over my official Entomologist card… but since I don’t have one anyway, I guess that’s OK.
© Stephen Heard November 26, 2019
Image: Collage by Anaxibia CC BY-SA 3.0; Anax imperator, Quartl; Cetonia aurata, Crumps; mantid, Thomas Brown; Pyrrhocoris apterus, André Karwath; Ectophasia, BetacommandBot; Papilio glaucus, Ram-Man; mantispid, Fritz Geller-Grimm; bee collecting pollen, P. Manchev; grasshopper, Ryan Wood; Phyllium giganteum, Drägüs; Panorpa communis, Sebastian Wallroth; Blaberus giganteus, Didier Descouens. Source and full licensing details.
*^You knew I’d go there. The one pictured in the embedded tweet is a favourite: a fly named for Mabel Alexander. Eponymous names have their detractors, but this fly’s name is a loose thread that, when pulled upon, reveals something interesting and important. You’ll be able to read Mabel’s story in my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, just as soon as it’s released on March 17, 2020. (Although you can preorder it now).
**^It may actually be worse than that. The old Orders Hemiptera and Homoptera are now generally treated together, with the old Hemiptera now being treated as the Heteroptera, one of three suborders within the expanded order Hemiptera. And only the (now termed) Heteroptera, I think, are true “bugs” – not the members of the old Homoptera, like cicadas and aphids and the like. By that stricter definition, not only is Mabel Alexander’s fly not a bug, none of the weird-and-wonderful treehoppers are too. Bah, humbug!