Never mind the pedantry, they’re all “bugs”

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!

5 thoughts on “Never mind the pedantry, they’re all “bugs”

  1. John Pastor

    I don’t know, Steve. It “bugs” me that Minnesotans point to any conifer and call it a pine tree. There are only 3 pine, 2 spruce, 1 fir, 1 cedar, 1 juniper, and 1 larch species in Minnesota and 50 (count them) hemlock trees in all, so how difficult can it be to learn all the conifer species here? My 6-year-old grandson knows the difference between pines and spruces already. I try to use the occasion as a teachable moment to talk about the diversity of a well-constrained group of important species, but mostly I get that “You’re being a Professor again, John” stare. I can understand cutting people a break on Hemiptera, but calling every conifer a pine seems just a tad incurious to me.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Ooh, I’m busted – my wife (who is from Minnesota) has been know to refer to spruces as “pine trees” and that bugs me too. I guess I’m not entirely consistent 🙂

      Although learning the common names of all Minnesota conifers is a slightly smaller job than learning a set of common names for all the world’s insects!

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        You know, John, I realized (in the middle of the night last night) that I’m wrong to be bugged by this one too. The Minnesota usage of “pine tree” actually represents a folk taxonomy that’s more, not less, accurate than my own. Here’s why:

        Minnesota:
        “pine tree”

        white pine
        red pine

        white spruce
        black spruce

        eastern hemlock

        balsam fir

        “cedar tree”

        eastern white cedar

        Science:

        Family Pinaceae

        Pinus strobus
        Pinus resinosa

        Picea glauca
        Picea mariana

        Tsuga canadensis

        Abies balsamea

        Family Cupressaceae

        Thuja occidentalis

        So in fact, “pine tree” in Minnesota is simply a family-level name, applied quite accurately (at least, my wife calls a cedar a “cedar”, not a “pine”, so there’s n=1). In contrast, the (Ontario) folk taxonomy I grew up with uses pine at the genus level (which is fine) but completely lacks any term at the family level – there’s no common-name way to say “firs and hemlocks and spruces and pines but not cedars”.

        So, this is a rather longwinded way of saying give those poor Minnesotans a break. They’re actually pretty good plant taxonomists!

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        1. John Pastor

          Hi Steve,

          I doubt that the average Minnesotan understands the difference between genus and family. They really think all these trees are what we would call Pinus.

          But in the spirit of the end of the year holidays, I will cut everyone a break.

          Happy (American) Thanksgiving!

          Best,

          John

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    2. Anonymous

      A fair number of Texas refer to ashe juniper as “cedar” (and several of this species’ common names include “cedar”).

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