MAY
1990

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-02-90

A BEE OR NOT A BEE?

Millions of insects inhabit planet Earth.  To keep track of these six-legged creatures, scientists divide insects into groupings called orders.  Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera.  The order Orthoptera includes grasshoppers and crickets, while bees, ants and wasps are Hymenoptera.

Nearly 900,000 insects have been given a scientific name.  Each scientific name includes at least two parts:  a genus and a species name.  The genus corresponds to a human family name, and the species is equivalent to a human first or given name.  This method of naming organisms is known as binominal nomenclature – a two-name system.

Scientific names are normally Latinized words, which makes them somewhat cumbersome for use by the general public.  For instance, everyone would recognize the Musca domestica, but almost everyone calls that insect by its common name:  house fly.

But even insect common names can be a bit confusing.  For example, many insects fly, but all insects that fly are not flies – insects technically of the order Diptera.  Thus, the common dragonfly is not a fly at all, even though it is an accomplished flyer.

To avoid this confusion when using common names, most entomologists use the following rule:  If an insect is not technically a member of the order for which it is named, then its common name is written as one word.

Take for instance, our friend, the dragonfly.  Also the dobsonfly, damselfly and lanternfly.  True flies, such as the house fly, the horse fly, the deer fly and the bot fly, have their common names written – or, rather, written properly, -- as two words.  (Some dictionaries disagree, leaving them etymologically correct, perhaps but not entomologically correct!)

The same is true for insects called bugs.  All bugs – members of the insect order Hemiptera – are insects, but all insects are not bugs.  For example, the ladybug is not a bug at all but a beetle.  So ladybug should be written as one word.  If, however, this insect called a Junebug; it's really a beetle and is sometimes more correctly called a May beetle.  The lightningbug is frequently called a firefly, but it is nether neither a bug nor a fly, it is a beetle.           

Some insects look like insects of another order, but their common names – when written in proper entomological fashion – can betray their charade.  To wit, the bee fly and the bee moth.  These imposters should not be confused with the real McCoy, such as the honey bee and the bumble bee.

So, if the question is, a bee or not a bee?  The answer should be found in the way it's written.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox