JANUARY
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-28-99

Insect Names Have Interesting Histories

Humans have always had a passion for naming things. Names are essential to language. They allow us to communicate about things and each other.

Some names, like rocks, plants and insects, describe large groups of similar things. These are divided into smaller, more specific groups with other names. Thus, some plants are trees and some insects are butterflies.

But all trees and all butterflies are not the same. So these groups are further divided and given other names. The names used in everyday language are known as common names. Each animal and plant species also has a two-word scientific name that is often based on Latin.

Scientific and common names of living things frequently reflect characteristics of the organism, such as behavior or looks. Or it might reveal some now-forgotten bit of history that led to the name—such is the case with insect common names.

The basis for some insect names is obvious. Grasshoppers consume grass and use their back legs to hop. Frog hoppers are a type of insect known as tree hoppers. If you guessed that tree hoppers commonly can be found in trees exhibiting a hopping motion, you are correct.

Many insects have “fly” in their name, recognizing the power of flight of these creatures. An entire group of insects is called flies. One is common in houses, the house fly. Other fly names indicate a favorite host, such as the horse fly and deer fly. Some fly names even suggest a target site on the animal. The face fly and heel fly that attack cattle come to mind.

Many insects have fly in their name but scientifically are not really flies, although they do fly. Confused? Consider the butterfly. Butterflies certainly wing about and the name suggests an association with springtime, a time also known as the butter season. Lanternflies presumably were attracted to the light of an old-time lantern. Mayflies emerge in great numbers during that month of the year. Harvestflies, also known as cicadas, are common during the fall harvest season. One type of cicada is known as the dogday cicada because of high populations during the “dog days” of summer.

One of the most widely recognized and generally admired insects is known as the ladybug. There are many types of ladybugs that vary in color and number of spots. And they are not all female! Half of the ladybugs are males. The name is based on a control approach for aphids feeding on the flax crop in England during the Middle Ages. History records that people of those days would pray to the Virgin Mary for help with the pesky little aphids. Their prayers would be answered when aphid-eating insects showed up. The beneficial insect was dubbed “our lady's bug.” Today, these insects are still known as ladybugs or ladybird beetles.

Other common names reflect some unusual behavior of the insects. One such insect is known as the doodlebug. The doodlebug is also known as an ant lion. The doodlebug name is based on its erratic side-to-side crawling behavior. Ant lion comes from its aggressive feeding behavior as it consumes ants that fall into the soil pit where it lives.

The giant waterbug in modern times has been called the electric light bug. This insect leaves lakes, streams and ponds during the night to seek new habitats. The bright lights of the city beckon, and the insect ends up around a mercury vapor light illuminating a parking lot.

A well-known insect of times past is the dung beetle. Dung beetles in general are recyclers of mammal manure, which they fashion in balls and bury as food for their offspring. One feeds on cow manure. These black beetles are known for pushing and pulling dust-covered balls of cow manure along cow paths in the pasture. The process frequently resulted in the beetles loosing their grip on the ball, which caused them to tumble down. Hence, these insects are known in some localities as tumblebugs. Not exactly the most glorious name, but then neither is their role in nature!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox