DECEMBER
2010

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

Download the audio files or subscribe to our podcast.

 

Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

12-9-10

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Beetles, Flies and Bees, Oh My!


Did you ever wonder why insects have the names they do? Why are beetles called beetles, instead of flies, ants or termites? The answer can be found in a field of study known as etymology - the study of the origin of words. So to answer the question of why certain insects have the names that they do, we need to look at the etymology of the word.

Let's start with the etymology of entomology. As is the case with many English words the origin is found in ancient languages. In both words the "ology" portion comes from the Greek and means the science of. The Greeks used the word entomos, which meant cut into, for insects. That's because the segmented structure of the creatures made them appear as if cut into pieces. So today the word entomology is used for the study of insects.

Originally, any insect that could fly was called a fly. That's based on an Anglo-Saxon word flyge that meant having the ability to pass through the air using wings. Today, though, only insects classified in the order Diptera are scientifically flies. By definition, flies are the two-winged insects that include the familiar house fly, the horse fly and the deer fly.

yellow and gray butterfly

Many insects other than flies do fly, and some have the word fly in their name. Butterflies, for instance. But butterflies are not Diptera, so technically are not flies. To underscore that fact butterfly is spelled as one word, not two.

The word butterfly is based on the Anglo-Saxon term that indicates a flying insect of the butter season. It seems some of the earliest butterflies are yellow and appeared during the spring when cows and sheep were producing milk, which could be used to make butter. So the seasonal appearance and the fact these insects fly are the basis for the name butterfly. Some people suggest that the butter color might also have contributed to name.

Moths are closely related to butterflies. Both groups are classified in the insect order Lepidoptera. So where did the name moth originate? It appears to be based on an Anglo-Saxon word that was first used to describe insect larvae that feed on clothing.

dragonfly
dragonfly

Other insects with fly in the name include the dragonflies. These aquatic insects rank right up there with butterflies as being some of the most beautiful of the insects, but they, too, are not flies. Dragonflies are aerial predators, catching small insects while on the wing. So the fly name is appropriate, but why dragon? No one knows, but a good guess would be that the big eyes, fearsome jaws and long, narrow body might have been suggestive of dragon-like, monstrous, scaly serpents in mythology.

Beetles are the most common type of insect in terms of number of identified species. The word beetle is based on the Anglo-Saxon bitan, meaning to bite. Beetles do have mouthparts that they use to chew off pieces of solid food materials, and many can deliver a powerful bite. But beetles are also heavily armored insects with stiff outer wings that form a protective shell when the insect is not flying. Beetles are not the most graceful of flying insects. In fact, beetles frequently crash into things when they fly. That behavior is suggestive of another use of the word beetle - a hammering instrument. Hammer-type beetles are made of wood and used to mash stuff for use as ingredients in cooking.

Bees are known for their buzz. And that buzz is the basis for the name. The word bee is handed down to us from the Old English and meant buzzing. The Latin word for buzzing was bombus, which is a generic name used for some bumble bees. Geoffrey Chaucer apparently first used the term bumble for this type of bee. Bumble also meant buzz or boom. So the name bumble bee literally means buzz, buzz!

It's probably not surprising that historical names of insects reflect the behavior of these creatures. To most humans, it is the chewing, buzzing and fluttering of insects that attract our attention.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox