Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







What's in a Name?

A human endeavor of long standing is to name things. In biology a living organism gets a scientific name, the genus and species. But plants and animals, including insects, also are known by common names.

Common names can vary from locality to locality and might reflect characteristics of the organism. For instance, the whitetail deer, cottontail rabbit and bald-faced hornet have names descriptive of these animals.

One approach to creating scientific names for animals is to name the creature for an individual. For instance, one of a group of birds known as thrashers is Toxostoma lecontei. Named for J.L. LeConte, the man who discovered the bird, it is sometimes called desert thrasher or LeConte's thrasher.

In his book "Pioneer Naturalists," Howard Ensign Evans points out that entomologists are especially fond of naming insects for colleagues or people they admire. Most insects that have common names are pest insects since these are the insects humans most often encounter. It would seem that having an insect pest named after you would be a dubious honor. However, entomologists seem not to mind.

Pseudococcus comstocki is a notorious pest insect. It is a mealybug, a small wax-covered insect that sucks plant juices. John Henry Comstock was a distinguished entomologist well known for his work on mealybugs, so he was no doubt pleased to have an insect known as Comstock's Mealybug.

Several insects are named after people. Uhler's Assassin Bug, a small insect that feeds on other arthropods, is named after Philip Reese Uhler, who in 1864 was the first person to collect insect specimens and place them in a museum.

A beautiful sphinx moth is called Abbot's Sphinx. It's named after John Abbot, a watercolor painter who collected and sold insects. He also has a less attractive insect, a bagworm, named after him.

People other than entomologists also have insects named after them. For instance, Ibsen's wasp is a very small insect, less than 2 millimeters long, from the group of small wasps known as chalcids. It was named, for unexplained reasons, after the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen by a chalcid specialist, Girault. We must assume that Girault was a fan of Ibsen.

Members of royal families sometimes are honored by having living things named after them. A common wild carrot is known as Queen Anne's Lace, supposedly because Queen Anne of England challenged her ladies-in-waiting to model their embroidery after the flower of this roadside weed.

Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII of England, has two butterflies named after her. The first is Queen Alexandra's Sulfur Butterfly, which is a close relative of the pests known as cabbage and alfalfa butterflies. The butterfly just happened to be described in the year that Princess Alexandra married Albert Edward, son of Queen Victoria. Alexandra also has the largest butterfly in the world named after her — Queen Alexandra's birdwing. It just seems the right thing to do to name the largest butterfly in the world after the queen, especially if she also has a cabbage butterfly named after her.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann