Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Insect Naming Game

We humans like to name things. The use of language probably began with names: tree, dog, bug! But all trees, dogs and bugs aren't the same. So special names were necessary to distinguish between each type of tree, dog or bug.

In the scientific world, the names used in everyday language are called common names. Common names vary from place to place. So one animal might have several common names, each used in a different region.

In fact, the same common name might be used for entirely different living things in different localities. An example is the gopher. In the Southeastern part of the United States, the name “gopher” is used for a land turtle or a tortoise. In other regions, gophers are what some people call ground squirrels or chipmunks. In still other areas, the gopher is a blind, gray, fuzzy mammal that burrows underground looking for grubs or earthworms to eat.

Using the same name for different animals or a different name for the same animal creates confusion. Consequently, scientists created the system known as binomial nomenclature. This system is based on two names to each animal. These are the genus and species names.

However, most people don't use the Latin-based genus and species names, so common names for animals and plants still exist. The Entomological Society of America even publishes an “Approved Common Names List” for insects.

This list gives some insight into the basis for common names. For instance, color is used frequently in such names. There are 13 insects with green in their names, including a cloverworm, a scale, a budworm and a stink bug.

There are 19 insects with the color brown in their name; 22 if you count brown-headed, brown-banded and brown-legged. Black shows up in 39 insect names; 40 if you include the blackbellied clerid—a type of beetle. Yellow and white also are popular colors in insect common names.

Numbers are handy for common names, too. In insects, most numbers are used. There is the onespotted stinkbug. Two is a popular number as in twospotted, twobanded, twolined, and twostriped. There are threes and fours, but no fives, in insect names. There are sixes and even a sevenspotted lady beetle. There is an eightspotted forester, which just happens to be a moth. No nines show up in insect names. But there are two tens—a tenlined June beetle and a tenspotted lady beetle. There is also a thirteenspotted lady beetle.

Some common names reflect the plant the insect calls dinner. As you might guess, plants grown as crops occur more frequently in names than other plants. We have several insects with corn or bean in their names. There are 11 insects with spruce in their names, 10 with sunflower, eight with sweet potato and two with turnip. There is even a quar midge and a burdock borer.

Regions of the world are mentioned frequently in insect names. European, Asian and African each reflect the native area of the insect bearing the name. There is a Brazilian leafhopper and six insects with Australian in the name. Some U.S. states are used in insect common names. We have a Colorado potato beetle. And California has its name on nine insects.

Sometimes the insect name is directional as in western bean cutworm or southern corn rootworm. There are 44 names with western, 22 with southern, 15 with eastern and only eight with northern. Sometimes the name is combination directional, as with the southeastern blueberry bee.

Of course, the directional names don't mean much today. Take those pests of corn, the northern, western and southern corn rootworms. The range of the southern is further north than the northern, and the western is found further south than the southern! That hasn't always been the case, but common names aren't always up to date.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox