Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Insect Scientific Names Two-Part Tongue Twisters

Biologists name plants and animals according to a system known as "binominal nomenclature." That means each living organism gets two names called the "genus" and the "species." These two names are very much like the family and given names of a human.

In scientific usage, the equivalent of the human family name, the genus, is listed first. Sort of like when we fill out an official form at a bank or a medical office. You know, last name first!

Both the animal genus name and the human family names represent larger groups of individuals than do the species names or given names. In my case, there are a number of Turpins in the world but far fewer Tom Turpins. The same is true of insects. Take the insect Coccinella septempunctata, for example. There are many insects classified in the genus Coccinella but only one with the species name septempunctata.

While scientific terminology is useful for plant and animal names, the words are difficult for people unfamiliar with Latin or Greek to understand or pronounce. Coccinella septempunctata literally means red -- little -- seven -- spotted. The name applies to and is descriptive of a red-colored, relatively small insect with seven black spots on the wings.

Here is a little test. Pronounce the following insect names out loud. It might be a good idea to make sure there is no one else in the room at the time. Otherwise the somewhat melodious tones emanating from your mouth could precipitate a 911 call from friends or acquaintances for medical assistance.

Ready, set, begin. Elasmopalpus lignosellus, Neodecadarachis flavistriata, Rhodobaenus quinquedecimpunctatus and Nephopterix subcaesiella. Even if your pronunciation was correct, with the emphasis on the proper syllables (and only a professional linguist would know for sure), it is cumbersome at best to use names such as these in everyday conversation. Imagine coming home some evening and announcing "Honey, I just saw a Rhodobaenus quinquedecimpunctatus on the front step!"

So in reality, only scientists generally use genus and species names of animals. The rest of us use instead what are known as common names. Just in case you were wondering, the common names of the four insects in the test above are lessor cornstalk borer, sugarcane bud moth, cocklebur weevil and locust leafroller, respectively.

An individual who is describing the creature for the first time assigns the scientific name of an animal. Such names are often based on physical characteristics of the animal, such as the red color and the black wing spots of Coccinella septempunctata mentioned above. These are characteristics that can be seen by looking at the insect.

On the other hand common names often reflect behavioral characters of the insect such as food, or method or location of eating, or both -- sugarcane bud moth, for example.

While scientific and some common names are used to describe one insect species, many common names are used for large groups of insects. Names such as fly, butterfly, beetle, moth, ant and wasp are used for groups of insects with similar characteristics. Such names normally originated in ancient times. Most are derived from Anglo-Saxon words: "Fly" for moving through the air with wings and "beetle" for the biting mouthparts of these insects.

Some small groups of insects also have common names. The insects, known scientifically as Coccinellidae, are generally known by the common name lady beetle, ladybird beetle or ladybug. All of these names are based on the ancient habit of praying to the Virgin Mary for help with pest insects known as aphids. Coccinellid beetles are predators on aphids. When they showed up in the fields, the ancient people concluded that their prayers had been answered, and dubbed the insect "the bug sent by Our Lady the Virgin Mary" or "Our Lady's bug." The name is used today.

Coccinella septempunctata is a ladybug, not just any ladybug but a seven-spotted ladybug. But coccinellids are beetles, not bugs. Insects that are bugs are not correctly classified as beetles. Oh well, even if not scientifically correct, saying "ladybug" is a lot easier than saying Coccinella septempunctuwhata, or whatever!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox