By Richard Levine
Writing insect names using American English can be difficult. Some species have different names depending on where you are, or with whom you are speaking (think “ladybug” or “ladybird” or “lady beetle”). More often than not, an insect may not even have an official common name because out of the million or so insects that have been discovered and described, only a couple of thousand have been designated with common names by the Entomological Society of America (ESA).
To make matters worse, even the ones that DO have official common names — ones that we see nearly every day — may have different spellings depending on whether they appear in scientific publications or other print media, such as newspapers or magazines.
For example, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “honeybee” and “housefly” and “bedbug” are spelled as one word. However, according to the ESA Common Names of Insects Database, they are spelled as two words — “honey bee” and “house fly” and “bed bug.”
Newspapers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post tend to use the dictionary spellings, while scientific journals such as the Journal of Medical Entomology or Annals of the Entomological Society of America will of course use the spellings that are officially sanctioned by the entomological community as they appear in the ESA database.
The reason for the discrepancy is that entomologists use two words if a common name accurately describes the order to which a particular insect belongs. For example, all true flies belong to the order Diptera, so true fly names will be spelled using two words by entomologists — house fly, horse fly, pigeon fly, or stable fly, for example. However, despite their names, dragonflies and butterflies are NOT true flies — their orders are Odonata and Lepidoptera, respectively — so they are spelled as one word.
The same goes for “bed bug” or “stink bug,” both of which are true bugs in the order Hemiptera, which is why they are spelled as two words in the entomological community. However, insects that are not in the order Hemiptera, like billbugs or sowbugs, are spelled as one word.
Likewise, honey bees and bumble bees are true bees in the order Hymenoptera, so entomologists spell them as two words, even though the dictionaries and newspapers spell them as one.
In his book Anatomy of the Honey Bee from 1956, Robert E. Snodgrass wrote:
Regardless of dictionaries, we have in entomology a rule for insect common names that can be followed. It says: If the insect is what the name implies, write the two words separately; otherwise run them together. Thus we have such names as house fly, blow fly, and robber fly contrasted with dragonfly, caddicefly, and butterfly, because the latter are not flies, just as an aphislion is not a lion and a silverfish is not a fish. The honey bee is an insect and is preeminently a bee; “honeybee” is equivalent to “Johnsmith.”
So there you have it. If you’re ever in doubt, check the ESA Common Names of Insects Database. If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, find another reputable source and check on the insect’s order, and remember this short rhyme: “If true, then two.”
Richard Levine is Communications Program Manager at the Entomological Society of America and editor of the Entomology Today Blog.