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Expert goes buggy with insect nicknames

A word or set of words by which a person, animal, place or thing is known is a name.  Exactly when humans began using names for each other is lost in antiquity. For sure, though, we have been using vocal utterances to describe things including each other for thousands of years. In western cultures a person's name might be made up of two, three or sometimes even more words. Most of us have a first and a last name.  Our first name is called a given name and the last name a family name. We might also have a middle name.

At one time way back in human history individuals were known by a single name – for instance, Dick or Jane. Children with those names were featured in introductory reading books popular from the 1930s to the 1970s. Anybody recall learning to read from such books?

But as the human population grew, more than one person in an area might have the name Dick or Jane. To help distinguish between people with the same name, the concept of using a surname began. Early surnames in European societies reflected occupations such as farmer, cooper or miller. Sometimes the surname referenced the abode of the person: "by the river" or "on the hill."  Consequently, two-word names such as Dick River and Jane Hill began to be used.

But even with official names given to us by our parents, people sometimes become known by nicknames. A nickname might reflect a real name such as using Dick for Richard or Liz for Elizabeth. But there are times when a person's nickname is not connected to a real name. Such is the case for the names Butch, Bubba, Sis, Curly or Smokey. The basis for such names is probably obscure except maybe to family and close friends.

Many insects, like humans, also have official names – called scientific names – and most consist of two words. These words represent the genus and species of the insect and were assigned by the person who was the first to name the insect.

Just like humans, some insects also have nicknames – called common names by scientists. For instance, there is a butterfly with the scientific name of Danas plexippus. Most people know this insect by its nickname of monarch butterfly.

In general, most people recognize insects by their common names and leave the scientific names to entomologists. Let's look at a few insect common names and why they have such names.

Many insect common names reflect feeding habits. We have insects such as the European corn borer that as a larva bores in corn and came to the U.S. from Europe.  The pest known as the emerald ash borer is green in color and bores in ash trees. Cabbage loopers are butterflies and, as caterpillars, feed on cabbage and loop along when they crawl.

Ladybugs are also called ladybird beetles and are common and familiar insects.  These insects are known as ladybugs because once upon a time this type of insect helped save the flax crops of old England by feeding on aphids. The people of the time perceived that the ladybugs had arrived in answer to their prayers to the Virgin Mary – our Lady – and the insects were called "our lady's bug."

Dragonflies got their name because their fearsome big eyes and biting jaws reminded some folks of mythical dragons. These insects are also known as mosquito hawks because they sometimes feed on mosquitoes. Another name for the same insect is snake doctor because they occasionally rest on the head of a snake swimming in water.

It is clear that insect nicknames vary from region to region. I learned that long ago in my career as a graduate student at Iowa State University. One Saturday morning an Extension entomologist was passing around specimen he had received and asked the graduate students to name the insects. One insect was Boisea trivittata. I took one look and declared the insect to be a "Democrat." I grew up in northeast Kansas, and that is always what we had called them. A student from Texas called the insect a "Republican bug." We were incorrect according to the Extension entomologist because the insect was a "boxelder bug."

We quickly realized that the nicknames of Republican – in Texas – and Democrat – in Kansas - reflected the partisan politics of the region at the time. It just made sense to dub a stinky bug that hung around in small groups with the name of the minority opposition party!