Don’t call that hornet “murder,” say scientists searching for better common names

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What’s in an insect name? If that name happens to be “killer hornet” or “gypsy moth,” the nickname is full of disinformation and/or prejudice. That’s why the Entomological Society of America (ESA) dropped both names – and more changes are likely to come.

The ESA has a project called Better Common Names that aims to end insect names that can be harmful to humans. This year, the group announced they had adopted the name “northern giant hornet,” refusing to accept popular colloquial titles for the invasive insect. It also changed “gypsy moth” to “spongy moth”. They are also looking for other names to be changed. Virtually anyone can fill out a form, and the ESA will consider the proposal, along with other requests to name and rename critters. For example, the association’s new policy does not allow common names that refer to racial or ethnic groups.

The effort is part of a broader movement to address racism and other systemic oppression within science. English bird names are also researched by the American Ornithological Society. As many as 150 birds are named for people associated with slavery and white supremacy.

The nickname is full of misinformation or prejudice

The edge spoke to Marianne Alleyne, ESA president and assistant professor of entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the changes underway.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

First of all, what are common names and why do we have them for insects?

So scientists, we usually use scientific names — Latin names that usually have two parts, like how people are A wise man. But that doesn’t really help when we talk to the general public or when we talk to the people most affected by these insects. Then we use common names to help with the conversation.

I think we only have 2,000 insects that have a common name, and there are millions of insects. It’s usually just the ones we talk about a lot that have common names. Usually they are the problem makers or the ones who are useful.

The Entomological Society of America has for many decades been the institution that determines what common name we’re going to use for specific species, to make sure we’re talking about the same thing when we talk to the general public or the media or things like that.

How did insects get their common name?

Someone or a community approaches us and suggests a common name for a particular insect. Usually they are scientists or maybe people who work with farmers. They might say, “You know, it would make our lives a lot easier if we had a common name that everyone agreed on.” And then they make that suggestion.

Daily life in Markham

Sign urging residents to report trees damaged by the spongy moth in Markham, Ontario, Canada. It is a non-native invasive insect that feeds on tree leaves.
Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images

There’s a committee that gets these requests, and then they’ll study them, and there’s certain criteria that we follow. And then we will say yes, we accept this common name, or not. Every year they have a few meetings and discuss new proposals for common names. Lately they’ve been busy looking back and seeing where potentially problematic names are.

What are the concerns with some of the common names we have today?

There are some names that we would now consider contributing to discrimination or exclusion or harming people. The most obvious was what we now call spongy moth, as it came to be a derogatory term for a group of people. Spongy moth used to be gypsy moth and “Gypsy” is a derogatory term for the Roma people.

So how did the Better Common Names project get started?

It started maybe 10 years ago when ESA really took a look at itself, like how are we actually contributing to some of the problems that we see? How common is sexual harassment or gender exclusion in our society? For example, we have a completely new code of conduct. It came to a head in 2020. Because of the whole movement that followed George Floyd’s murder and so forth, this all went into high gear, and one of the things was the Better Common Names Project. Our members may be bothered by what we call bugs, and yes, we wanted to change that.

And besides, the emergence of what we now call the northern giant hornet was also around that time. Suddenly this hornet becomes a problem in Washington state, and we call it “killer hornet” or “Asian hornet.” That kind of felt like enough is enough. We need to come up with better rules for common names.

Why was it important to remove “murder” from the hornet’s name?

To avoid fueling fear, which, you know, is the killing part. It caused so much hysteria that people as far away as Pennsylvania would send any kind of wasp to be identified because they were afraid it was that hornet. It’s also a misnomer. The hornet does not actually attack humans. It probably wouldn’t kill you. But it’s terrible for honeybees – as if it will invade honeybee colonies and kill all honeybees. That’s why it’s called murderous. But anyway, you know, when you’re talking to the general public, that’s not a good name to use.

Then people started calling it the “Asian Giant Hornet”. Why was that name a concern?

Because it can contribute to anti-Asian sentiment or anti-Pacific Islander sentiment or anti-Asian-American sentiment – even if it’s unintentional. It is a real problem that we see increasing discrimination against these groups and hate crimes, and so we want to avoid contributing to that, if an insect that people consider very scary and dangerous were equated with a whole group of people. We prefer not to use a geographical indication in the common name.

What do you hope changing problematic names accomplishes?

At least that we do not contribute to these problems of discrimination or mistrust of an entire people. And that we can do better in the future than in the past.

It’s very important to actually get federal agencies and state agencies on board, when they say, “We want our employees to use this name and stop using the other name.” We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how supportive these agencies have been.

Do you have a favorite common name for an insect?

My favorite common name is the handsome fungus gnat beetle. I just wonder why it’s so handsome. Looks like a regular beetle to me, but someone thought they were pretty.

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