English for beekeepers

Consider the honeybee bee

I have one more post to write in the pollen series, but I keep getting sidetracked by the photos people send me. Yesterday’s thermal images were awesome, but today’s photo is totally annoying.

The photo below was taken at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum by beekeeper David Caylor. The text is on the wall of the entomology section. Being a regular reader of Honey Bee Suite, David knows how the word “honeybee,” all run together like that, irritates me no end. So he sent this picture to give me heart failure. What? The folks at the Smithsonian can’t spell?

As I told David, maybe the writing is on the wall, so to speak. Maybe the language is changing faster than I can adapt.

But there are very good reasons that most entomologists insist that “honeybee” is wrong, that it should actually be two words. My favorite quote explaining the reason is by Robert E. Snodgrass:

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.”–From Anatomy of the Honey Bee.

Think about it. The word “bee” is a noun. In English, the adjective that describes the type of bee goes before it, so it becomes honey bee, bumble bee, sweat bee, carpenter bee. When you go to the grocery store (not the grocerystore) you buy yellow beans and green beans, not yellowbeans, greenbeans, or greatnorthernbeans. My spellchecker is freaking.

Yes, languages that make sense put the adjective after the noun not before. But in English, you wait in suspense to find out what is being written about. “It was a big, red, shiny”—wait in suspense right here—“pomegranate!” It could have easily been a car, apple, or welt.

Now, take the word “fly.” If the thing you are referring to is actually a fly, you have the noun “fly” preceded by the type of fly, let’s say hover. So you have “hover fly.” But if the thing is not a fly, you need a whole new noun to identify it.

For example, since a butterfly is not a fly, the word “butter” does not modify the word “fly.” Instead “butterfly” is its own thing, a completely different noun. You can modify that noun with another descriptor, say “blue,” which gives you “blue butterfly.” But you don’t write “bluebutterfly” or “blue butter fly.”

A beewolf is not a wolf (nor a bee) but is something completely different, a wasp. So you can write “beewolf” or “beewolf wasp,” but not “bee wolf” or “beewolfwasp.” Get it?

I happen to have a yellow jacket in my closet. It’s a good jacket, warm with lots of pockets, and I would never consider killing it. The yellow and black wasp that bugs picnickers is a yellowjacket because it is not, in fact, a jacket.

I almost didn’t buy what turned out to be an excellent book, Honeybee Democracy, because of the spelling. Certainly Thomas Seeley knows better. But later I read that his daughters encouraged the spelling because it makes the title rhyme. But wait: Honeybee Democracy rhymes and Honey Bee Democracy doesn’t? I’m lost.

People like Seeley and the folks at the Smithsonian are changing the language, and I think it is sad. With rules of spelling, you can derive meaning. You can look at the word “glowworm” and, knowing nothing else, you realize it is not a worm. You know a hairstreak is not a streak (nor a hair), yet you know a stag beetle really is a beetle. But when spellings become random, you can’t draw conclusions. You become lost in a sea of unrelated words where the simplest terms are confusing. Perhaps we should call it a “honeybee bee.”

Thanks to David for the instructive, if maddening, photo.



Consider the Honeybee. © David Caylor.


  • You’ve got me wondering. What about beekeeper versus bee keeper? If we didn’t use beekeeper, maybe we wouldn’t see “beek” used so much. Wishful thinking.

    • HB,

      Interesting thought. It seems that beekeeper is the accepted term, although I’m with you on the term “beek.” I don’t believe I’ve ever used it. I just did an on-site search for it and it appears often in comments by others, but not in posts. Why it grates on me, I don’t know.

  • Because a beek sounds like BEAK and that is what birds have! We are not birds, so we can’t have or be a beak. Language is so tricky, isn’t it?

  • I must admit I’ve written honeybee a few times before, partly because I keep seeing it spelt like that in other places! But now I know better, thank you.

  • Uh-oh, Rusty …

    ” Instead “butterfly” is it’s own thing…”

    Did you write that to give ME heart failure? An apostrophe (in entymology as well as anywhere else) indicates that something has been omitted. Or, as a teacher friend explains it, “Apostrophes are not for decoration.” We don’t write “hi’s” or “her’s” so the possessive of “it” is plain (undecorated) “its.”

    Thank you for being a stickler about “capped honey,” “sealed brood,” “hive” vs “colony” and “honey bee.” It’s refreshing!!

    Shady Grove Farm

    • Nan,

      How embarrassing. I just checked and found this post went through 11 revisions and I still missed it. I usually read aloud and say “it is” for it’s, but alas I didn’t read this one aloud and that’s what happens. Thanks.

  • We live in a society where discipline is eroding rapidly. (Ask any school teacher that’s been teaching for ten years or more.) Without discipline, spelling and English rules are treated just like any other rules, offered up as suggestions. I have been too long out of high school and I often forget the rules, but I welcome corrective criticism when done kindly. (Feel free to edit this comment.)

  • I’m concerned about ” my spellchecker is freaking”
    Surely it should read “my spelling checker ” as I’m confident you are not talking about incantations? And “freaking”?
    The English complain about how Americans have corrupted “Queens English” but none of us are purists any more – the language evolves. I even started a sentence with “And” just now. Happy days.

    • Dave,

      You shouldn’t be concerned. The run-together word “spellchecker” was a bow to the preceding “grocerystore,” “greenbeans,” “greatnorthernbeans,” etc. It seemed to follow.

      “Freaking” is slang which lends a certain colloquial feeling to a piece. I would bet not a single reader was confused by what I meant. I approve of slang in certain types of writing, especially since the purpose of writing is communication. “Freaking” communicates, but I didn’t use it in my master’s thesis, if that’s what worries you.

      As for “and” at the beginning of a sentence, let me quote from Garner’s Modern American Usage: “It is rank superstition that this coordinating conjunction cannot properly begin a sentence.”

      Garner goes on to quote several sources, but since you’re in the UK, I’ll use this one from Kingsley Amis in The King’s English (1997): “And the idea that and must not begin a sentence, or even a paragraph, is an empty superstition. The same goes for but. Indeed either word can give unimprovably early warning of the sort of thing that is to follow.”

      You need to chill. By the way, that’s slang.

      • //“Freaking” communicates, but I didn’t use it in my master’s thesis, if that’s what worries you.//

        Love it!

        Perhaps, in some accents, the way “bee” is pronounced changes if you run the words together? I once remember my father commenting that, in our accent, “women” is actually usually pronounced “wimin” in a sentence, despite the fact that we always pronounce “men” with an “e” sound and “woman” with an “o” and an “a”. The peculiarity is made odder by the fact that we don’t do it if we have occasion to say “woman” on its own, more slowly. It could be the same sort of thing.

        As someone English, I’d comment that I have no problem with Americans using “English” however they happen to want to: the difficulty, as I see it, comes from the difficulty we have defending our own different cultural use of the language, as there are a lot fewer of us!

        I use “and” to start sentences all the time, especially in my academic writing. The problem otherwise is that sentences get impossibly long: if I have five connecting ideas in a paragraph, then using “and” at the beginning of each one, is actually the best way of – back to first principles – clearly communicating what is meant. I hope my markers don’t object, because I’m not sure what I’d do instead if they did. I do tend to avoid “and” at the start of paragraphs, though.

        As for the notion that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum can’t spell, I have the impression that public information boards in museums have a surprisingly high rate of spelling mistakes. I sympathise – my spelling is awful, which is probably – ironically – why I notice – but I do wonder why they don’t do a bit more proofreading before having expensive new signs printed. They’re funded to educate, not to debase the language (in the real sense of making communication harder)!

        Nothing beats the big cat skull, however, that was labelled as a lion skull in print and as a tiger skull in Braille (or, possibly, the other way around – I forget)! I appreciate that you have to be an expert to tell between a lion and a tiger from the bones – if it is possible to distinguish at all – but the notion that the Braille constitutes an alternative world is a bit spooky…

        Am enjoying your blog a lot 🙂

  • I had not considered the usage of honey bee versus honeybee prior to this article (or any of the other compound insect names). I typically have used honeybee, for no apparent reason. But no more. Thanks for the enlightening article!

  • The Smithsonian also used “bumblebee” in addition to “honeybee”!!! I know you used “bumble bee” as one of your examples, but I figured I would point out the fact that they messed up twice.

  • Do you know the book ‘Anatomy And Dissection Of The Honeybee’ by H. A. Dade?

    In a different vein, why do writers refer to a hive of bees in a bush etc. when referring to a swarm?

    Another pet hate! Depictions of bees with bright yellow and black stripes. No wonder the public has difficulty identifying wasps, bumble bees and honey bees (got the spelling right!)

  • A few thoughts on the title of Thomas Seeley’s book Honeybee Democracy. I too read the book, own the book, and have recommended the book to others (even those whom don’t keep bees). But until now it never occurred to me that the two words in the title rhyme. However after saying them out loud a couple times I see that they do (or at least can); and, in Seeley’s defense, maybe even in a way that Honey Bee Democracy doesn’t – because the meter is a little different between the two.
    Unfortunately, Seeley doesn’t limit his misuse of the term “honeybee” to the title, he continues to consistently refers to them as honeybees throughout the book – even when not reaching for a rhyme. Very frustrating given that he is an entomologist who has specialized in honey bees his entire career!
    Thanks for the blog Rusty.

    • Josiah,

      Interesting insight. But there is something else that bothers me: throughout the book, Seeley uses the word “bee” to refer to honey bees. For example, on page 7, figure 1.2, the caption reads, “A swarm of honeybees, with approximately ten thousand worker bees and one queen bee.” It seems to me that if he is going to use “honeybee” to refer to Apis mellifera, then the caption should say, “… ten thousand worker honeybees and one queen honeybee.” His way seems inconsistent, and throughout the book he refers to dancing bees, scout bees, foraging bees. I think if he had thought it through carefully, he would have stayed with “honey bee” regardless of family dynamics.

  • Prof. Thomas D. Seeley also wrote ‘The Wisdom of the Hive – The Social Physiology of the Honey Bee Colonies’. This was published in 1955 – ‘Honeybee Democracy’ was published in 2010. He also wrote ‘Honeybee Ecology’.

  • Well, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves, with all this. I’ve long felt that the English language is a misbegotten mess, long overdue for a major overhaul.

    Almost every other language in the world has a governing body that makes incremental changes to their spelling and grammar on a regular basis. English, by contrast, hasn’t had a major revision in about 200 years. The folks in academia have seen to that. The result is a near useless tangle of outdated and archaic conventions in spelling and grammar that will probably kill the English language in a few decades.

    For one thing, the language is now evolving in a rather chaotic manner, with no guidance. It IS a living language, after all, and will evolve no matter how hard academia tries to prevent it. The folks in the ivory towers could have guided this evolution. They fought for stagnation instead. Now it’s pretty much been taken out of their hands by the folks on the internet.

    Also, they will soon have to recognize that over half the people in this country now speak Spanish. And the number is growing. Many cities and a couple of states are already officially bilingual. Most of our kids are learning Spanish from their Spanish speaking classmates. In ten years, these kids will be of voting age and most of the baby boomers will be gone. It’s almost a lead pipe cinch that America will become officially bilingual, shortly after that. I’d say twenty years from now.

    I’d further posit that twenty years after that, English will be dropped completely. Spanish is easier to read and write in, since it’s far more phonetic. It will be far easier and cheaper to teach in schools. And the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española makes sure the language is regularly updated.

    So academia can either start working nights and weekends to update our outdated language or they can kiss it goodbye. They can either start making some compromises or lose it all.

    • In the middle of a storm, tornado or hurricane, things seem highly chaotic. From a distance there is considerable organization. Same with English: it makes for actually a fairly stable language because of its chaotic flexibility. Maybe at some point Spanish or Russian or Chinese will become the most dominant language. But even if French is no longer the influential language it once was, it is far from extinct. English will be the same.

      Remember, it is a written and spoken language. That is part of my standard. When someone is describing an insect, bumble bee and bumblebee are the same to my ear. It is only when I hear a yellowjacket called a bee that I get into a bit of a lather.

    • No state is “officially” bilingual. The US does not even have English as its official language! What happens is that if enough of the population reports speaking some language as a first language, then it begins to be supported. Here in California one can go to ATMs with Vietnamese as the language of choice. I’d also like to see the statistics demonstrating that half the country speaks Spanish – as a first or subsequent language – or any evidence of young students learning Spanish from their classmates. (They’d be far more likely to learn a creole, if anything more than a few vocabulary words.) We’ve been through this before with German, and it did not become the official language of the US either. If you ever see blockbuster American movies released in Spanish only or, yes, more American web pages in Spanish than English, then you can start to worry; otherwise, forget it.

      I’m also not sure from where you got the notion that academics have prevented English standardization measures (in this, and ostensibly all other, English-speaking nations). Even if that were true, it would be ludicrous to treat all academics the same, and thereby blame entomologists for the failings of people who actually study English. (Some) Entomologists are just asking for English to be used consistently in their area of study, over which they can legitimately be expected to exercise expertise.

      The English language certainly has its issues, but it is missing some arbitrary artifacts of many other languages, such as grammatical gender and certain very annoying declensions and cases. It also has perhaps the richest vocabulary of any language. Which brings up another point: being rich (materially and/or culturally) helps one’s language to gain relevancy.

  • I accidentally caught a recent new comment on this post, so I just re-read the whole thing. I love linguistic arguments. I’m really only commenting to subscribe to the comments.

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