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Honeybee or honey bee? Which is correct?

Is it honeybee or honey bee? As a general rule, I believe there is more than one way to do most things—all of which are dependent on the facts and circumstances in the specific case. However, there is one issue on which I will not give an inch, and that is the spelling of “honey bee.”

I have two favorite quotes on this subject. The oldest comes from Anatomy of the Honey Bee by Robert E. Snodgrass (1956):

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.”

The above quote surfaces frequently. For example, it appears as a “Linguistic Note” at the front of Letters from the Hive by Stephen Buchmann (2005).

The second quote is much more recent and a little easier to read. It appears as the “Author’s Note” in Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen (2008):

Copyeditors of the world beware. The spelling of insect names in this book follows the rules of the Entomological Society of America, not Merriam-Webster’s. When a species is a true example of a particular taxon, that taxon is written separately. Honey bees and bumble bees are true bees, and black flies are true flies. A yellowjacket, however, is not a true jacket. Entomologists, who have to read the names of bugs a lot more than the rest of us do, would appreciate it if we all followed these rules.

So there you have it. To me, it is a closed subject.

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  • HI Rusty,
    Glad I waited before asking about the spelling. You do have about everything covered. I’m reading in chronological order and offer comments only to find the answer in a more recent post . Thanks

    • Wow, you are really ambitious.There’s like 850 posts plus pages. I don’t think I have that much patience!

  • I recently got the Encyclopedia Britannica to say (in their online edition), “also spelled”…”honey bee”, “bumble bee” and “yellowjacket” So that’s a start! Merriam-Webster’s is working on this problem and I’m forcing the issue. Since they are Britannica’s dictionary, I think they know they’ll have to do something! Read my article: “Bumblebee or Bumble Bee”/Poughkeepsie Journal” “search” Mike Riter

    • Oh! So you’re the one who wrote that piece! I lost count of how many people sent me the link to it. I’ve been going on about this subject for years. “Consider the honeybee bee” is a more recent post that I wrote just last fall.

      Well, congratulations. You can start working on the Smithsonian.

      • Dear Rusty, Your, “Consider the honeybee bee” is a great title and article. I will work on the Smithsonian today!

  • Dear Rusty,

    “Your Dictionary” online has not only included “honey bee” but as I urged them, they have made it their featured entry, displacing “honeybee.”

    Here’s how they handled the change: “The common name for this insect is often spelled “honeybee.” However, according to the Entomological Society of America (ESA) the correct common name of this insect is “honey bee.” ” Keep up the great work!

    Mike Riter

      • Dear Rusty,

        I’m working on “The New World College Dictionary” which is behind “AP Style” which is used by the majority of major newspapers. It’s hard to get the editors to respond quickly. But I plan to keep the pressure on. Believe it or not, the very paper I wrote, “Bumblebee or Bumble Bee?/Poughkeepsie Journal” is not allowing me to spell these insects correctly; telling me, “We go by AP Style!” The editor I deal with was on vacation when I wrote the article, so I don’t know if it would’ve been allowed had she been there? I’m going after the executive editor next as the one I deal with said it’s okay!

        One new angle I just thought of today, is: “Because dictionaries spell insects’ common names randomly, instead of going with ESA’s consistent spellings, unless you already know, you must look up every insect! It may be “honeybee”, “sweat bee”, “housefly” or “fruit fly”!

        • Mike,

          The most annoying for me right now is “yellow jacket.” Like I said, I have a yellow jacket, but I don’t have a few thousand. Those are yellowjackets.

          • They haven’t changed and will not correspond, so I don’t even know the status. I was told that Merriam-Webster online now includes “honey bee” etc., but haven’t found that either. The “Albany Times Union” allows “honey bee” and “yellowjacket;” but why isn’t exactly clear. “USA Today” allows them because they have their own dictionary that they go by. AP Style just must like to remain ignorant??

  • Rusty, “Yellow jacket” tops my list too! That wins “The Most Absurd” contest! Mike

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  • And Mr. Snodgrass is not really a “grass”…

    This was really wonderful!! Thank you so much for your humor!

  • Honey bee refers to all bees that collect pollen and honey, including the blue and green orchard bees etc. Honeybee refers to the domestic bees kept in hives for the commercial production of honey and pollination.

    • I completely disagree. The two-word spelling is preferred by entomologists. The one-word version is used by media outlets, and it appears that way in their style guides.

      No bees collect honey (unless they are stealing it from a place other than a flower). What bees collect is nectar and pollen. A limited number of species make honey, and I’ve never heard of an orchard bee (which usually refers to the genus Osmia) that makes honey. The honey-making bees are in the genus Apis or belong to the South American or Australian stingless bee groups. Also, bumble bees make a limited amount of honey for the queen’s use.

  • Absolutely right. No scientific brain should write honeybee.
    Accept it or stop documenting wrong information.

    Love u honey bees.

  • I’m a late entry here, but got enlightened about the spelling of ‘honey bee.” Appreciate the efforts and patience Mr Rusty and Co.

  • Knock, knock.
    Who’s there?
    Honey bee.
    Honey bee who?
    Honey bee a dear and let me in.