English for beekeepers

Latin 101 for beekeepers: What’s in a name?

Here are a couple foreign-language terms that are useful to know when you are talking, reading, or writing about bees. First, the scientific name for the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, comes from two sources. Apis is the Latin word for “bee” and mellifera is Greek for “honey-bearing.”

If you like word derivations, you know that melli (honey) is the root for the French word miel meaning “honey.” Ferre meaning “to bear” is similar to the English word “ferry.”

Rumor has it that Carolus Linnaeus, who named the honey bee, later tried to correct his mistake. He realized that honey bees do not carry honey—they carry nectar—so he tried to change the name to Apis mellifica, the name for a honey-making bee. But, alas, he was too late. The rules for the naming of species dictate that the older name takes precedence.

Two other terms are worth knowing. The Latin word larva means “ghost, specter, or mask.” Linnaeus, the great namer of many living things, also had a hand in this. He reasoned that immature insects “mask” the adult forms. Well, maybe. Linnaeus (1707-1778), known as the father of modern taxonomy, did a lot of good things, so we have to forgive a linguistic stretch now and then.

And, yes, the word pupa was also a Linnaeus pick. It’s a Latin word meaning “girl, doll, or puppet,” and he used it to mean “undeveloped creature.” Pupa is also responsible for words like “puppy.”

If you recall, complete metamorphosis of an insect has four distinct stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. A bee larva is the white grub-like creature curled into the bottom of a brood cell. At the end of the larval stage a cocoon is spun, the cell is capped by workers, and the pupal stage begins.

The words “larval” and “pupal” are just the adjective forms of the words “larva” and “pupa.” The plurals of these words are “larvae” and “pupae.” The easiest way to remember this is you just add an “e” instead of an “s” to make the plural.

So, egg→larva→pupa→adult in the plural becomes eggs→larvae→pupae→adults.

Piece of cake!



  • I always loved taxonomy and latin roots when I was a science major. It just makes sense to me. I had a moment of pride the other day when a bee got in the house, and I said, “there’s a bee in the house, grab a glass so I can scoop it up and put it outside!” and our kid asked, “Is it Apis mellifera?”

  • That is very cool! I always loved knowing Latin and Greek roots too, because it really helps to figure out what other words mean. Scientific names make sense to me, as well. Thanks for writing!

  • And you might be interested in knowing that the same Latin root word for “pupa” is also the rootword for the eye’s “pupil”, the “black hole” in the center of the colored iris. The eye’s pupil is so named because if you get really close and look into someone’s eyes, you can see a tiny, “doll-like” image of yourself.

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