As a pre-teen with a fondness for Nancy Drew mysteries, I developed a taste for hidden messages. I’d see them everywhere, written in puffy clouds or in raindrops sluicing down a windshield. But binomial species names were my favorite, filled with secrets. Why people didn’t like these pompous-sounding appellations, I couldn’t understand. After all, who doesn’t love a good clue?
A Swedish botanist named Carolus Linnaeus devised the binomial system of nomenclature in 1758. Linnaeus (also known as Karl von Linné) realized we needed a naming system that allowed scientists from around the world to agree on which organism they were discussing. The use of common names was too confusing because the names changed according to time, location, language, and culture. He sought a universal common ground.
We call these “Latin” names because they are based on Latin grammatical forms, but they are traditionally some combination of Latin and Greek. Lately, however, we see names that sound more modern. Our common enemy, Varroa destructor, is a good example. Although “destructor” has a modern ring, it actually derives from the Latin word “destruere” meaning “deconstruct.” Yes, varroa mites deconstruct countless honey bee colonies each year.
More than just a name
In addition to providing a name, the Linnaeus system arranges living organisms into what we believe is their lineage, demonstrating who is related to whom. Let’s look at Apis mellifera more closely.
Below is the scientific classification of the western honey bee as it now stands according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System:
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Subkingdom: Bilateria
- Infrakingdom: Prostomia
- Superphylum: Ecdysozoa
- Phylum: Arthropoda
- Subphylum: Hexapoda
- Class: Insecta
- Subclass: Pterygota
- Infraclass: Neoptera
- Superorder: Holometabola
- Order: Hymenoptera
- Suborder: Apocrita
- Infraorder: Aculeata
- Superfamily: Apoidea
- Family: Apidae
- Subfamily: Apinae
- Tribe: Apini
- Genus: Apis
- Subgenus: Apis
- Species: A. mellifera
In certain parts of the world, subspecies can be found. Examples include:
- A.m. carnica
- A.m. caucasia
- A.m. ligustica
- A.m. mellifera
- A.m. capensis
- A.m. scutellata
Notice the superfamily Apoidea. It contains apoid wasps, sphecoid wasps, and bees. This is the last place where bees and some wasps appear in a single classification, showing how closely they are related. In other words, a scientific name isn’t just a name but a method of explaining relatedness.
Back when Linnaeus wrote his book, Systema Naturae, there were only two kingdoms. Since everything was either a plant or an animal, deciding how to classify something could be tricky. Plants are more closely related to other plants than to animals, and they are more closely related to some plants than others. So when you discovered a new plant, you simply slotted it into the best place.
That worked until you had something like a fungus, microsporidian, bacterium, or even a simple euglena that can eat and swim like an animal and produce food like a plant. Generations of scientists were forced to pick a kingdom even when neither was quite right. Although Linnaeus would probably be shocked, today we have five kingdoms, which makes classification a bit easier.
The basic binomial system
The basic naming system has a few easy-to-use rules.
- The higher-order classifications are written in straight text, but the genus, species, and subgenus (if any) are written in italics, as in Apis mellifera mellifera, the European black bee. Handwritten names require underlining.
- The genus name (the noun) is always capitalized and the species name (the adjective) is never capitalized, hence Bombus ternarious, the tricolored bumble bee.
- After the first use of the genus name in an article, the genus can be abbreviated. For example, A. mellifera, V. destructor, or G. mellonella (the greater wax moth). Or, as shown above, you can abbreviate both the genus and species names. Be careful, though. If you write about Andrena prunorum and Apis mellifera in the same article, you shouldn’t abbreviate the genus unless the reference is clear.
- Sometimes the specific name is followed by the namer’s name, such as Apis mellifera Linneaus or Apis cerana Fabricius
Tautonyms are repeats
A tautonym is a binomial name where the genus and species names are the same. Examples include Mephitis mephitis (the common North American skunk), Bison bison (the American bison), and the lovely hydrozoan Velella velella (by-the-wind-sailor). In case you were wondering, triple tautonyms happen, too. For example, the common black rat is Rattus rattus rattus.
When a scientific name is also used as a common name, you can write the common name without any special format. Whether or not this usage is acceptable depends on the publication. Here at ABJ, you can use varroa as a common name, no capital letter or italics needed.
The rules applied to Linnaeus, too
The binomial system of nomenclature comes with a rule book of sorts. One rule says that if multiple names are assigned to a single organism, the first published name will become the accepted one. Linnaeus himself was confounded by this problem after he erroneously named — wait for it — Apis mellifera.
In 1758, he named the honey bee A. mellifera meaning honey-carrier. Three years later, when he realized that honey bees don’t carry honey, they make honey from nectar, he tried to change the name to Apis mellifica, meaning honey-maker. By then, his system had been adopted by many scientific groups and they would not allow him to change the bee’s name. Oddly, you will still see Apis mellifica in some older publications. We call these out-of-use names synonyms.
Some species have many synonyms, either because more than one person named species that turned out to be identical or because a shift occurred in our understanding of the relationships between species. When DNA analysis became commonplace, many species changed names because we were able to understand more about their origins and relationships.
Shape-shifting the taxonomy
Despite the logic behind updated names, the number of changes is frustrating to many. One of the first Latin names I learned was Toxicodendren radicans, poison ivy. I was in primary school, so this was a proud moment. Older guides called it Rhus radicans, but I liked the new name because I could relate to the “toxic” part.
I don’t know how many years passed, but one day I saw it written in a new book as Rhus radicans again. What? My ego took a hit. Then I saw it as Rhus toxicodendron, and I was miffed. I wanted order and reliability. So I decided to read more about these plants and became nonplussed when I learned all those toxic plants — poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac — were in the Anacardiaceae family along with mangoes and cashews. It was decades before I gathered the nerve to swallow those things, sure they would kill me.
I sympathize with folks frustrated by name changes. But the shifts become less jarring when we realize the changes give order to things that aren’t necessarily orderly. As we embrace new research tools, we can see what we couldn’t using morphology alone. So what was once Varroa jacobsoni is now V. destructor and last year’s Nosema is this year’s Vairimorpha.
Some species shift back and forth as researchers debate where they belong. Right now, the pruinose squash bee is bouncing around like a tennis ball, depending on who’s writing. Some days it’s Peponapis pruinosa and some days it’s Eucera pruinosa. Good thing the bee doesn’t care.
Born in the USA
Beekeepers get testy about the type of bees they keep. Oftentimes, a proud beekeeper will take a photo of his charges and send it to iNaturalist, identifying them as, say, Apis mellifera carnica. This quickly gets “downgraded” by one of the identifiers (often me, I’m afraid) to Apis mellifera, making for angry beekeepers.
But there are good reasons for being conservative. The taxonomists who oversee the bee section of iNaturalist are adamant that no pure subspecies of Apis mellifera exist in the New World. Today, most pure subspecies are only found where they originated, and with all the movement of bees taking place around the globe, even these sources may be tainted.
According to historical records, at least nine subspecies were imported into North America in the three hundred years between 1622 and 1922. After the Honey Bee Act of 1922, this importation all but ceased with some exceptions for breeding and research.
It follows that nearly all the honey bee genetics we see in North America today arrived before 1922. No matter how diligently you isolated your lines, keeping them pure for 100 years until 2022 would have been beyond difficult. Logically, it didn’t happen.
However, breeders worked hard to preserve selected traits from these subspecies. Genetic markers show that most of today’s North American bees are descended from A.m. carnica and A.m. ligustica, the two most popular subspecies. We call these lines Carniolans and Italians, which is fine and helpful. But, taxonomically, they are no longer A.m. carnica or A.m. ligustica. So if your honey bee was born in the USA, it’s not likely a recognized subspecies.1
The same thing happened with A.m. scutellata, the African honey bee. According to records, 26 mated queens were imported into Brazil in 1956. When they escaped into the wild, they quickly crossed with local imported honey bees, likely descendants of A.m. iberiensis, the Spanish honey bee popular in Brazil at the time. We call these descendants “Africanized” honey bees (not African) or “scuts,” but they are most definitely not a pure strain of A.m. scutellata.
The second reason iNaturalist sticks to Apis mellifera is more mundane. The insects on iNaturalist are identified from photographs. Even if these specimens were by some miracle pure subspecies, you wouldn’t be able to prove it from a snapshot and guessing benefits no one.
The secrets within the words
In many cases, the species adjective tells us something important about the organism. For example, the genus Andrena contains many bees that are specialists, meaning the brood requires pollen from a certain genus or species of plant. Their Latin names often reflect this trait, even naming the plant.
For example, Andrena ziziae is a specialist on golden alexanders. The species name ziziae reflects its preferred food source, plants in the genus Zizia. Likewise, Andrena erythronii, prefers to feed its young from the trout lily, a member of the genus, Erythronium.
Other bee names may give a hint to their looks, like Bombus bimaculatus, named for two spots on the abdomen. The entire Megachile genus is named for its large jaws. Organisms can also be named for their place of origin, their disposition, a person, or anything else you can imagine. It’s fun to look at the name and try to match it to the bee.
How you say it doesn’t matter
The use of Latin as a base language is genius because Latin isn’t spoken in the modern world even though it’s the basis of many modern languages. Because it’s not spoken, pronunciation is left to the speaker. Whenever I’ve obsessed over a scientific pronunciation, professors have said, “Chill. It doesn’t matter.” If you emphasize the “wrong” syllable or make a long vowel into a short one, it’s okay.
In practice, I hear different pronunciations from different people. For example, small carpenter bees are in the genus Ceratina. Some give it a long “i” and some a short one. There is no authority to say who is right and who is wrong, so don’t let the words intimidate you.
It does help to practice if you need to say these things aloud, however. I once gave a presentation to an orchard society where I had to say Coelioxys, the genus of cuckoo leafcutting bees. For a horrifying moment, I went blank. Then I remembered a creature I learned about in high school, a fish with a hinged jaw and a humongous mouth called a coelacanth. Since I learned to say it before I could spell it, it stuck with me. That quick memory allowed me to blurt “seal-ee-OX-ees” to the unsuspecting orchardists.
Teaching scientific names to kids
If you talk to kids about scientific names, they always have great questions: What has the longest scientific name? A tiny Indian fly, Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides. What has the shortest name? The Chinese bat, Ia io. What are the names of my kitty and puppy? Felis catus and Canis lupus familiaris. And my goldfish? Carassius auratus.
Who makes up the names? Usually, the person who first describes a new species is the one to name it. I like to tell kids that I know a man, a myrmecologist (ant specialist) named Jack Longino, who named 57 species of ant, last I checked. He has named an ant after every member of his family (except himself because that’s not cool). But someone else named one after him, so the whole family is memorialized in ant taxonomy.
Another favorite question is “Do I need to be a scientist to have something named after me?” Absolutely not! In fact, Taylor Swift has a millipede named after her, and the Beatles have an insect named after them. Ptomaphagus thebeatles is, of course, a beetle.
Here’s a quiz. Can you name the celebrity namesakes of these creatures?
- The horse fly, Scaptia beyonceae
- The trilobite, Norasaphus monroeae
- An entire genus of orb-weaving spiders, Pinkfloydia
- The beetle, Grouvellinus leonardodicaprioi
- The wasp, Aleiodes gaga
- Another wasp, Aleiodes shakirae
- A horsehair worm, Paragordius obamai
- A rabbit (of course), Sylvilagus palustris hefneri
- A tree frog, Hyloscirtus princecharlesi
- A spider (has to be), Filistata maguirei
- A trapdoor spider, Aptostichus angelinajolieae
- A Colombian tree frog, Hyla stingi
If that doesn’t make you fall in love with scientific names, nothing will.2
An oxymoron at best
Although I’m enthralled by scientific names, I draw the line at another taxonomic invention — the official common name. To me, “common” is the antithesis of “official.” A common name is one that arises from the people, a grassroots type of description used by folks in a certain place to describe a familiar object. The phrase implies casual use, not something from a book.
Common terms are often regionalisms. For example, what some people call a submarine (sandwich), others call a hoagie or a grinder. What one person calls a soda, someone else calls a pop. The east has traffic circles, the west has roundabouts. These regional words make our language sing, keeping it rich and refreshing.
My favorite insect name is “steady bee,” a creature that is not a bee at all, but a hover fly. Southern in origin, the name is unique and undeniably descriptive. When you see a steady bee, you know exactly what they mean. The creativity, the history, and the folklore preserved by common names are priceless, and whenever I visit a new place, I try to find those marvelous words the rest of us hadn’t thought of.
But in recent years, the taxonomists have tried to eradicate that heritage by providing us with a list of approved common names. They say that common names are too confusing, so we need universal agreement — the very same argument they use in favor of scientific names. If the binomial system of nomenclature is so good, why do we need a second system?
I suspect I’m not the only person to object because last year, during an interview with a world-renowned bee taxonomist, I asked about common names. His only answer was a defensive “That ship has sailed.” Whoa! He wouldn’t even talk about it.
I say we should hang onto the common names and treasure them, embrace them. If you want to call something a steady bee, a pinch beetle, a blinkie, or a no-see-um, then you should. Scientific names are great but common names are pure joy.
Notes and reference
- Carpenter, M.H., Harpur, B.A. Genetic past, present, and future of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) in the United States of America. Apidologie 52, 63–79 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-020-00836-4
- Beyoncé, Marilyn Monroe, Pink Floyd, Leonardo DiCaprio, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Barack Obama, Hugh Hefner, Prince Charles, Tobey Maguire, Angelina Jolie, Sting
Honey Bee Suite
I love reading about our language even as much as I love reading about bees, so I obviously love this post. My favorite common name is the wildflower Jill-all-over-the-place, a name that captures the character of this lovely put perhaps overly-enthusiastic crawler perfectly. It apparently also has the common name Creeping Charley, which is just plain creepy.
Wait, I’m sorry, we were talking about bees; I got distracted. Don’t mind me. I’m just here to subscribe to the comments.
I love writing about language maybe even more than writing about bees. I always wonder if I should have written a blog about words instead.
Anyway, we call that Gill-over-the-ground or creeping Charley. I wonder why all the names like Gill, Jill, and Charley?
Hi, Rusty. Greetings from Boise. I have a question: I had always understood that the swarming bees staged temporarily so that scouts could find a new hive location. If the colony reaches consensus on a new hive location prior to swarming, why don’t the swarming bees go directly to the new hive location, rather than staging in an exposed location for up to 48 hours? Thanks. Alan Herzfeld.
All very interesting. I wish I had paid more attention to my teachers with regard to the natural world and what it has to offer. I now cherish all of the natural wonders in my outdoor world. How do you ever find time to sleep?
Am I the only one who quickly searched for euglena? Ah. Dreaded algae blooms.
Addendum to Granny Roberts’ last sentence. I am here for her as well. Double feature. Great entertainment.
I prefer using the scientific name, as so many of our little bees don’t really have a common name in English. My grade school Spanish helps me understand some of the Latin, but many names leave me puzzled. Do you have a good source for explaining the origins of scientific names?
It’s odd, but in my freshman year of college I took a course called “The Taxonomy of Vascular Plants.” One of the recommended books was a Dover reprint called, “How Plants Get Their Names” by LH Bailey. It’s a skinny little paperback (I still have it) but the last third is a glossary of Latin terms. That book helped me immensely with Latin names, plant or otherwise. For example, I remembered hederaceus meant “of the ivy,” so when I first saw a Colletes hederae, I knew it had to be an ivy specialist in the genus Colletes (ground bees). And it is.
So I think any book on taxonomy could help, although I don’t know of one specific to insects.