English for beekeepers varroa mites

Varroa: a mite by any other name


Today I’m going to write eloquently about something I know nothing about. I realize some of you will think that’s not unusual, so I forgive you in advance.

The thing on my mind today is the pronunciation of the word “Varroa.” I was always taught that scientific names are a bit wishy-washy when it comes to pronunciation. Different pronunciations are accepted because the names are often based on Latin, a language that is no longer spoken. Since it’s not spoken, who’s to say what is right?

Worried about saying it right

Before I presented my master’s thesis, I was very concerned about pronouncing some of the chemical names, including imidacloprid and clothianidin. I asked several professors about it and, predictably, was given different interpretations. But the very best advice was this: “Decide on a pronunciation and stick with it. Practice it over and over, and when you say it aloud, say it with authority.” In other words, if you’re going to be wrong, be powerfully wrong. Confidently wrong. Make it loud and clear.

I took that advice, practiced a lot, and when the time came, those words slid easily off my tongue. I learned from listening to other presenters that the only ones who sounded insecure were the ones who tripped over their words. When someone can’t say a word, you start to wonder if they understand it. Long story short: to be believed you need to pronounce the unpronounceable with conviction.

The language of biology

In the past few years I’ve applied this technique to bee genera as well. During my slide presentations, I can now speak fluidly about Triepeolus, Tetraloniella, and Coelioxys. When I begin learning one of these tongue-twisters, I first look for several interpretations, say them aloud, and then pick the version that makes sense to me. And then I practice until it’s mine.

But then there was Varroa

This whole philosophy, however, has failed me with the word “Varroa.” I saw the word in print before I ever heard it, and I defaulted to accenting the second syllable and giving it a long o, like they do on the Macmillan Dictionary site. But I was soon told by others that I was totally off base, and that I should accent the first syllable (more or less) as they do at the Merriam-Webster site.

Once you’ve learned how to say something, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s hard to change. But I practiced and practiced until I thought I had it. But the first time I gave a talk using my new pronunciation, I got strange looks from the audience. I could see the question on their faces, “Does she even know what she’s talking about?” The self-consciousness made it worse, and I started switching back and forth, almost as if I were talking about two different creatures. The memory of that session still keeps me awake at night.

A barrow of Varroa

But the next group I spoke to was even worse. When the person introducing me mentioned my topic, she said only two of the three syllables in Varroa, as if it rhymed with “barrow,” just like they do at Pronunciation Guide on Youtube. This reminded me of British English, where you might use 15 letters in a word but only pronounce half of them. I never understood why they waste so many letters over there.

I’ve decided that the pronunciation of Varroa has a regional aspect to it. When new club members learn it from old club members, the pronunciation seems to stick, at least until they go somewhere else and get embarrassed. Then they just shorten it to “mites.” If you’re talking about honey bees, plain old “mites” works pretty well these days since tracheal mites seem to be on the wane.

Even the namers can get it wrong

The entire subject of Varroa pronunciation was reawakened in me last week by Kirsten Traynor. In her most recent newsletter, Kirsten mentioned that the narrator in a Bayer video pronounced Varroa in an odd way. But when I listened, it didn’t seem odd to me at all, which caused me to fret all over again. I want to ask the person who named Varroa, “What were you thinking?”

But the idea of asking the namer brings me to another story. My father was a pharmaceutical researcher and worked on the development of a drug called Coricidin. When they named it, they pronounced the third syllable “ci” as “sigh,” with a long i sound. But when the drug became popular, the public pronounced that syllable like “see,” with a long e sound. After many years, the company gave up and decided to go with the flow. They finally changed their advertisements to align with the way the public said it instead of the way it was named.

I think the same thing will happen with Varroa. At some point, when enough people are saying it, we will meet in the middle, and the pronunciation will become standard. In the meantime, I’ve pretty much given up talking about Varroa. One way or the other, they cause far too much trouble.

Honey Bee Suite


Varroa destructor: hard to pronounce but nearly impossible to control. Wikimedia public domain photo.

Bee with me . . .

By the way, if you haven’t yet signed up for Kirsten Traynor’s newsletter, the FreeBee, now is the time. Kirsten’s philosophy aligns perfectly with my mission here at Honey Bee Suite, centering on science-based issues that affect honey bees, wild bees, and other pollinators. The FreeBee has quickly become my favorite source of bee-related news. Try it and see for yourself.


Note: Because I still haven’t figured it out, you may have to click on “No Comments” to see the comments. Or better yet, you could tell me how to fix this irritating turn of events.



  • I had to listen to the video just to hear how it was said. And yeah, it rang odd and almost awkward each time he said it. He’s saying it Verroa, not Varroa. I’m so used to hearing & saying it Vah-ROH-ah, then when I hear it said differently, I have the same reaction. So then I started google-searching how it’s said. And a Youtube hit sounded like it was completely leaving the ‘a’ character off the end which sounded…well just horrible as compared to how I’ve learned it. Regardless how people want to pronounce it, I usually get what they are talking about even if I do chuckle to myself when I hear words said differently than I’m used to.

  • Thx for providing the options. I’ll try to go with the Oxford English Dictionary, which agrees with the “barrow” homophone. But I sense the cresting wave of colloquial about to collapse over me.

    BTW, I want you to know how much I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful postings. Hugs.

  • I’ve heard ‘larvae’ & ‘pupae’ pronounced as ‘lar-vi’ & ‘pu-pi’ (rhyming with pie) rather than ‘lar-vee’ & ‘pu-pee’.

  • Hi, Rusty –
    I was taught that scientific names were always to be pronounced according to modern “ecclesiastical” Latin, as opposed to “classical” Latin, which went out of favor in the third century. In ecclesiastical Latin, every vowel, consonant and dipthong is pronounced separately. There are as many syllables in a word as vowels or dipthongs. In a two syllable word, accent is always on the first syllable. For longer words, the accent should be on the second-to-last vowel if a long vowel, or the third-to-last if the second-to-last should be a short vowel. So using those rules, Varroa would be pronounced: “vahr-RO-ah”.

    • Ralph,

      What I don’t know about ecclesiastical Latin would fill many large volumes, but you came to the right conclusion, I think.

  • “British English” – that’s like saying English Cheddar, or French Champagne, or Scottish Scotch whiskey.

    Made me smile – it’s almost like America has claimed rights to the language when, despite using too many letters it’s still the original and best?

    • David,

      Hmm. Okay, I see your point. But in my defense (defence to you?) I also use the phrase “American English” and my favo(u)rite usage manual is Garner’s Modern American Usage. I could say I speak American but that’s a little like saying someone speaks Mexican. Bear in mind, I like to rib my English and Canadian friends whenever I get a chance. After all, half my family is from Cornwall and my husband and his family (and my daughter) are Canadian. Eh?

  • Here in Kaintuck it’s van-ROH-ah, just like Chris pronounces it above, or you’re just not from this neck of the woods! Dern furriners!

  • I enjoyed reading this item all the way! And I do understand all these struggles with pronounciation and accents. It’s not simple, indeed……….

    First of all one has to overcome all the differences in pronounciation and accent between one’s mothertongue (in Rusty’s case an Anglo-Saxon language) and the Latin name Varroa is given in (a Roman language).

    These differences in pronounciation and accents will always keep giving problems. What is quite normal as all your mouth muscles, your tongue muscles, your larynx muscles and your vocal cord muscles are perfectly trained to serve your mothertongue as very first. That is why speaking and assimilate a new language is a hard thing. Even when this ‘new language’ is a nearby dialect in your mothertongue!

    But on the other hand there’s also some good news………

    I live in a very, very small country in which 3 different languages (Dutch, French and German) and at least 11 regional dialects are spoken. Within each dialect you will even find local differences and sub-local differences. So when it comes to accents and pronounciation one can no longer see (and hear) the wood for the trees.

    However……..and in spite of all the previous, the word Varroa is always understood, whatever your language, your dialect or your sub-dialect, unless one is not familiar with the subject beekeeping.

  • Off base for bees but your mention of Coricidin and the change to pronunciation brought to mind the car company Hyundai.

    In Korea the name of the company is 현대 , pronounced “Hyun-Day” just as it is spelled with the y sound audible. It means “Modern”, a good name for a car company.

    In America, it was decided by the company to pronounce it as if it was 헌데, pronounced “Hun-Day” without the y sound. They must have felt that Americans couldn’t have an H followed by a Y and pronounce it.

    The problem is that the new word means “Tumor” in Korean. Not a good name for a car company!!

  • Rusty
    I am English and intrigued by your statement: “This reminded me of British English, where you might use 15 letters in a word but only pronounce half of them. I never understood why they waste so many letters over there.” 15 letter words are rare enough – but those with only half pronounced would be choice indeed. Can you give an example?

    • It’s a private joke between me an some of my UK readers/relatives. Don’t take it too seriously. I realize many don’t understand my sense of humor, in which case there are hundreds of bee blogs to choose from.

      • I don’t think it would apply to every English accent – but RP speakers, at least, tend to elide quite a few syllables a lot of the time. So, for instance, “awfully” becomes “all-flee”, “settl(e)-ing” becomes “setling”.

        I think it is at least partly because we typically talk quite fast.

        I understood instantly – and I thought it was hiliarious, so it passed with me as holding the rule that a joke is not offensive if the people it’s aimed at thinks it’s funny! Though I think it is true that in literal terms, most fifteen letter words are borrowed from Latin or something, and don’t get treated like that.

        “Loughborough” is fun. It is a place in the Midlands. Trying to get to its railway station from the North, I had to write it down to be understood. It’s pronounced “Luff-brah”. In the mid-South of England, where I grew up, the same combination of letters would be “Low-bur-ra.”

        Do you know “My Fair Lady,” where the crusty old English Professor (or something) sings of a cockney girl, “By right she should be taken out and hung, for cold blooded murder of the English tongue…”? Not sure who gets to apply that to whom, nowadays… 🙂

        • I loved “My Fair Lady” as a kid and memorized every song. As for town names in England, I always wonder why they waste so many letters. Surely, if they’re not going to pronounce them, the letters could be used for something else.

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