What’s a Bug?

An issue that invariably surfaces when entomologists interact with non-entomologists is the “bug problem“.

I don’t mean pest infestation troubles. Rather, I mean that entomologists use a different definition of the word “bug” than the general English-speaking populace, with confusing results.

To most people, a “bug” is any small crawly animal. Like a spider, or a centipede, or maybe a chihuahua. To an entomologist, a “bug” is specifically a member of a particular lineage of insects, the Hemiptera. A cockroach is not a Hemipteran, so it can’t be bug. Neither is a beetle, or a spider.

I bring this up because of a comment over at Jerry Coyne’s blog:

In ordinary usage, “bug” applies not just to insects but to arthropods of all kinds, including lobsters and crawfish.

If the argument is that the technical meaning came first, and only later did the word come into popular usage, I don’t think that’s the case. According to Wiktionary, “bug” derives from “bugge” meaning “beetle”, at least a century before Linnaeus.

I suppose on some level scientists are entitled to assign narrow technical meaning to common words. But if such assignments needlessly defy common sense (as in the assertion that cockroaches are not bugs), doesn’t that tend to undermine public trust in science?

(Gregory Kusnick)

Is my restricted use of “bug” against common sense?

Well, no. It’s the most natural thing ever. For me, and for other entomologists. That entomologists narrowly circumscribe the word isn’t a problem per se. Rather, it is indicative of the fact that we buggy folks in our little buggy subculture have a different notion of what is and isn’t common sense. This is trivially true of any specialized field. I’m pretty sure a quantum physicist holds ideas as “common sense” that are simply loony.

Common sense is objectively meaningless, anyway. The better issue is whether “bug” should be considered a technical term.

And I unequivocally think it should not. “Bug” is a common name. What’s more, it is a common name for both the lay public and for insect specialists. That it refers to different organisms in the two cultural contexts does not change the fact that it is vernacular in both spheres.

Common names are particular to individual cultures and local contexts. That is their point. The beauty of common names is their fluidity. They are dynamic, ever-changing, adaptable. Vocabularies arise to suit people’s needs. Entomologists find a narrow meaning for Bug useful. Non-entomologists don’t. And that is fine.

What’s spectacularly unnecessary about the bug debate is that we’ve already got a standardized international entomological lexicon. Researchers the world over, speaking hundreds of different native tongues, all use the technical term “Hemiptera” to refer to the same group of insects. Scientific nomenclature- though perhaps unappreciated-  is one of the triumphs of the Enlightenment. I can arrive in any country, find a local entomologist, ask for a hemipteran, and I’d know what to expect.

So I don’t have a problem with people loosely throwing about the term “bug”. That’s what it’s for, after all. If there’s a need to be technical, well, we’ve got Hemiptera.

48 thoughts on “What’s a Bug?”

  1. Pingback: What’s a bug? « Why Evolution Is True

  2. This seems to mirror the debate about a tomato being a fruit or a vegetable. It’s all about context.

    1. Mrs. Myrmecos- an Australian- routinely refers to objects and/or people as “thingo”, which is a level of linguistic ambiguity above even finding a bug on your vegetables.

      I guess I’m saying, it could be worse.

    2. Here in Italy I had a similar discussion about Opiliones: they are considered spiders as well by common people, considering the term spider more or less as a synonim of most Arachnida… and this sounds almost offensive to arachnologists, that always correct replaying that only Araneae are spiders…(and opilions are not opinions! 🙂 ).
      And why The Beatles are not The Beetles?

  3. So, when I crawl into bed and encounter a Hemiptera or Periplaneta or whatever, it’s OK if I say “Get thee gone bug”, and then go and get the Raid.

  4. Pingback: What’s a Bug? | Mark Solock Blog

  5. Hamish: “Everyone knows all Bugs have a proboscis, like suckin’ throogh a wee straw.”

    MacGregor: “Aye? And what about the Scottish Wood Ant then? He’ll be having mandibles for something more than a liquid diet.”

    Hamish: “Well, your Scottish Wood Ant is no true Bug!”

    — The No True Bug Fallacy

  6. I can see your point about the technical terms, but I think we should reserve certain common names for their Orders and educate the public better in their usage. If a non-entomologist tells me they have ants in their kitchen, I can be reasonably confident they are not describing butterflies, beetles, bees, flies or dragonflies for that matter (although we could surely find mimics that would fool all but the most devoted entomophiles.)

    I usually explain the difference along those lines and further define Hemiptera as “true” bugs in equivalent status with the other aforementioned common groupings with which any member of the public is comfortable. I view it as a chance to educate people about “my” group of insects. A cockroach isn’t a bug anymore than it’s a grasshopper, so I disagree with it being too confusing or “undermining the public trust.”

  7. Though not entirely the same, this reminds me of the problem many non paleontologists have with a monophyletic Dinosauria. I’m biased, but I’m convinced that one does make good sense and is not just a matter of pedantry, however, if one thinks it through. (Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx are so much more similar to one another than to Triceratops that if both Anchiornis and Triceratops are in the same group, Archaeopteryx must be part of that group, too.)

  8. Gregory Kusnick

    I suppose I’d better weigh in here since I’m the one who started the ruckus.

    I largely agree with the perspective offered by Alex that entomologists already have a perfectly good, unambiguous technical term for the so-called “true bugs”, one that does not require scare-quotes: Hemiptera. So trying to convince people that bug should be widely accepted as a synonym for hemipteran seems unnecessary as well as ultimately futile.

    Regarding Jesse’s point about ants, grasshoppers, etc: It seems to me the difference is that what we might call the folk-entomological meanings of those words happen to correspond closely to the technical meanings. Specialists and non-specialists can agree on what an ant is (or isn’t) because they’re using similar criteria to make those distinctions.

    The same does not seem to be true for bugs. Cheesy sci-fi flicks feature bug-eyed creepy-crawlies, not bug-mouthed piercy-suckies. Mouthparts are largely irrelevant to folk entomology; most people never get close enough to see the mouthparts. It’s the legs and eyes that make an impression. By those criteria, there is no clear distinction between near-bugs and “true” bugs; they’re all one category, which (at least where I come from) we call bugs. Not because we’re ignorant and don’t understand the technical meaning of the word “bug”, but because we’re using ordinary language to do folk taxonomy, as people have done since the invention of language.

    That’s my take on it anyway. Thanks for sharing yours.

    1. I think what non-entomologists want is a short, punchy generic name for arthropods in general, and most people use “bug” for this. Is there an “entomologist’s common name” for general arthropods? One that people in general would recognize as meaning the same as the common usage for “bug”?

  9. Well, I agree with A. Wild, mainly because one of the etymological meanings of bug is beetle [principle of priority 😉 ], and we have scientific names to use when we need accuracy, since the common name varies with the cultures (as well pointed in the text).

  10. James.C. Trager

    But one must be careful about Wictionary, since the etymologists themselves may not have known whereof they wrote. My Oxford Universal English Dictionary more plausibly lists the oldest known use of bug in 1622 in the meaning of bedbug = Cimex, which is both ancient and biological Latin for bedbug, a true bug – thus perhaps the truest bug of all!

    I find it interesting that a widely and also loosely used term for (mostly true) bugs in Spanish is chinche, which is the direct etymological descendent of Latin Cimex.

    1. I believe the word has its origins in a Middle English root meaning, roughly, ‘ghost’ or ‘goblin.’ This was a reference to the fact that bedbug bites would appear overnight with no apparent source – except of course the supernatural.

      1. Well it may go back a good bit further. Over at Jerry Coyne’s blog that started this thread, one commentator notes that the Swedish word for beetle is “bagge”, which seems highly likely to be a cognate. Since the Old Norse part of the ancestry of both English and Swedish goes back considerably earlier than Middle English, it would appear that this could be an old North Germanic term for a bug or beetle (or generic for both).

        On the other hand, there are the bug of “bugaboo”, and of “that bugs me” (in the ghost or goblin sense, at least mildly), an example of the common “inadequacy” of natural languages to come up with a separate term for every thing and concept about which people speak.

        Going way off on a tangent, I would note that there have been attempts to create artificial languages that had a separate and supposedly unambiguous term for every possible concept. Needless to say, they never caught on. People like the ease of expression, double entendre, punnery, etc. that natural language affords them.

  11. I think “Bug” is perfectly fine as a catch-all for creepy crawlies. If one wants to get specific, specify that it’s an insect and what order it’s part of. Of course, I’m jsut a layman. “True bugs” will be fine if hemiptera is too difficult.

  12. This post has inspired me to compose a bumper sticker for my blog:

    The Home Bug Garden: it’s not just about the Hemiptera!

    I hope all entomologists realise that their restricted use of ‘bug’ for hemipterons is jargon and that others have the right to use to ‘bug’ in the general sense. ‘Fly’ also incurs the same special/general dichotomy. I prefer to use ‘true bug’ when being technical, likewise with sawfly etc.

    James – didn’t Aristotle or Pliny use Coris (to bite) for bed bugs? I used to teach that coriander got its name from its similar smell to bed bugs and I hope I wasn’t telling stories.

      1. Yes, coris is Greek, but adapted into Latin as in Coriandrum sativum. I’m surprised the Romans, gormless hellonophiles that they were, didn’t adopt coris for bed bug. I wonder if coris became the root for Corixidae? In any case, google finds lots of theories that sound suspect and derive coriander from the Greek koriannon, koros, koris, and coris – all alleged to be Greek for bed bug.

        Based on my experience cooking, the seeds of coriander are citrusy, but the leaves (which we called cilantro in Oz) have that buggy smell. I’ve seen some sites that claim maybe coriander seeds look like bed bugs, but that is BS. I’m not all that anxious to confirm the leaf-smell relationship theory personally though.

  13. I agree with Alex that vernacular is not under scientists’ control no matter how winsome other viewpoints may be.

    As said in the “Twilight Zone” :
    “We control the horizontal. We control the vertical.”,
    and you scientists control perhaps only the technical terms of your art, (with a tailwind).

    Any other desires are ultimately futile. This reminds me of the fight over the common terms Larva vs Nymph vs Naiad used to differentiate Hemimetabolism vs Holometabolism

  14. I would say that the biggest problem with the use of “bug” is when a entomologist wants to talk to a layperson about hemipterans. Since the word “hemiptera” most likely is not a familiar word for most people, the word “bug” and “true bug” has to be used instead. I can see this creating problem for example when journalists writes articles and shortens “true bugs” into “bugs” etc.
    In the other situations it should always be obvious what the word “bug” refers to:
    layperson to layperson: Bug = Arthropoda (or disease, depending on context)
    layperson to entomologist: Bug = Most likely Arthropoda
    entomologist to entomologist: Just use hemiptera instead 😉

    I just realised how fortunate we are in Sweden, since we dont really have a common name equivalent of “bug”, it forces people to try and figure out what kind of creepy-crawly they are talking about when referring to small animals.
    Although they can ofcourse use the word “insekt” but that is scientifically correct, as most people knows that it only refers to the 6-legged kind of arthropoda.

  15. Gregory Kusnick

    Might I suggest “sucking bugs” or something along those lines as an alternative to “true bugs” when an entomologist wants to address a non-specialist audience? This makes it clear that you’re talking about a specific subset of what most people think of as “bugs”, without the unfortunate “ur doin it rong” connotation of “true bugs”.

    1. there is nothing wrong with Hemiptera but many orders of insects contain members with sucking mouthparts, eg Diptera (mosquitoes, many others), butterflies, moths, bees, beetle larvae, etc etc

      if you wish to continue with such an absurd effort, why not called them rostrum-beaked insects with gradual metamorphosis, and mostly sometimes half-leathery-winged.


  16. I struggle with this when I teach entomology to undergrads who have little or no experience with insects, beyond freaking out when an insect approaches them. I have found that trying to incorporate “bug,” as an entomologist would use it, into regular usage is only confusing. I stick to “Hemiptera” (and other Order, Family and Genus names) for describing and identifying insects specifically and let the students use the term “bug” as they choose, in a most general sense.

  17. When I started my bug blog I realized that the general term ‘bug’ would drive some people buggy….so included a disclaimer on my About page!

    Here in Alberta the entomologists and non-professional participants on the AlbertaBug’s list (a general email-based forum for general arthropod info.) call themselves “Bugsters”, a phrase that I think was first coined by John Acorn.

  18. I think I generally stick with the public on this, and say “bug” to mean almost any arthropod, and “true bug” if I’m explaining the distinction to someone.

    1. ^ Then again, I’m not an expert or a professional, just a fan, and Hemipterans are not my main point of interest.

  19. In German, like in Swedish, we have as a general term Insekt, and for the orders Kaefer (Coleoptera), and Wanze (Hemiptera). Both made it into old folksongs and are generally part of the common vocabulary. It seems that nowhere in the world the tendency of a large part of the population to reject knowledge about insects is as strong as in the US. Not having (or using) clearly identifying words maybe the reason or the consequence – I don’t quite know what the hen or the egg is in this one)
    I am a biologist and a watercolor painter. I sell, among my other paintings, some insect art at street fairs. So I get drawn into conversations about ‘bugs’ all the time. The newest word that I notice a lot lately from people who are trying to be a little more knowledgable or less flippant is ‘beetle bug’. I also see it as a search term that leads to my blog ….I had actually planned a blog chapter about it, but Alex beat me to it.

  20. I appreciate the comments made and believe mostly it is a matter of context and being willing to converse to clarity if necessary.

    I do many public presentations on ecology, insects, soil arthropods, and ants. I have never had any trouble using common words in a more specific, technical sense nor in using the more technical jargon like Hemiptera, etc. In fact, I easily teach these audiences the specific (genus and species epithet) of some of these organisms as well. I even tell them that the ants I study in the genus Pogonomyrmex are “pogos” to the ones in the know. My impression is that these audiences, as well as my students (even my Human Anatomy and Physiology students), like learning these terms and knowing what they mean. After all, knowledge is power as well as the sign of an education.

    But I also get a bit annoyed, especially with non-experts, who make such a big deal conerning common names such as starfish, which now we are supposed to call sea stars since these are not fish (although they are in the most general sense) and red cedar since this tree is in the genus Juniperus. However, I must admit, that I was very confused by the use of the word scorpion in the mountains of Virginia to refer to a lizard and by folks in Texas calling the horned lizard a frog or toad. The people I have known who make these objections to common names do not know the evolution or phylogeny and aren’t speaking of these organisms in that kind of context, rather they seem to want be right and correct others. If it’s that big a deal, don’t change the common names, just use the scientific ones.

  21. As a researcher of true bugs (belostomatids, baby!), I honestly don’t care whether people use the term bug as I would or not. Sometimes I’ll take the opportunity to explain what makes a hemipteran different from other “bugs,” but only if I think the person I’m imparting this knowledge to is receptive to it. People are going to use the words they want to use and they’re just going to get annoyed at me if I start correcting them. Besides, when it comes down to it, I use the terms insect and bug interchangeably myself. If I don’t make a distinction, why should I expect anyone else to? (Though I do draw the line with “bug” toys that involve reptiles and rodents… Why? Why?!! They’re not even invertebrates!)

    Adrian – I explained my similar use of the word bug on my blog too, but I wrote a whole post about it. Funny how we feel the need to explain ourselves!

  22. Completely agree. I decided my casual use of the term “bug” for most terrestrial arthropods was okay since my entomologist friend ALSO uses that term that way much of the time (I’m pretty much layperson from his specialized perspective). But of course, he knows the diff. btwn. hemipterans and non-hemipterans. I have explained how I’m using it in my blog, for folks who don’t know. I’d never use it to include lobsters, but as you say, it’s basically colloquial, and adapted to suit whomever.

    And folks’ arguments re: what is a fruit and what is a vegetable is, from a botanical point of view, silly. Much of vegetables are technically fruits, and some veggies are stems, corms, and peanuts are root nodules, if I’m not mistaken, not a seed (i.e. “nut”). =)

    So much of it’s casual, and that’s fine, but as you say, the beauty of scientific nomenclature is that I can watch a presentation that’s entirely in Japanese (which I don’t understand) but if they show “Dudleya pulverulenta” I know they’re talking about one of my favorite plants on the planet, and I will perk up. =)

  23. Justin Bastow

    This is why I prefer the more anatomically descriptive and equally unintimidating term “suckers” for members of the Hemiptera. Bed suckers, stink suckers, assassin suckers, kissing suckers, etc.

  24. can any body help me…???
    please give me some ideas about following project.
    Research area: Signal transduction in insect blood cells.

    We are determining the types of receptors on insect blood cells (hemocytes) that bind to specified antigens from Gram- positive and -negative bacteria and the mechanisms by which this binding triggers immediate innate antibacterial responses. The insects used are the economic pests Galleria mellonella (the greater wax moth) and Malacosoma disstria (the forest tent caterpillar). The bacteria studied are Xenorhabdus nematophila, Photorhabdus spp and Bacillus subtilis (a non pathogen). The former two bacteria are virulent insect pathogens that are symbionts of the insect pathogenic nematodes Steinernema carpocapsae and Heterorhabditis spp.

  25. Alex,

    I had been wondering if entomologists worldwide used “bug” for hemipterans, or only English-speaking ones. From some of the comments, it appears to be merely an Anglo/American usage.

  26. Pingback: Sunday Night Movie: the Ant Assassin – MYRMECOS - Insect Photography - Insect Pictures

    1. I’ve come up blank, too. Schuh’s “True Bugs of the World” doesn’t list the etymology. The earliest reference I could find where bug = Hemiptera is Saunders (1892), but that’s clearly not the origin.

  27. Here’s my bug problem. When I took gen ent in 2000, there were Hemiptera and Homoptera. Hemiptera were the “true bugs.” Now, what was Hemiptera is Heteroptera and Hemiptera is what was Homoptera+Hemiptera. But the designation “true bug” did not stick with the designated organisms- it followed the name Hemiptera down the tree. Am I the only one who doesn’t like this?
    Anyway, I call Plasmodium and Giardia bugs, and I ain’t stopping.

    1. So what you are saying is that the alleged trueness of bugs is defined by their trait of being called Hemiptera? What a very useful and rational term. /rolleyes

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  30. Bugs = any crawling beastie is largely American, so references to “most people” should read “most Americans”. I don’t know where Canadians fall but in other English speaking countries, you may not know your true bugs from beetles but they are all “creepy crawlies”.

    However we all agree on usage of bug for tiny creatures causing illness (e.g. tummy bug) and computer glitches.

    Steve Lew – the order Hemiptera (true bugs) used to contain 2 sub-orders, Homoptera (cicada, leaf hoppers, aphids etc.) and Heteroptera (shield bugs, assassin bugs and kissing bugs etc.). Of vcourse things change and Heteroptera has disappeared to be replaced by 3 new sub-orders.

  31. Scientists have their own words. It is arrogant to co-opt the popular lexicon. When someone tells me a lady bug is not a bug, I roll my eyes and point out that they often aren’t ladies.

  32. Pingback: The Ladybird lifecycle in Photos – A View Into My Universe

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