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  • Writer's pictureChelle Hartzer

What do you call that? (AKA: A rose by any other name...)

I was fresh out of college, all proud of my entomology degree, and headed out to Kansas for graduate school. I get there at the beginning of summer and everyone is talking about all the locusts around that area. I, being a super-smart entomology major, have no clue what they are talking about and was feeling not so smart anymore because we don’t have locust in the US, they are native to Africa. Come to find out (after some real discreet asking) they were talking about the annual cicadas that were creating a cacophony of racket outside my tiny little apartment.

Fast forward a couple years, I’m super-smart now because I have a graduate degree in entomology and I move to Florida. Again, I’m quickly feeling not so smart because everyone’s talking about palmetto bugs and I have no idea what a palmetto bug is. Turns out, the Florida folks know how important tourism is and can’t scare those tourist so they rename cockroaches to sound not so scary.

Talk about a cardinal or an African elephant and everyone knows exactly what you are referring to. They can easily picture it in their mind. Insects however, especially some of the more common ones, can go by many regional names. This can make it tricky to diagnose and troubleshoot problems when they arise. When I work with international clients, we almost exclusively use scientific names to avoid any confusion. Here in the US, I get calls from all over the country and in the words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Or to paraphrase: “huh?”.

I had a situation where a site was having problems with what they told me was mosquito hawks. I’ve often heard dragonflies referred to as mosquito hawks because they prey on mosquitoes. They actually use their legs as a little cage and scoop mosquitoes out of the air while in flight! I ask for a picture (of course no picture) and a description (“it's big and it has wings”). After a bit more back and forth (and me again feeling not so smart!), I realize we are dealing with crane flies.

I also run into somewhat of the reverse case. I get plenty of questions on “gnats”. According to the Entomological Society of America, the scientific society that approves common names, there is no such thing as a “gnat”. There are fungus gnats (a family of flies), turkey gnats, a southern buffalo gnat, and a couple of others. However, people will call nearly any type of small flying insect a “gnat”. Makes it a bit tough tough to troubleshoot!

So next time you run into a mystery “bug” that you want some info on, remember a few things:

  • Pictures always help!

  • Be as descriptive as possible.

  • Ask questions to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing.

  • Look up information based on the scientific name of the insect.

Have you heard any interesting regional names for insects? Do you have an insect you want to know more about? Comment below or click here to contact me!

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