Science & Environment

From Beyonce to Electra: What inspires insect names?

Scaptia beyonceae
Image caption This fly was named after the frequently golden-clad singer Beyonce

Taxonomy is the foundation stone of science and the system we use to categorise our complex natural world. Around one million insect species have been named and described to date.

But there are an estimated 8-10 million living insect species on Earth, meaning new species are being discovered on a daily basis.

Scientists who study insects, called entomologists, are coming up with ever more imaginative names, referencing everything from musicians to childish jokes, to meet the demand.

Early humans needed to name the things around them so they knew what was dangerous and inedible. This expertise is a fundamental process of the human brain and arguably how we have survived as a species.

It wasn't until the 18th century when the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus created the binomial system of nomenclature that we use today. The official start date for modern entomological taxonomy is based on Linnaeus' tenth edition of his work Systema Naturae published in 1758.

Linnaeus' hierarchical system means that species can be identified in around six steps, from kingdom right down to species.

The majority of insect names refer to their appearance, behaviour or the place in which they are found. As you'd expect Titanus giganteus is a large beetle and a species with the name hawaiiensis is predictably found on Hawaii.

It is seen as pretty egotistical for an entomologist to name an insect after themselves, but having a species named after you by someone else is regarded as an honour. The name has the potential to live on after the person it is named after, and perhaps even long after the species itself becomes extinct.

Historical roll

Some names are chosen to educate a younger audience on the joys of taxonomy. For example, in 2012 Bryan Lessard from the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra named a rare Australian horse fly with a bright golden behind Scaptia beyonceae after the singer Beyoncé.

Image caption Republican scientists named new species after President Bush, his Vice-President and Defence Secretary

More often than not, insects with the jazziest names are small and nondescript. American entomologist Quentin Wheeler received a phone call from the US President after he named a trio of beetles Agathidium bushi, Agathidium cheneyi and Agathidium rumsfeldi in a 2005 report.

Many of his colleagues believed it was a jab at the Bush administration, but Quentin and his co-author Kelly B Miller are both Republicans and say they named the beetles in honour of the President, the Vice-President and the Defence Secretary.

But as Max Barclay the curator of beetles and true bugs at the Natural History Museum points out: "It is grossly unwise to name things after politicians because you don't know what they're going to do and the name is going to last forever, and your name is going to be associated with that name forever."

One of the most infamous examples of this is a tiny blind orange beetle called Anophthalmus hitleri. Found in only a few caves in Slovenia, it was named in honour of the Nazi leader in 1936 by Oscar Scheibel.

Some of the more inoffensive names are best when read out loud. In 1904 British entomologist George Willis Kirkaldy gave a series of true bugs the suffix -chisme, meaning "news" but pronounced "kiss me". Starting with polychisme (Polly kiss me), he went on to name dolichisme (Dolly kiss me), ochisme (Oh kiss me), and many more, seemingly after his romantic conquests. Kirkaldy was post-humorously criticised for frivolity by the London Zoological Society in 1912.

Senior entomologist at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii, Neal Evenhuis, carried on Kirkaldy's work in 2002 by naming a fossil fly Carmenelectra shechisme after the actress, Carmen Electra.

He's also behind other funny names including Pieza rhea (Pizzeria), Pieza pi (Pizza Pie), Pieza kake (Piece of cake) and not forgetting Pieza deresistans (Pièce de résistance).

Set in stone

Scientific names are hard to change once decided upon. There are no strict rules on who or what you can name your insect discoveries after, but rather a series of recommendations laid out by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. The ICZN are currently working together with scientists from all around the world to create a comprehensive online record of every living species on earth called ZooBank.

Image caption A fossil fly bears the name Carmenelectra shechisme

Common names can be equally important in educating the general public with generic names like leaf insects performing similar descriptive functions to scientific ones. However, problems can arise when many insects are grouped under one common name as London Zoo found out when the species of hissing cockroaches they were working to conserve, turned out to be the wrong one.

The error came to light when the Natural History Museum in London carefully inspected the species and discovered the Zoo had Gromphadorhina oblongonata rather than Gromphadorhina portentosa.

In the past, problems with identifying species have arisen from a lack of technology. Nowadays new molecular techniques using DNA sequencing help scientists to look at more than just the physiological aspects of the insect to determine species.

Institutions like the Oxford Museum for Natural History are working to get the next generation involved in taxonomy. "Children love complicated scientific names", says Rachel Parle, Education Officer at the Museum.

"With dinosaurs for example, every child will know a triceratops, a Tyrannosaurus rex, so if they can apply them to learn the equivalent for their favourite bug or an exciting interesting insect that they've just discovered, then all the better."

"Taxonomy is as important now as it ever was," agrees entomology PhD student Jen Banfield-Zanin. She argues that the general public don't see what goes on behind the scenes and that knowing exactly which insects we are dealing with is vitally important.

Identifying specific insects in a particular place means taxonomists can tell what effect climatic fluctuations are having on the habitat.

The hope is that we can name all insect species before they become extinct, but in reality the majority of species on earth will become extinct before we even know they are there.

Listen to The Etymology Of Entomology on BBC Radio 4, which was first broadcast on Saturday 9 March 2013.

Produced by Andrea Rangecroft, presented by George McGavin. A Folded Wing production for BBC Radio 4.