What’s a bug?

May 11, 2011 • 7:38 pm

A few days ago I used the term “true bug” when referring to a specific order of insects. This engendered some confusion, as a few people didn’t know the difference between “bugs” in common parlance and “true bugs” in scientific parlance.

You will want to know the difference, and Alex Wild explains at Myrmecos:

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 . . .

Go to his website to see.

43 thoughts on “What’s a bug?

  1. Forgiven, by A. A. Milne

    I found a little beetle; so that Beetle was his name,
    And I called him Alexander and he answered just the same.
    I put him in a match-box, and I kept him all the day …
    And Nanny let my beetle out —
    Yes, Nanny let my beetle out —
    She went and let my beetle out —
    And Beetle ran away.

    She said she didn’t mean it, and I never said she did,
    She said she wanted matches and she just took off the lid,
    She said that she was sorry, but it’s difficult to catch
    An excited sort of beetle you’ve mistaken for a match.

    She said that she was sorry, and I really mustn’t mind,
    As there’s lots and lots of beetles which she’s certain we could find,
    If we looked about the garden for the holes where beetles hid —
    And we’d get another match-box and write BEETLE on the lid.

    We went to all the places which a beetle might be near,
    And we made the sort of noises which a beetle likes to hear,
    And I saw a kind of something, and I gave a sort of shout:
    “A beetle-house and Alexander Beetle coming out!”

    It was Alexander Beetle I’m as certain as can be,
    And he had a sort of look as if he thought it must be Me,
    And he had a sort of look as if he thought he ought to say:
    “I’m very very sorry that I tried to run away.”

    And Nanny’s very sorry too for you-know-what-she-did,
    And she’s writing ALEXANDER very blackly on the lid,
    So Nan and Me are friends, because it’s difficult to catch
    An excited Alexander you’ve mistaken for a match.

  2. Obviously, a bug is a misdesigned aspect of a computer program.

    Back in Australia, where I grew up, “bug” referred only to specific kinds of insects, though I was never sure which. It was a surprise to me, when I came to USA, to hear the term “bug” applied to insects in general (and perhaps spiders, millipedes, etc).

    1. Ah, but a “true bug” is a misdesigned aspect of a computer program that only shows up for the first time when the customer is watching.

    2. I have a policy that I do not willingly share my interior living space with any creature which is big enough to see and which has a natural complement of legs which is less than two or more than four (and if they have four, I much prefer it if they say “meow”).

      1. I once tried to make an arrangement with a largish spider, that insisted on living in … my bed!
        I patiently explained, that if it as much as touched my mattress, it would die. If it turned around and walked away I’d gladly share my bedroom – but NOT the bed. It seemed to think about the alternatives (stopped 50 cm’s from my bed for five minutes) but then proceeded on it’s way into my bed. It died.

  3. I’m a student working on a thesis, and I tend to stay up late at night writing. At a (for me) ungodly hour of the morning the other day, a representative from a local pest control company rang my bell. What did they want? Why, to offer me a $60-off coupon on regular service, promising to rid me of every “pest” within 30 feet of my home. I thought of the spiders that faithfully catch mosquitoes, the carpenter bees that pollinate my citrus trees, and the occasional beetle that finds it’s way into the house and gives the cats such joy, and gave them a polite “no thanks”. I should’ve given them a piece of my mind, but it was too early in my morning.

    1. Yes – it is one thing to deal with an infestation, quite another to randomly kill – a human trait, alas.

    2. I had to re-roof a toolshed due to carpenter bees. It’s really quite amazing what they can do to a 2×4 in a decade or two.

  4. I like Alex’s explanation.
    Common names are truly colloquialisms.

    With plants, we have Geraniums in the US that are really Pelargoniums not true Geraniums. Or maybe the “annual”(in temperate climates) Vinca that’s really Catharanthus and not true Vinca. I could come up with dozens.

    It’s always simplest to use the accepted scientific name. Of course, even those get disputed from time to time… whatever happened to Dendranthema?

    1. I have in our library, what I thought was a geranium, but then discovered it is a pelargonium, but it has never flowered in 8 years. Takes a lot of abuse – a dry pot quite often – but still thrives vegetatively. Oh sorry Lynn – for a moment I thought this was ‘Gardener’s Question Time’!

    2. Common names can get dreadfully confusing–even more so if you’re trying to sort out colloquialisms in more than one language. I thought the Wagtails (Motacilla alba/grandis/cinerea…) would be the death of me. Not to mention the Azaleas… which are really rhododendrons, which… gah!

  5. Hardly anyone around these parts talks about plain bugs anymore. All they talk about is stinkbugs, specifically the brown marmorated kind.

      1. A: An entomologist studies bugs. An etymologist is someone who can tell you the difference between an entomologist and an etymologist.

          1. An etymologically versed entomologist will tell you that the word bug appeared in the 1620s (earliest reference is to bedbugs), probably from M.E. bugge “something frightening, scarecrow” (late 14c.), a meaning obsolete except in bugbear (1570s) and bugaboo (q.v.);

            The bystanding entomologically inclined etymologist might add that beetle on the other hand probably originated from O.E. bitela, lit. “little biter,” from bitel “biting,” related to bitan “to bite” (see bite).

          1. I think all of those would be able to explain the difference, but the riddle hinges on the similarity between the two words (unless, of course, it is your claim that an etymologist wouldn’t know what an entomologist is, or you deconstruct all attempts at humor that come your way).

            What is the difference between a cheetah and a cheater?

            1. A cheetah hunts impalas in the savannah. A cheater buys them at the grocer when noone’s looking.

  6. Swedish words equivalent to “bug” are “kryp” and “småkryp”. Literally crawlies and small-crawlies. So yeah.
    Insect is insekt. Beetle is bagge or skalbagge. If you mean hemiptera, it might be best to say that, though I think they are also commonly called “halvvingar”.

  7. I thought everybody knew that the True Bugs are exclusively members of the Order Homopt…no, Hemopt…Hemapter…Homiptera, NO Hemoptera.
    something like that.
    I thought everybody knew.

    1. I go to school with people who’ve supposedly studied human anatomy and biology but don’t know the difference between collagen and keratin, they think collagen is what makes up human hairs and nails and keratin is found in carrots.

  8. I can arrive in any country, find a local entomologist, ask for a hemipteran, and I’d know what to expect.

    Unlike arriving anywhere in the universe and asking for a gin and tonic.

  9. “True bug” is a well-established solution to any potential confusion caused by “bug.”

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