When catchy names for insects sting — think ‘Asian giant hornet’

Entomologists push to rename the world’s largest wasp amid conversations about other controversial insect names.

Insects commonly known as Asian giant hornets arranged in rows

Insects commonly known as Asian giant hornets are shown in a display case at the Washington state Department of Agriculture, May 4, 2020, in Olympia. The insect, which has been found in Washington state, is the world's largest hornet and has also been dubbed the "murder hornet" — a reference to its appetite for honey bees and a sting that can be fatal to some people, resulting in controversy. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Akito Kawahara moved from Japan to upstate New York amid an outbreak of Japanese beetles. 

“I remember one time when I was in school, there was this kid who — because I liked insects and stuff — he said something like, ‘So, the Japanese beetle is this beetle that eats crops and devastates our agriculture and stuff; were you the one who brought it over?’ ” says Kawahara, now an associate professor at the University of Florida and curator of butterflies and moths at the Florida Museum of Natural History

The whole experience made him feel bad about being Japanese. 

The names people use for insects, he learned, can affect both insects and people. So his ears perked when a May 2020 article in The New York Times about Vespa mandarinia — the world’s largest wasp species, which is native to Asia — proclaimed that "murder hornets" that ripped heads off of honeybees and could kill people with their venom had been discovered in Washington state.

“Everybody freaked out and was suddenly afraid of insects and that’s the last thing we want … as insects are disappearing around the world,” he says. 

Since then, thousands of Washingtonians have signed up to monitor for hornets, fearing they’ll establish themselves and kill local bees that support pollination. And through it all, there has been an undercurrent of unease about how the names "murder hornet" and even "Asian giant hornet" impact people of Asian descent, especially during the pandemic.

Anh Tran’s neighbors know she’s an entomologist and Asian. When the hornets first made news in the U.S., Tran says, her neighbors “were like, ‘Anh, first COVID, now Asian murder hornets. Like are you trying to kill us? Are you trying to get rid of Americans?’ It's just kind of hurtful.” 

These concerns have prompted discussions within agricultural departments and even the Entomological Society of America, the largest entomological society in the world, about how we talk about insects, and whether it’s too late to change the public perception of V. mandarinia.

What’s in a (common) name? 

It can be tough to keep track of the more than 5 million insect species flying, scurrying and burrowing around the world. Entomologists attempt to standardize our understanding by giving insects scientific names of Latin origin, which researchers around the world rely on. 

“While I think it would be ideal if we all just started using scientific names exclusively, that is not really very realistic and would likely create an even greater divide between the scientific community and the public,” says Floyd Shockley, collections manager in the department of entomology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. That’s what makes common names so important. They’re vehicles for regional public discussion, and framing, of insects affecting our lives. 

The Entomological Society of America attempts to give insects common names, and currently has a few more than 2,000 species logged in its common names database. A common names committee submits names to the society’s 12-person governing board, which approves them for use in materials that guide scientists, media and the public. 

Common names include a few themes beyond geographic origin. The society encourages more descriptive language: color patterns (green-head ant), distinguishing features (long-horn beetle), shape (dragonfly), and even striking behaviors (fireflies and ... stink bugs). 

Most insects don’t have common names in the US until they become visible or important enough to earn a spot in the public consciousness, so when V. mandarinia came into the spotlight — in a big, scary way — there was room to toss around less-than-helpful names.

While Americans’ exposure to V. mandarinia has been limited to videos of "murder hornets" ripping the heads off of live bees, Kawahara’s memories of them are evocative of something softer. When he would collect butterflies as a child in Japan, he would find butterflies, moths and the hornets sipping sap together from trees like patrons of a woodland tavern.

“There's so many other things out there that are far, far worse than a wasp sting,” says Kawahara, who has been stung by V. mandarinia and insects packing more punch. And they can even be healing: Kawahara’s uncle used to put hornets in sake as an immune booster. The name "murder hornet," he says, has been misleading — and dangerous for insects and people. 

This past year, entomologists like Kawahara have seen that people frequently misidentify insects as Asian giant hornets, leading amateurs to kill anything that looks remotely similar. This, and possible increased use of insecticides, results in the inadvertent deaths of beneficial insects that provide pest control, pollination and other activities that support our diets and economies. 

“They don’t murder people! It just makes insects look horrifying, and we really don’t want to do that,” Kawahara says. (Bees that have had their heads ripped off, of course, may beg to differ on whether V. mandarinia is murderous.) 

After The New York Times story was published, Kawahara wrote a piece for The Conversation to help people better understand the insect and encourage them not to call it a “murder hornet.” 

“I regret a little bit writing that article last year and kind of going, ‘Yeah, sure, Asian giant hornet, it’s better than murder hornet,” Kawahara says. And it’s way better than “Asian murder hornet,” an early contender that hit all the wrong notes. 

It’s unclear where the name Asian giant hornet came from. The first-recorded Google Trends search for “asian giant hornet” occurred in July 2005, a few months after V. mandarinia claimed the Guiness World Record for “largest species of wasp”’; and picked up some steam in October 2013 after international news outlets reported on 42 people in northwestern China who died from hornet stings

But even though "Asian giant hornet" is less openly aggressive than "murder hornet," it still stings for many people of Asian descent. "Asian giant hornet" started circulating on the heels of another pejorative nickname for coronavirus: “the Chinese virus.” With bigots committing hate crimes and unfairly implicating people of Asian descent in the spread of the coronavirus, a name as benign as Asian giant hornet takes on a different sheen.

“I mean I know [people are] quote, joking, unquote, but it's not funny. It's hurtful, that's all,” says Tran, who says people have also made comments to her during conferences that she could be considered part of an “invasive species.”

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has used "Asian giant hornet" in its publications. The department’s Karla Salp says the staff has received its share of comments via social media and emails about the appropriateness of the name. “I just know some of the comments are put there to try and stir up a hornet's nest, but there are definitely ones that are genuine that definitely have genuine concerns,” Salp says. 

Science’s history of insensitivity 

Entomology — and any scientific discipline dealing with animals — evolved out of the passions of regular people who happened to like certain animals, “and regular people have flaws,” says Jessica Ware, incoming president and current vice president of the Entomological Society of America.

Scientists also participate in modern society, with its colonialism, racism, sexism and gender biases. And over the years, scientists have described many species with names most people in 2021 now recognize as offensive.

But some offensive names were intended that way. 

“In Germany, they don’t call it the German cockroach,” Ware says; Blattella germanica got its hurtful appellation at a time when Americans were fearful of “invasive” German immigrants. Similarly, the Japanese beetles that caused problems for Kawahara got their common name in the early 20th century amid strong marginalization in America of people of Japanese descent.

The Entomological Society of America has changed insects’ common names before, either because they’re outdated or because taxonomy has changed. And as the entomological and media communities diversify, more people with platforms have become vocal about the ways in which language can hurt. Tran, for instance, is part of the society’s renaming efforts and has taken to social media to explain why seeing government agencies using “Asian giant hornet” is hurtful. 

“We need to make it so that people who are participating in this discipline don't see themselves reflected as a slur describing an invasive insect … and have a seat at the table for decision making,” says Ware, who started a collective called Entomologists of Color last year, and who will be the Entomological Society of America’s first Black female president when she takes office in November. 

In March 2021, the society launched the Better Common Names project, a formal attempt to include the public in conversations evaluating insensitive insect names and offering new guidance around them. The project’s guidelines ban names that refer to ethnic and racial groups, or that may stoke fear or put a damper on someone’s interest in insects. 

Ware says the society is also pushing for common-sense descriptive names. “If you look at a butterfly and it's orange and black spotted, you could call it the orange and black spotted butterfly,” she says.

The society encourages the public to submit candidate species name-change proposals. “If we want to have some kind of movement towards a fair and just society, then science is going to move along with that,” Ware says. 

So far, the Better Common Names project has worked on two species. Lymantria dispar and Aphaenogaster araneoides —popularly known as the gypsy moth and gypsy ant, respectively. They were given society-approved common names as recently as 2006 that are offensive to Romani people, especially since the moth is invasive. 

In June, during U.S. and Canadian “outbreaks” of the moths, the society announced it was removing both common names. The staff hopes to have a new name for L. dispar by late 2021 or early 2022, says the society’s Joe Rominiecki. The society doesn’t have a group actively looking for a new common name for the ant, and it’s possible that it may not choose one. 

What do we call them instead? 

While the society never approved “Asian giant hornet,” V. mandarinia’s unofficial common name makes it “a candidate for revision, for sure … since it's so popular and that name is so commonly used,” Ware says. 

For his part, Kawahara thinks a more appropriate way to refer to the hornets is sparrow hornet — the approximate English translation of the hornet’s Japanese name, which uses a similarly sized bird as a reference point. 

“When you think of a sparrow you don’t think of anything scary, right? It’s a little bird. And that connects it with the actual root of the [Japanese] name, so I think that’s a more appropriate name,” he says. 

The state Department of Agriculture’s Salp says her colleagues have had internal conversations about what else to call the hornet. Department entomologist Chris Looney has fielded “giant hornet” as an alternative, Salp says. Tran thinks “giant hornet” is fine, as does the Smithsonian’s Shockley, though, he says, it’s already applied to the species Vespa velutina. He prefers sparrow hornet and sparrow wasp, for many of the same reasons Kawahara does. 

A new name would need a rollout strategy behind it. When the Entomological Society of America discontinued the use of the name “gypsy moth,” “there was quite a bit of uproar,” Salp says, “because people like ourselves, we have an active invasive moth program now, with no direction on what to call it.”

Ultimately, common names make impacts only if people adopt them, and it’s going to be “a long haul” to address all the problematic names, Ware says. The existing names have already become part of the lexicon, with searches for "murder hornet" and "Asian giant hornet" producing 8,940,000 and 16,600,000 results on Google respectively. 

“Even if we come up with a great common name for V. mandarinia, getting, you know, your pharmacist at Rite Aid to change the name they would use, can be a challenge,” Ware says. “We can't police people's language.”

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