Dr. Chris Looney has been contemplating how we refer to the insect ever since public concerns first arose. North American entomologists like himself had been on the lookout for the hornet, which threatens both commercial honeybees and native pollinators and plants. But public interest exploded in early 2020 after reports in the New York Times of a “murder hornet” from Asia swept across the internet on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic.
The term “Asian,” of course, isn’t in itself bigoted. But Looney and others noticed that the context in which it evolved created problems. “We have people that either get turned off by [these names] or use them as a reason to be xenophobic,” says Looney, who works at the Washington State Department of Agriculture and was one of the first people to study and manage the insect, whose scientific name is Vespa mandarinia, after it was detected in the U.S.
He also noticed the name was creating confusion within his field: There are other hornets with similar names, like the Asian hornet, which is invasive in Europe.
Known insect species all have scientific names, but fewer have common names. When a species becomes significant enough to people’s daily lives that managers need new language to talk about it, the Entomological Society of America convenes to brainstorm some. At their best, common names make talking about and identifying insects easier by highlighting size, color, behavior and more.
V. mandarinia doesn’t have an accepted common name. But this week, Looney could jumpstart the process of picking one out. Independent of the state Department of Agriculture, Looney plans to submit a formal application sometime next week to the Entomological Society of America for a name he thinks would work better: simply, “giant hornet.”
The submission would come mere weeks after the society announced the first-ever common insect name change spurred by concerns over bigoted language. The society’s 8-month-old Better Common Names Project coined the name spongy moth for Lymantria dispar, the species formerly known as gypsy moth, a term offensive to people of Romani descent. That naming process creates precedent for considering the impacts of insect names, especially ones for species deemed invasives or pests.
“It made me realize that, yes, we can make these changes,” says Dr. Akito Kawahara, an associate professor at the University of Florida and curator of butterflies and moths at the Florida Museum of Natural History. He is excited about the proposal to give the hornet a useful name. “That’s what needs to happen, and with the spongy moth situation happening in the way it did … I think something like that is good to see.”
“I would have hoped that this would have happened earlier, and I wish the media didn’t pick up the name ‘murder hornet’ at the very beginning of this whole thing, because I think it’s created a lot of problems, and it’s really the environment that’s taking the toll,” Kawahara says, referring to increased use of pesticides and fearful people's indiscriminate killing of bee and wasp species. “We need to take the right steps at the very beginning, when something like that happens, to use the appropriate name.”
What’s in a (common) name?
The Entomological Society of America has had the last word on common names since 1908, and some of the 2,300 common names it curates carry the weight of bigotry. Many named insects are considered pests, and science and the public habitually connect pest species with races, ethnicities and groups of people. These names aren’t relics of historical bigotry. A currently nameless insect previously known as the gypsy ant, which the Better Common Names Project is working to rename, received its pejorative name in 2000 from an entomologist who years later attempted to reverse the damage.
In 2021, the society banned common names for insects referencing ethnicities, races or groups of people, and put out a call for names that need changing. Bigoted names not only harm people, Murray says, but set up barriers to talking about insects.
The society received more than 1,000 suggestions, ultimately entertaining about 200 of them. “Spongy moth” rose to the top.
“The use of an ethnic slur was reason enough, but the fact that Lymantria dispar is an insect pest that is the target of eradication makes it worse when considering that the people that word refers to have also been the targets of discrimination and genocide,” says Dr. Jessica Ware, the society’s president. “We heard from a number of Romani people and scholars who talked about the dehumanizing effects the old common name had on them.”
Scientists first detected the spongy moth in the U.S. in 1869, and in Washington in 1974. A Department of Agriculture pamphlet about the moth describes it as “the worst forest pest insect ever brought into the United States.” While the moth hasn’t gotten a foothold in Washington yet, its larvae have long ravaged trees and shrubs in at least 19 Eastern states, as they eat their way into adulthood. They aren’t very choosy, with at least 500 species on their menu, and trees often die from the stress. Should the spongy moth establish in Washington state, it would be a threat to our forests, incurring economic and environmental costs from loss of forests and an increased need for insecticides, says Iral Ragenovich, regional entomologist at the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest region.
According to the entomological society, Americans used the name “gypsy moth” because that was what English people called it at the time it arrived here. That common name is not only bigoted, the society’s working group found, but also doesn’t help people remember what the insect looks and acts like. The society hopes the new name brings to mind the insect’s spongelike egg masses and better reflects how people in its native range talk about it.
Washington State University's Todd Murray, an entomologist on the society’s governing board, wasn’t sure the new name would be meaningful to people. “A lot of people kind of scratched their heads when they saw the final recommended name,” he says. “But the second I told my mom [who lives in the Midwest] what it was, she was like, ‘Oh, that’s because of their egg masses!’ Which is exactly what the common name was supposed to communicate.”
The society’s common name nomination process asks applicants to lay out, among other things, why a name is needed, what the new name might be and who are other scientists they’ve consulted.
Calling V. mandarinia “Asian” doesn’t help people better understand it, Looney says. “‘Asian’ doesn't mean anything in terms of hornets because every single hornet species is native to Asia.”
Looney recognizes that there are many large hornets with similar biology, but interest in this particular hornet has led to an explosion of communication about it. By shortening the name, Looney hopes, it will still be recognizable. “The goal is to integrate a name that links [the hornet] to its past and the existing research more easily than, say, spongy moth does for Lamatria dispar. … In this case, we can just go with ‘giant.’ It's kind of boring, but it also seems efficient,” Looney says.
Kawahara has mixed feelings about the proposed name. “It’s better than what it is right now,” he says. Kawahara supports the name sparrow hornet, which not only references the size of the insect, but is similar to what the insect is called in Japan, where it is a native species.
Ware, the entomological society president, says forest and extension agencies have responded positively to the spongy moth name so far, suggesting future changes are possible. But coordinating an inclusive process was also complex. “We knew that going in, but we still probably underestimated just how far the ripple effects go in changing an insect name. So we know changing more names will likely be a long process, too. They won’t happen overnight. And the work doesn’t stop after adopting a new name,” Ware says.
The impacts of new names
When the society makes a name change, management agencies have to put those changes into practice. And doing so can be a heavy lift.
The spongy moth is “about as American as apple pie,” Murray says. “The spongy moth is such a historical and constant regulatory pest in our continent. … It might not sound like a big deal to change the name, but for something like this insect that's been here for a long time in North America … agencies are going to have to change all their internal documentation, all their flyers, all their media, and so it's a real rebrand effort that is costly,” Murray says.
Karla Salp with the Department of Agriculture’s communications team says accommodating the change has been challenging. While the spongy moth has never found permanent footing in Washington state, populations do spring up every now and then. Consequently, there is a lot of documentation about them.
It was also challenging to figure out how to talk about the moth when it didn’t have an official name for the eight months the entomological society deliberated, Salp says. The Forest Service’s Ragenovich says that when the spongy moth lacked a common name, the agency referred to it by its scientific name.
To make things even more complicated, there are many L. dispar subspecies out there, as well as different species referred to as ‘gypsy moth.’ This includes five species of Asian (yes) gypsy moths. At least one of these moths has been found in Washington state.
“While we support ESA’s initiative, we face a significant challenge in implementing the name change at this time because of a related pest of concern: the Asian gypsy moth. This name refers to five species or subspecies (L. dispar asiatica, L. dispar japonica, L. albescens, L. umbrosa, and L. postalba), which are regulated together as a species complex. These moths are native to Asia and not established in the United States. ESA is unable to change the name of this pest because it is outside their scope,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes on its website, via its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Successfully updating every official document to reflect the new spongy moth name is just as unlikely as fully exterminating the insect from the entire U.S. — which is one reason why the society encourages agencies to focus on forward-looking references, rather than editing their archives. However, some legal documents may need to change: The Revised Code of Washington uses the term “gypsy moth” in the context of pesticide policy.
What’s next for the hornet
Submitting a name doesn’t mean a common name gets adopted. The entomological society’s Joe Rominiecki says that if someone does submit a common name for the Asian giant hornet, it would be reviewed by the Common Names Committee, rather than the Better Common Names project, since there is no accepted common name yet.
“The good thing … is that it’s going to promote discussion,” Kawahara says.
The name could then be put to the society’s membership for comment over a 30-day period. The committee would review comments and vote on whether to advance the matter to the society’s governing board, which could vote at any regularly scheduled meeting — this year, in June, September or November.
“If no such proposal materializes, then the Better Common Names Project could decide to formulate one, but that’s yet to be discussed,” Rominiecki says.
Agencies and societies can change these names, but it takes everyday people adopting them to make an impact. That may take some time.
And Looney cautions against treating a successful change to a more empathetic name as a complete solution to systemic social problems in itself. “It's something we should do, but it's not a critical factor to, say, ending racism, or something like that. It's just another little facet,” Looney says.
At this point, some nicknames are so entrenched that Looney finds himself needing to use them when talking with the public.
“Everybody's gonna call this [the] murder hornet. I mean, we just know that that's the case,” he says. But the act of submitting helps kick-start things. ”I don’t care what happens, because I made the point [that it needs a name]. Even if this one doesn't work out, somebody will do something.”
As for right now, 'Asian giant hornet' queens emerge in the spring, and the state Department of Agriculture is gearing up to trap and track them. “We’re in the planning-logistics stage, and planning to hit the ground running between June and July,” Looney says.
Update: This article was updated on April 11, 2022 to correct one instance in which "gypsy moth" and "spongy moth" were switched.