Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant
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The trouble with common names

By Dr. Staffan Lindgren, University of Northern British Columbia

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When teaching Invertebrate zoology, entomology or forest entomology, I am regularly asked by students if they can use common names. Mostly this request is precipitated by the perceived difficulty of memorizing, let alone pronouncing, Latin names. I am fairly relaxed about these things, particularly with forestry students, who are quite unlikely to become entomologists no matter how you define that term.  It should be clarified that forest entomology is taught within a Disturbance Ecology and Forest Health course at my institution (UNBC), with diagnostics in half of a separate lab course. My stock answer is thus that they may use common names as long as the name clearly defines the species they are referring to.

Foresters are prone to colloquial terms, whether with respect to insects, trees or other organisms. For example, subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) is called balsam by many, if not most foresters in BC, even though it is a distinct species from balsam fir (Abies balsamea) of eastern North America. Similarly, Pissodes strobi, the white pine weevil, is called spruce weevil (a legacy of the days when this weevil was considered three separate species, two of which primarily infest different spruce species in the west) or simply leader weevil.  The reason, supposedly, is that it is the wood quality that matters in terms of trees, and the type of damage with respect to insects. The consequences of being a bit loose with the taxonomy of a particular species may therefore seem fairly inconsequential in forestry.

Incidentally, our forestry students have even more to worry about when it comes to pathology, which they have to learn at the same time, as the same biological organism often has two completely different Latin names (including genera) depending on whether it is the sexual or asexual form (why this remains an accepted practice is beyond me), and they often do not have common names. Add the fact that fungal species seem to change name more often than I change vehicles (I was going to write ‘shirt’, but didn’t want to gross anyone out making you think that I wear the same shirt for years), and it becomes rather a nightmarish proposition for the poor students.

When it comes to entomology in general, however, common names are most commonly used in casual conversation, particularly with members of the public. For entomologists this is usually not a problem, but for non-entomologists it can be very confusing.  For example, colloquial use of ‘bug’ is pretty much anything that is small and crawls or flies around. Taxonomically it is quite specific (Hemiptera: Heteroptera). Ladybugs (Coleoptera: Coccinellidae) are perhaps the most recognizable insects to people in general, but they are clearly not bugs. Plant lice (Aphidoidea and Phylloxeroidea), bark lice (Psocoptera) and body lice (Phthiraptera) represent three vastly different taxonomic groups. In addition, if the non-louse groups above were to be correctly written to show that they are not Phthirapterans, there should be no space – however for these common names that principle is never applied as far as I can tell. It is to differentiate dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, mayflies, whiteflies etc. from the true flies. For example, a dragon fly, if there were such a thing (and probably there is somewhere – perhaps a decapitating fly (Phoridae) comes close enough to earn that epithet!) would be a dipteran, whereas a dragonfly is not. How is a non-entomologist supposed to know that (assuming that it is important to anyone except us entomophiles)? Then we can go on to more obvious misnomers such as ‘white ants’, which aren’t ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) at all, but termites (Isoptera).

Going back to forest entomology, one can have all kinds of fun with some common names, the origin of some could serve as fodder for endless speculation. For example, when discussing the problems with common names, I ask my students what they think a sequoia pitch moth (Synanthedon sequoiae)(Lepidoptera: Sesiidae) would attack. The correct answer is naturally “mostly lodgepole pine, but not sequoia”. Similarly, the Douglas-fir pitch moth (Synanthedon novaroensis) commonly breeds in lodgepole pine, but as far as I know not in Douglas-fir. I then go on to western spruce budworm, which as the name does not imply primarily attacks Douglas-fir.

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Myrmica brevispinosa, the short-spined ant

Clearly one cannot expect members of the public to keep track of Latin names of insects, so common names are here to stay. I was interested to find in a book I recently purchased (Ellison et al. 2012) that the authors had invented common names for every species by essentially translating the Latin species epithet. That creates an interesting situation vis-à-vis the attempt of entomological societies to standardize common names (http://www.esc-sec.ca/ee/index.php/cndb; http://www.entsoc.org/common-names). Nevertheless, some ants simply retained their genus name, e.g., Harpagoxenus canadenis became “The Canadian Harpagoxenus” (not sure why, as they named the genus “The robber guest ants”), Formica hewitti became “Hewitt’s ant”,  Myrmica brevispinosa (the species in the photo accompanying this article) is called “The short-spined ant”, and perhaps my favourite Lasius subglaber was named “The somewhat hairy fuzzy ant”. Common names aren’t generally that innovative, but Latin names certainly can be.

Many years ago May Berenbaum (1993) wrote a column on this topic. If students would all read Dr. Berenbaum’s eminently humorous take on how insects get named, they would without a doubt get a new appreciation for both Latin names and their creators, and perhaps feel less trepidation about memorizing them. Then not only true blue entomologists would be tempted to buy a bumper sticker that read “Sona si Latine loqueris” (Honk if you speak Latin) (Unverified from http://www.latinsayings.info/).

Berenbaum, M. 1993. “Apis, Apis, Bobapis….”, American Entomologist 39: 133-134.

Ellison, A.M., N.J. Gotelli, E.J. Farnsworth, and G.D. Alpert. 2012. A field guide to the ants of New England. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 398 pp.

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ZAPPED: The Buzz About Mosquitoes

Tonight on CBC (8pm local time across Canada) The Nature of Things with David Suzuki is showing ZAPPED: The Buzz About Mosquitoes, a documentary all about mosquitoes in Canada, the rising potential for mosquito-vectored disease thanks to climate change, and the ways in which Canadian scientists are working hard to stay ahead of them.

Featuring great macrovideography (which you can learn more about with the behind the scences feature on the ZAPPED website), interviews with Canadian entomologists, and highlighting research being done here in Canada, ZAPPED has great potential to spread information and awareness about Canadian mosquitoes.

I’ll be live-tweeting the program tonight @ 8pm EST using the hashtag #CBCZapped (those of you on Twitter can do the same when it airs in your timezone) and I hope that if you live in Canada you’ll join me in learning more about the flies people love to hate!

Dick Vockeroth - Chris Borkent
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Dick Vockeroth (1928-2012)

This memorial for Dr. Richard (Dick) Vockeroth is from Dr. Jeff Skevington & Dr. Jeff Cumming of the Diptera Unit at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Ottawa, Ontario.

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Dick Vockeroth - Chris Borkent

Dick Vockeroth attending the 6th International Congress of Dipterology in Fukuoka, Japan (2006). Photo by Chris Borkent.

The Diptera community has suffered a great loss — Dick Vockeroth passed away on the morning of November 16th 2012, at the age of 84. Almost everyone who studies flies knew Dick, and most of us have some hilarious Vockeroth stories that will undoubtedly continue on for several generations. His breadth of knowledge was unsurpassed and many of us owe him considerably as a mentor. He always amazed us by seeming to know something about virtually every fly species put in front of him. Of course, putting a fly in front of Dick was just the excuse to open the floodgates. For those who could concentrate for long enough, his stories always had a point. They could continue for a long time, but they always wound back to where they started, completing another lesson for those willing to listen. If only we had a way to save all of his immense knowledge. Dick Vockeroth in Churchill ManitobaFortunately, he was always willing to share. He published 120 papers on 27 families of flies over his career. His unpublished manuscripts and keys also fill many boxes in our collection. Copies of many of these are spread around the world with Dick’s colleagues and will ultimately be incorporated and published as part of new studies. In addition to giving freely of his scientific knowledge, Dick was a true philanthropist. He seemed to donate virtually every penny that he had to anyone who stopped at his door or called. He was incredibly frugal with his own purchases and we all benefited/endured from his purchases of cheap (or free) produce and bread that often had seen better days. His immune system seemed to enjoy these nutritional challenges although ours were perhaps not always up to it. We recall a few years ago when Dick had the first cold that he could remember having since he was a child, as well as the first headache in his life a year or two later. Diabetes was his primary health challenge and it was a significant one in his later life. It was likely a contributing factor to the Alzheimer’s that eroded his mind over the last three years.

The following is excerpted from Cumming et al, 2011. This paper is the introduction to a three volume Festschrift in The Canadian Entomologist honouring Dick and the other coordinators of the Manual of Nearctic Diptera. Picking through these papers, you will find some classic stories about Dick and expand your impression of the impact that he played in the Diptera community over the last 60 plus years.

Dick Vockeroth - Japan - CollectingDick was born on May 2nd 1928 in Broderick, Saskatchewan. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in 1948 and 1949, respectively, and his D.Phil. on the genera of Scathophagidae from Oxford University in 1954. He officially joined the Canadian National Collection of Insects (CNC) Diptera Unit in 1949. Dick retired in 1991, but contributed broadly to Diptera activities at the CNC as an Honorary Research Associate until 2009. He became a world expert on several families, particularly Mycetophilidae s.l., Dolichopodidae, Syrphidae, Scathophagidae, and Muscidae. He was an avid collector and contributed over 220,000 pinned Diptera to the CNC. Dick authored or co-authored 120 scientific publications, including 12 chapters in the Manual of Nearctic Diptera. He has published 173 new Diptera taxa (1 family group name, 42 genus-group names, and 130 species-group names). Dick was awarded the C.P. Alexander Award in 1997 by the North American Dipterists’ Society. This lifetime award, which can only be held by a single dipterist at a time, publicly acknowledges the most important and influential member of the North American Dipterists’ Society. The Award reads, ‘‘John Richard Vockeroth is recognized as our most knowledgeable dipterist, and for his critical and unique contributions in expanding our knowledge of flies, especially flower flies, educating and encouraging a cadre of world leaders for Systematic Dipterology’’. Sadly, this award is now available to be given to someone else.

Evidence of the respect of Dick’s scientific achievements can be seen in the ninety-one patronyms that have been attributed to him by the entomological community (http://www.canacoll.org/Diptera/Staff/Vockeroth/Vockeroth_Patronyms.pdf). This list will no doubt continue to grow as his collections live on and support new research on the flies that Dick was so passionate about. We have all missed his antics and contributions in the lab since he left in 2009. Let’s hope that we can all leave even a fraction of the lasting legacy and legends that Dick has left behind.
The funeral was held Wednesday 21 November at the Hulse, Playfair & McGarry Chapel at 315 McLeod Street in Ottawa. His obituary appeared in the Ottawa Citizen November 17-19, 2012.

If you wish to make a donation in Dick’s name, he would no doubt be honoured if it went to the Canacoll Foundation (www.canacoll.org), which supports improvements to the CNC by visiting specialists. Cheques made out to the Canacoll Foundation can be sent to the treasurer, Andrew Bennett, at the K.W. Neatby Building, 960 Carling Avenue, Ottawa, ON, K1A 0C6, Canada. Tax receipts will be issued.

Group of Diptera AwesomeDick Vockeroth and the CNC gangDick Vockeroth, Frank McAlpine and Curtis Sabrosky CNC
Cumming J.M., Sinclair B.J., Brooks S.E., O’Hara J.E. & Skevington J.H. (2011). The history of dipterology at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, with special reference to the Manual of Nearctic Diptera, The Canadian Entomologist, 143 (6) 539-577. DOI: