Many insects have common names that are easier to refer to than their difficult-to-pronounce scientific names. Vespa mandarinia, generally referred to as the “murder hornet,” was known by the common name “Asian giant hornet”. Now, the Entomological Society of America (ESA) hopes that the inaccurate name will soon become a thing of the past.
The ESA adopted the name “northern giant hornet” for the species in its database of Common Names of Insects, arguing the usage of Asian in the name bolstered anti-Asian sentiment “amid a rise in hate crimes and discrimination” in the US. Also, since all wasps are native to Asia, the name didn’t convey unique information on the species’ biology.
“Common names are an important tool for entomologists to communicate with the public about insects and insect science,” ESA President Jessica Ware, an entomologist, said in a media statement earlier this week. “Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination.”
Behind the name changing
Entomologist Chris Looney, a member of the Washington State Department of Agriculture team researching and attempting to eradicate the hornet, authored the common-name proposal submitted to ESA. He argued it was necessary to have an accessible and accurate name to facilitate simpler and inclusive communication about the insect.
The northern giant hornet is native to Asia but was discovered in Washington State and British Columbia in 2019, where it made its way as an invasive species. Since then, it has been the target of eradication efforts because of its ability to kill other bee and hornet species – hence the nickname murder hornets. They are the world’s largest hornets, with queens reaching two inches (five centimeters) long.
“If allowed to establish in regions within North America, the northern giant hornet could significantly impact local ecosystems,” according to the ESA’s common name toolkit for the northern giant hornet. “They don’t attack people, but will do so if provoked or threatened. Their stinger is longer than that of bees and wasps found in North America.”
The ESA has had the last word on common names since 1908, and at least some of the 2,300 names it currently curates can be considered discriminative. Many insects and considered pests, and science and the public usually relate pest species with groups of people. And these aren’t old names. A previously nameless insect in 2000 received the name gypsy ant — a name which was also changed again to avoid any unwanted connotations.
The renaming is in line with new guidelines adopted by ESA last year, which ban ethnic and racial names and discourage geographic names – especially for invasive species, such as the northern giant hornet in the US and Canada. The ESA is now asking government agencies, researchers, the media and the overall public to embrace the new name as soon as possible.