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Debbie Hadley

Bug or Insect?

By September 1, 2009

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Lately, a couple of Facebook fans of this site have criticized my liberal use of the word "bug" in certain blog posts. They feel, for example, that I am doing my readers a disservice by calling my weekly identification challenge "Bug of the Week." Susan P. chided me, "it would be nice to teach people correct terminology."


Box elder bugs are true bugs, belonging to the order Hemiptera.
Photo: Flickr user iowa_spirit_walker

Okay, fair enough. I agree that people should know the difference between a bug and an insect. Technically, or taxonomically, a bug is an insect belonging to the order Hemiptera, known commonly as the true bugs. Aphids, cicadas, assassin bugs, and a variety of other insects claim membership in the order Hemiptera. All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. Beetles are not true bugs, nor are butterflies or bees or flies. In my article 15 Misconceptions About Insects, I've made a point to explain this frequent misuse of the term bug.

In my defense, the word bug is widely used to describe just about any arthropod, from decidedly non-insect critters like millipedes and pillbugs to arachnids like spiders and ticks. I've even seen snails and worms included in bug books.

I'm not the only one out here taking some poetic license with the word bug.

  • Gilbert Waldbauer, a respected entomologist from the University of Illinois, authored an excellent volume called The Handy Bug Answer Book which covers everything from scorpions to silverfish.
  • The University of Kentucky's entomology department hosts a website called the Kentucky Bug Connection. They include information on keeping pet bugs, none of which are actually bugs: tarantulas, mantids, and cockroaches.
  • The University of Florida's entomology department sponsors a "Best of the Bugs" award honoring outstanding insect-related websites. Among their honorees are sites on ants, beetles, flies, and butterflies - no actual bugs.
  • Iowa State's entomology department hosts one of the best arthropod sites around - Bugguide. The site is a database of information and photographs collected by amateur naturalists, covering virtually every North American arthropod. Only a small portion of the species listed belong to the order Hemiptera.

I could probably list 100 examples of entomologists using the word bug in the titles of their books, websites, or blogs. I, at least, have made a point to name my website About Insects, Spiders, and Other Arthropods rather than About Bugs. Don't I get some credit for that?

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September 1, 2009 at 2:06 pm
(1) Troy Bartlett says:

I struggled with this when coming up with the name for BugGuide.net. See my justification for the name on the about page there:
Like you mentioned about your blog title, we make it clear at the top of every page just what we mean by ‘bug’. Keep in mind also that lots of people are searching for the term ‘bug’ because that’s their understanding. All the more reason to use it.

September 1, 2009 at 3:13 pm
(2) insects says:

Thanks, Troy. Searchability is definitely a consideration when choosing between bug and insect, too. People do seem to search for “bugs” a lot, from the stats I look at, so my liberal use of the term helps me bring people in to my site. Then I can make sure they know the difference between a true bug and an insect. And for the record, I don’t think InsectGuide.net would have been anywhere near as catchy!

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