Reflections in Nature: There’s a difference between insects and bugs – Williamsport Sun-Gazette

In last weeks article on insects, I wrote that the common name of bug is applied to almost all insects, however, entomologists do have rules pertaining to insects and bugs. One of the major differences is that there are four stages in the life of an insect egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and winged adult while a bug has only three stages: egg, nymph and adult.

The origin of our word bug used for an insect is uncertain but generally assumed that it is from the Middle English word bugge, which meant bugbear or scarecrow. This is believed to have come from the Welsh word bug, meaning ghost or hobgoblin. Therefore a bug was named for its grotesque appearance and meant something frightening. It was first used for what we now call a scarecrow.

There are many sayings associated with the word bug, and the following are just a few: a large bug is an important person; a bughouse means crazy or demented; a fire-bug, litterbug or one that is annoying are all said to be bugs; a bug-eye is a flat-bottomed boat used by oyster fishermen on the Chesapeake Bay; a defect in a system is said to have a bug; a person that is ill is said to have a bug or flu-bug; a small car, such as a Volkswagen, is called a bug; a listening device used to catch a crook is known as a bug and we have all heard of crazy as a bed bug and snug as a bug in a rug.

Although the name bug is used for insects, it generally describes a particular group of insects; however, not all insects are bugs. We add to this confusion by calling some insects by names that are misleading. For example, a lightening bug (firefly) is neither a fly nor a bug but actually a beetle.

Here is a simple rule used by entomologists: if the insect is a true bug, write bug as a separate word. For example, a box elder bug is a true bug and is separate. If it were not a true bug, it would be written boxelderbug. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule and the lightning bug is one example.

Insects out-number every other animal on Earth. There are about 1.5 million known animal species in the world and about 1 million of these are insects. Some experts believe that there are millions of insects yet to be discovered

Insects are placed in the animal kingdom in the class Inseta or Hexapoda (both names are correct) and in the phylum Arthropoda. There are about a million different kinds of species of insects, and they are classified in 26 major groups known as orders. The largest order, in the number of species, is the beetle (Coleoptera), which contains almost one quarter of all known insects. Second, in the number of species, are the butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera). Third, in the number of species, are the ants, beetles and wasps (Hymenoptera). Fourth, in the number of species, are the two-winged flies. The fifth group contains the bugs that include two orders (Hemiptera and Homoptera,); since closely related they are sometimes lumped into one large order, Hemiptera.

Although the bug clan ranks fifth in the number of species, they probably rank first in the number of individuals. Most bugs can be considered as being harmful to man since they feed upon useful plants, however, a few produce valuable products, such as dyes, shellac and waxes.

The order name Hemiptera is derived from two Greek words: hemi, meaning half and ptera, meaning wings: thus, these insects are half-winged. Homoptera also comes from two Greek words: homo, meaning the same and ptera, meaning wings; thus, the name means same-winged.

The life cycle of an insect, such as a butterfly, has four stages in its life: egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and winged adult. A bug has only three stages: egg, nymph and adult. Since a bug has no pupa resting stage it is said that a bug has an incomplete life history. This is called by most entomologists a gradual life, while an insects life is usually called a metamorphosis.

The Greek word for insect was entomon and is the source of our word entomology, which was derived from entemnein, meaning cut up. En, meaning in and temnein, meaning cut, literally mean creatures divided into segments. The term was translated literally into Latin as insectum and translated into English as insect by Pliny, the famous naturalist.

Insects are fascinating. They live everywhere in the world and survive on an amazing range of diets. Although they do bug and repel us at times, they are quite beneficial.

Bill Bower is a retired Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Officer. Read his blog and listen to his podcasts on the outdoors at

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Reflections in Nature: There's a difference between insects and bugs - Williamsport Sun-Gazette

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