Biological Linguistics: What is a bug?

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I’d like to talk about a very important issue, very close to my heart, and one that I think needs greater public awareness – the definition of the word ‘bug’.

See, people think they can just throw the word bug around willy-nilly. Anything small, flying or irritating, is a bug. Any pest, is a bug. But what many people don’t realise is the word isn’t just a colloquial term for insect or invertebrate, it isn’t a synonym for shelled or armoured creatures, it has a real scientific definition.

The word bug refers to insects in one particular order – Hemiptera, or the True Bugs.

Now, the thing to remember about bugs is that they suck. Species in the order hemiptera – and there are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 species – essentially have a straw for a mouth, and they tap into the stems of plants and suck out the sap to feed. Sap is sugary but low in other key nutrients like proteins, so bugs have to consume an awful lot of sap, and excrete a sugary water known as honey dew as a result. The group Hemiptera includes species you’ve probably heard of, like aphids and cicadas, as well as a few you might not have, like sheildbugs and leafhoppers.

Yes, I’m sorry to tell you that a BugsLife was a complete lie. The only bug in the entire film was the Queen’s pet aphid – I was quite disappointed to discover the film wasn’t going to follow his life!

All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. But almost anything that anybody ever calls a bug… is not a bug. So, to quickly review:

  • Flies – not bugs
  • Mosquitos – not bugs
  • Ants – not bugs
  • Despite what the Americans might tell you, beetles like ladybirds are not bugs*
  • Spiders – not bugs

* I mean, they’re not birds or ladies either, but that’s not the point I’m making right now.

So, I hope next time you are looking for a word to refer to that fly in your drink, or the mosquito buzzing around your hotel room, or that unidentified legged-horror you’re to scared to look at too closely, remember that it’s almost certainly not a bug. If in doubt, go with insect, or arthropod if it doesn’t have six legs.

I know it might not seem important, it just bugs me, you know.

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Featured image is in the public domain, available from Wikimedia Commons.

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