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Davis, California

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Column: What’s in a name?

I told someone recently that it’s a miracle not all my columns are about insects.

I’m an entomology addict. In second grade, I was known as “Bug Girl.” These days, I sleep beneath a poster of beetles (Coleoptera).

So when I went to see “The Green Hornet” this weekend, I was excited. Here was a movie about a guy who took an insect name as his superhero identity.

While the movie was genuine fun, the insect angle was total bogus.

The hero, Britt Reid, took his hornet name after a bee sting killed his father. It seems like a harmless mix-up. Bee? Hornet? They both have stingers, so what’s the difference?

Ask any biologist – correct species identification is important. All organisms are strictly classified by connection to a common ancestor. There are tiers of relatedness, and with each category, organisms become more and more similar.

For example, humans belong to the same “Kingdom” as jellyfish. We belong to the same “Phylum” as chickens. We are in the same “Class” as dolphins and the same “Order” as baboons. Gorillas are in our “Family” and Neanderthals were in our “Genus.” Our family tree ends with us, Homo sapiens.

Bees and hornets share the same order, but nothing after that. Bees are to hornets what baboons are to humans.

Get it right, Hollywood.

This system of scientific classification was organized by Swedish scientist Carl Linneus during the 18th century, and it’s scientific law today.

Steve Heydon, senior museum scientist at the Bohart Insect Museum at UC Davis, is an expert in the discovery and classification of species.

Heydon recently gave me a tour of the museum. We walked past the cases of iridescent blue butterflies and tanks of stealthy walking sticks to get to Heydon’s office.

“Let’s see what we’ve got here,” he said, turning to shelves of wooden cases.

Heydon pulled out a case and I squinted to see what was there. There were rows of very tiny wasps pinned above printed labels.

“How many species have you discovered?” I asked.

Heydon thought for a moment.

“Probably a couple dozen or so,” he said.

Heydon loves the process of finding an insect and narrowing it down to family, genus and finally, species.

“You keep working and working and, eventually, you’ve solved it,” Heydon said.

Heydon starts by sweeping a net around in an environment like a field or a forest. When he catches insects, he goes to his microscope. Under the lens, he can spot the differences in anatomy that separate species.

“It’s almost artistic because you’re just looking at the outer form and shape of something,” Heydon said.

Like Heydon, I’m the kind of person who gets excited about naming things. I’ve had a dozen pet fish blessed with names like Buffy and Justin Timberlake. But species classification is important for more than naming reasons.

You see, whenever a specimen is found, scientists record the date and location of the find. The species housed at the insect museum serve as a historical record.

“We’re at the base of ecology,” Heydon said. “If you want to see how climate change has affected an environment, you can go back and see if the insects that were once there are still there.”

Entomologists think there are about 100,000 different insect species in California. According to Heydon, 10 to 15 percent of those could be his passion: parasitoid wasps. He plans to identify as many species as he can.

In the meantime, I’ll be working on my screenplay for The Odiferous Stink Bug.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT thinks Jason Alexander should play the Stink Bug and Christopher Walken would be villainous Dr. Pill Bug. Hollywood agents can e-mail Madeline at science@theaggie.org.

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