Insect Taxonomy

If you can't say something smart, say it in Latin.

Before we go further and actually play the game of identifying, describing and mimicking the individual bugs, we need to lay down the rules of the game. These rules, the bane of every junior high school biology student, were devised by an obsessive compulsive (probably sado masochistic) botanist in 1766.

Carl von Linne’ decided the natural world was a mess and he was going to fix it. From his, no doubt immaculate, garden in Sweden he devised a hierarchical filing system that had a name and a place for every living thing on the planet. The system was far from perfect but nothing better has been devised; possibly because no one else would be so sick as to try. Today an international panel of taxonomists and systematists tweaks the system by adding and subtracting from the files as plants and animals and the taxonomic relationships to one another are discovered.

The rules of classification seem intimidating at first, but in reality are no more confusing than the menu at Denny’s Restaurant. When you belly up to the table it’s no great deal to distinguish between the plant or animal Kingdom. "Shall I eat a salad or real food?". Deciding that you want something that’ll stick to the ribs you swing with a meat dish and enter the Kingdom of Animalia.

Craving meat, you’ll next have to decide if you’ll humor the wife by eating cod or go with your carnivorous lust and wolf down a slab of cow. In this fashion you’re making increasingly finite choices "well done or raw", "salad or fries", "blue cheese or French", "for here or to go?". In the end we come up with a meal that is unique unto itself and couldn’t possibly be confused with any other. At this point we can give it a scientific or binomial name (always written in italics). The first part of the scientific name is always capitalized and describes the meal in its generic (as in genus) form and the second word describes the meal specifically (as in species). Note the clever emphasis on the roots of these words.

We might name our meal Dennys cutteri and from now on you could go to any Dennys in the world, utter the words Dennys cutteri and know you would be given a to-go bag filled with a raw sirloin and a green salad with two packets of lite blue cheese dressing. If by mistake the bag contained a side order of fries you would have to give it a subspecies name (always lower case and in italics): Dennys cutteri spud. Insects are just like that.

My simplified version of the hierarchical system works like this:

Taxon Name (example) Reason (excuse)
Kingdom Animalia It’s not a plant
Phylum Arthropoda Has jointed legs
Class Insecta Has 3 body parts
Order Plecoptera All stoneflies
Family Perlodidae Some stoneflies
Genus Isoperla Little stone flies
Species bilineata Little yellow stoneflies

There will be occasions when you’ll see the taxons (a taxon is a group of related organisms) further broken into infra, super, and sub groups. The only time these might be relevant will be in the (rare) sub species where one sub species might vary a couple hook sizes from another sub species. Other than that ignore them.

As budding aquatic entomologists, it should be apparent that we’re already at the Class level (Insecta) in this column, so the only taxons of interest to us are the Order, Family, Genus and Species. Remember them.

While at USC OJ Simpson took aquatic ecology and came up with "Ornery Females Get Slashed" and Mr. Rodgers suggested "Our Family Goes Singing" If these don't do it for you, make up your own.

What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. If you were asked to tie patterns to represent the Michigan caddis, fishfly, sandfly, burrowing mayfly, and great olive winged drake, how many flies would be in your box? One, the Hexagenia limbata mayfly, commonly known in Northern California as simply the "Hex".

Common names are sometimes descriptive, the "blue winged olive" for instance, but they’re inevitably confusing. There are no fewer than 13 different kinds of mayfly locally known as "blue winged olives".

Imagine preparing for the trip of a lifetime and you were told to bring a zillion blue winged olives. Knowing that blue winged olives were the size 12 bugs coming off the Truckee last summer (Flavilinea), you fill the box appropriately. When you arrive at the Bighorn, you get skunked because the blue winged olives there happen to be size 22 (Baetis). "Oh, those blue winged olives", you might sputter.

Scientific names are only considered "confusing" and "snobbish" because of tradition. Flyfishing is a centuries old tradition unhampered by hundreds of years of progress, or so the purists might say. I’d like to remind them gardening is an infinitely older tradition than flyfishing yet we have no problem identifying our plants as Petunias, Begonias and Delphiniums. When was the last time you considered someone an uppity snob because he called a redwood tree a Sequoia? Liberate yourselves from the stifling chains of tradition and start using some Latin and Greek.

Many people shun Latin because they’re afraid of pronouncing the words wrong. Relax. It’s a dead language and even the Pope can’t dis you for pronouncing the words as you see fit. Commonly used pronunciations are:

a hat or uh m man
ae bay or bee n now
ai ball o ox or hoe
ay lay oe hoe
b bass oo room
c cat p pig
ch crab or shoe q queer
d dog r rat
e wet s snake
ee we t trout
ew humor u um or yule
f fish v victory
g goat or ginger w wing
h hat x xylophone
i tin or spaghetti y wit or teeth
j jade ye wine
k cow z zebra


A few examples:

Chironomid kye-row-NO-mid or kye-ROH-no-mid
Baetis BAY-tiss or BEE-tiss
Paraleptophlebia (I love this word) pear-uh-lept-oh-FLEE-bee-uh
Hexagenia hex-uh-GENE-ee-uh

And the favorite Latin word of all eighth grade boys is the name for pine tree...

Stop Pebble Mine