Like the butterfly effect, a small change can often have larger implications. The decision by the Entomological Society of America to change insects’ common names reflects its commitment to ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion are real—and not fleeting.
Two insect species are getting a name change. “Gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant” have been removed as recognized common names from the Entomological Society of America’s Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List because the use of “gypsy” perpetuates negative ethnic and racial stereotypes.
ESA’s recently launched Better Common Names Project seeks community input on ESA’s common names list and will oversee the direction of working groups to develop and recommend new common names. In March, ESA’s governing board approved new policies for acceptable insect common names, barring names that reference ethnic or racial groups and ones that might stoke fear. The policies also discourage geographic references, particularly for invasive species.
“Our leadership has been intentional about making equity and inclusion a priority in our organization and the broader society that isn’t performative and actually asks hard questions and seeks to make positive change,” said Josh Lancette, ESA’s managing editor.
ESA had heard from the Romani people about how the common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides affected their perception of self, both as children and adults, Lancette said. In June, ESA’s governing board elected to remove them from the ESA common names list.
“Not only is it an ethnic slur, the Romani people have also faced eradication and discrimination,” Lancette said. “So being correlated with an insect that is facing those same things is inappropriate.”
Other organizations are also reviewing the common names that are used to identify organisms. For example, the World Health Organization is looking at geographic references for diseases like COVID-19 and is using the Greek alphabet for variants rather than geographic regions. “It’s recognizing that what we call things matters and can have a spillover effect on humans,” Lancette said. “It could be the source of racism or exclusion or xenophobia.”
Native to Eurasia, Lymantria dispar is a serious pest of North American forests, with caterpillars that feed on more than 300 species of trees and shrubs. This year, parts of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of L. dispar in decades.
As for the new common names, ESA’s volunteer working groups, which will include people who are engaged with research about the insect as well as forestry professionals, will work to come up with a new common name for L. dispar. It will be available to ESA members for comment and then for approval by ESA’s Committee on Insect Common Names and its governing board.
“Our hope is that this project will help create a more inclusive entomology and also a more inclusive society as a whole,” Lancette said. “Even in small ways, every step forward is important.”