Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee?


Language is fascinating, particularly the way in which it changes over time to incorporate new words, or old words used differently.  In science this has important implications for understanding: semantics matter.  With this in mind I’ve been curious about the alternative ways in which authors write the informal names of species.  Scientific names (Genus species)  should be fairly stable in their spelling and presentation (though not always, especially in the older literature); but “common” names of species vary widely geographically and temporally.

Here’s an example using Google’s Ngram Viewer which is a useful tool for tracking changes in word use over time.  Different authors currently use the terms “honey bee” and “honeybee”, sometimes in the same publication.  But as the image above shows. historical analysis suggests that “honey bee” is the more traditional term, and that “honeybee” only came into common usage from the start of the 20th century, and by the late 1920s had taken over “honey bee”.

Likewise “bumblebee” and “bumble bee”; despite “bumble bee” having a much earlier usage, “bumblebee” has dominated since the late 19th century:

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-10-16-51It’s interesting to speculate about what might have caused these shifts in use, and it’s possible that in these examples it was the publication of especially influential books that used one term over another and influenced subsequent writers.  Could make a good project for a student studying how use of language varies in different time periods.

For my own part I tend to prefer “honey bee” and “bumblebee”, but I can’t precisely articulate why; perhaps it’s because in Europe we talk about “the honey bee” as a single species (Apis mellifera) but not “the bumblebee” because there is usually more than one co-occurring Bombus species in a particular area.  Do others have a particular preference?

33 thoughts on “Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee?

  1. Norman Carreck

    The general entomological rule is that it is “honey bee” and “bumble bee” because both are bees. It is “dragonfly” or “butterfly” because these are not flies. However in the real world not many people know this…

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      That’s a good point, but is it a “rule” though, Norman? Or just usage? I’ve not seen it written anywhere, has it been discussed in the literature? Would be interested to follow that up.

      1. Claudia Garrido

        I knew about this “rule”, I think Snodgrass wrote it/established it. I had this discussion with an Italian colleague and he looked it up. I follow it only partly, though… write honey bee but bumblebee.

      2. Susan Walter

        It was discussed within the last year or so on the Entomo-list run by Peter Kevan from Guelph University. I think it’s an American convention, but it makes good sense to me and I have adopted it.

  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel

    Jeff, the trend where separate words get run together into a portmanteau is common in English. Think about “back seat” and “back yard”, which even 20 years ago I rarely saw as “backseat” and “backyard” – but at least in American publications, the latter are now ubiquitous. (And they grate on me). We notice this only when it’s in the transitional phase. Once the two words have fused, we just accept them as one – think “doorknob” or “broomstick”. So I think what’s interesting here is that we’ve caught “honeybee” and “bumblebee” mid-drift, and possibly (per your preference) drifting at different rates. Fun post!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Oooh! And humingbird/humming bird: https://books.google.com/ngrams/interactive_chart?content=hummingbird%2Chumming+bird&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t4%3B%2Chummingbird%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bhummingbird%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BHummingbird%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BHUMMINGBIRD%3B%2Cc0%3B.t4%3B%2Chumming%20bird%3B%2Cc0%3B%2Cs0%3B%3Bhumming%20bird%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BHumming%20Bird%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BHumming%20bird%3B%2Cc0%3B%3BHUMMING%20BIRD%3B%2Cc0

  3. ibartomeus

    As a non english native speaker I go with whatever Reviewer 3 tells me to do 😀 (which surprisingly is always the opposite of my initial choice, regardless of the choice!).

  4. Jason

    Snodgrass did state the ‘rule’ that you use two words if the insect belongs to the group described, and one if not (e.g., robber fly vs. butterfly). This is my preference, but sticklers for rules in language often lose out, because that’s not language works. The logic of using one word for bumble bee because there are more than one in an area doesn’t seem to follow, unless you also use sweat bee, leaf-cutter bee, mining bee, etc. as one word. North Americans seem to be slower to adopt the compound form. (It’s not technically a portmanteau, which would be something like ‘bumbee’ for bumble bee.) The tendency might be to move to compound forms as they become familiar, which is why you probably haven’t seen sweatbee much (or at all).

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Jason. Yes, good point regarding sweat bee/bumblebee, etc; as I said, I have a problem articulating why I prefer it 🙂 Can I ask – where did Snodgrass actually say it?

      Ornithologists seem not to have heard of the Snodgrass Convention either, e.g. “hummingbird”, “goldfinch”, etc.

      Ultimately none of it matters if we all know what we are referring to, regardless of spelling, though (as Nacho says) Reviewer 3 is always going to have a strong opinion…. 🙂

  5. Manu Saunders

    I go with Snodgrass’ usage as it’s logical enough to argue if need be. But language is dynamic and culturally diverse and, from personal experience, most scientists don’t seem to like linguistic/semantic arguments! As an aside, you’ve probably seen this, but it’s another nice piece on the issue (once you get past the Google questions): http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2015/01/24/honeybees-honey-bees/22179575/

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Yes, thanks, someone else pointed me to that. It seems as though the Snodgrass Rule has only been applied (when it has) in entomology, lots of counter examples outside the field e.g. hummingbird, catfish, goldfinch, ground ivy.

  6. Pingback: The decline of the “humble bee” – a short follow-up from yesterday’s post | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  7. Matthew Shepherd (Communications Director, Xerces Society)

    This is a great conversation and one that here at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation we’ve had several times. We opt for the two-word Snodgrass version, following the logic that they are real bees. It also makes sense in our publications because we frequently have many other bees mentioned, so all the common names follow a similar format.

    It seems that the two-word version is more widely adopted here in the US, particularly among scientific writers. However, the dictionaries would have otherwise. Both Merriam-Webster’s and Webster’s New World (the preferred references for Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook, respectively) list the one-word versions.

    There are some times when the one-word, two-word division causes confusion, particularly when we are writing about our involvement in the IUCN Bumblebee Specialist Group!

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for the comment Matthew, it seems that many people are similarly torn between which spelling to use. But as long as we all know what we are talking about it probably won’t cause too many problems. It also demonstrates the importance of scientific names: if it had been called the IUCN Bombus Specialist Group there’d have been no issue 🙂

      1. Alastair Robertson

        until someone decides that we should raise all the subgenera to generic status and then we would have
        Mendacibombus, 12 species
        Bombias, 3 species
        Kallobombus, 1 species
        Orientalibombus, 3 species
        Subterraneobombus, 10 species
        Megabombus, 22 species
        Thoracobombus, 50 species
        Psithyrus, 30 species
        Pyrobombus, 50 species
        Alpinobombus, 5 species
        Bombus (subgenus), 5 species
        Alpigenobombus, 7 species
        Melanobombus, 17 species
        Sibirocobombus, 7 species
        Cullumanobombus, 23 species
        (thanks Wikipedia for this list)

      2. jeffollerton Post author

        Yes, but I think that’s unlikely; some of these subgenera are not natural groups and the trend at the moment is for taxonomy to reflect phylogeny (though not always) so as to avoid poly- and paraphyletic taxa.

  8. Pingback: Honey bee or honeybee; bumblebee or bumble bee? | Beekeeping365

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