Scientists Ask Americans to Help Change Racist Insect Names

Scientists are asking for help to rename racist insects, as they seek to remove terms which are "inappropriate or offensive."

The Entomological Society of America (ESA) announced in June the common names for the moth Lymantria dispar and the ant Aphaenogaster araneoides, "Gypsy moth" and "Gypsy ant," had been removed from their Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List.

The ESA confirmed the names had been scrapped as they contained an "ethnic slur," and were "identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people."

The moth is native to Eurasia, but has become a pest in North America in recent years, with the caterpillars feasting on hundreds of species of vegetation. Currently vast swathes of eastern Canada and the north east are experiencing one of the largest outbreaks of Lymantria dispar for decades.

The move comes as the ESA spearheaded the Better Common Names Project, which will review and replace common insect names which don't meet their standards, confirming it will change only the most "problematic names."

In March, they set out new policies regarding acceptable names, to exclude any new terms which are "referencing ethnic or racial groups and names that might stoke fear; the policies also discourage geographic references, particularly for invasive species." It also guides proposals to change existing common names.

ESA President Michelle S. Smith, BCE, said: "The purpose of common names is to make communication easier between scientists and the public audiences they serve. By and large, ESA's list of recognized insect common names succeeds in this regard, but names that are unwelcoming to marginalized communities run directly counter to that goal.

"That's why we're working to ensure all ESA-approved insect common names meet our standards for diversity, equity, and inclusion."

The renaming program has started with these two creatures, with the ESA asking for input from the public, as well as fellow scientists, to help rebrand a selection of insects. The website has a form listing the bugs which face a revamp, including the "Mexican ricer borer," "Texas citrus mite," "African mole cricket" and "Chilean recluse spider."

The online form allows you to suggest a new term, and the ESA confirmed working groups will be set up to recommend new common names, which will "participate in identifying and proposing alternatives for insect common names that perpetuate negative ethnic or racial stereotypes." Proposed names will be subject to approval by the ESA Committee on Insect Common Names and the ESA Governing Board.

File photo of the Lymantria dispar.
File photo of the Lymantria dispar. The The Entomological Society of America has removed “gypsy moth” from its Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms List. Dragi52/Getty Images