This bug's name is a slur. Scientists won't use it anymore

Gypsy moth name change part of broader push away from offensive nicknames

Photo of Angela Mulka
A female Lymantria dispar with egg mass. One female can produce an egg mass of 400 eggs. (Ed Reschke/Getty Images)

A female Lymantria dispar with egg mass. One female can produce an egg mass of 400 eggs. (Ed Reschke/Getty Images)

The Entomological Society of America, an organization that oversees insect naming, has removed “gypsy moth” and “gypsy ant” as recognized common names for two insect species in its Common Names of Insects and Related Organisms list, according to a recent press release from the agency.

The term “gypsy moth” is considered a pejorative slur to the Romani people, so it’s being retired.

The decision to rename both creatures coincides with the launch of the organization’s Better Common Names Project.

This new Entomological Society of America program will review and replace insect common names that may be inappropriate or offensive.

Entomologists, scientists in related fields and the public are invited to participate in the renaming of insects that perpetuate negative ethnic or racial stereotypes. Anyone can apply to join the working group to research new name options through its website.

So, what do we call the moth?

As the task force assigned to choosing a new name works diligently, it’s suggesting people use the insect’s scientific name, Lymantria dispar, or L. dispar.

“We’re encouraging people to use the scientific name at this point until a new common name is chosen,” said Chris Stelzig, Entomological Society of America’s executive director. “What’s nice about that is it’s a pretty easy scientific name to pronounce. It’s Lymantria Dispar or L. dispar, as the taxonomic community refers to it, which is even easier.”

Native to Eurasia, L. 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, according to the society.

“The state of Michigan is in the midst of an L. dispar outbreak,” said Mike Philip, director of the pesticide and plant pest management division in Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. “This is the second summer that we’re experiencing a historic outbreak, and it’s the biggest outbreak of L. dispar in the last 10 years. They have the potential to strip a forest bare.”

In Michigan, L. dispar is found primarily in the western and northern parts of the lower peninsula. However, in an outbreak they can be found in pockets across the state, according to Philip.

“They are a grotesque nuisance,” Philip said. “If you’re in a forest with a large population of L. dispar, the rain of caterpillar excrement coming from the trees will sound like a light rain. Their waste can clog drains, cover people's cars and even make the ground slippery.”

The Entomological Society of America had received objections from some folks in the past about the use of the moth’s common name, but it received its first formal request to change the name around October, according to Stelzig.

“I can say that the change has been better received than not, and that’s especially true among our core group of scientists,” Stelzig said. “That does not mean it’s without its challenges. In particular, some of the people who work specifically on this insect, because there is an outbreak going on right now, are finding it difficult to talk about the insect now because they don’t have a common name to use.

"With that I would say: We’re working as diligently and as quickly as possible to come forward with a new name. We have a task force that’s examining this right now. We’ve had over 100 people suggest new names for L. Dispar. And, we’ve had about 100 people ask to join the working group that’s coming up with the new name.”

Hesitant to put a firm timeline on the new common name decision, Stelzig’s optimistic the society will have the new name sooner than later.