What is a June Bug?

Most people know that most living organisms have more than one name.  Scientists often stick to scientific names, two-word names that are attached to individual described species.  Every scientist uses the same scientific name when referring to a species, regardless of the country he/she lives in.  However, the scientific name of an animal is sometimes hard for a non-scientist to say or remember.  Consider the predaceous diving beetle Thermonectus marmoratus.  Look at how long that name is!  It’s a mouthful for most people, so a common name is often used in its place: the sunburst beetle.  Sunburst beetle rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than Thermonectus marmoratus and it’s a lot easier to remember for someone who doesn’t work with scientific names on a regular basis.

There are problems with using common names though.  Think about some of the many common names that members of the aquatic bug family Gerridae have: water striders, water skaters, water skimmers, Jesus bugs, pond skaters, and pond skimmers are just a few.  Now imagine two people from different areas discussing the aquatic insects that live in or on their farm ponds over the phone.  Maybe they both like the gerrids best, the long-legged bugs that live on the surface of the water.  However, if one person calls them water skaters and  the other calls them Jesus bugs, they might never realize that they’re talking about the same insect!

I get a lot of questions about June bugs from non-entomologists.  (In spite of the “bug” in their name, June bugs are actually beetles in the scarab family.)  They are a prime example of how using the common name for an insect can cause massive confusion!  That’s because most regions of the United States have their own ideas about what a June bug is, so any one person’s June bug can be completely different from another’s.  I realized this at a very early age, long before I decided I wanted to become an entomologist, so let me use my own experience as an example of just how confusing the name “June bug” can be.

My father spent nearly his entire childhood in North Carolina.  In his part of North Carolina, June bug was the common name assigned to the Japanese beetle, an invasive green and brown scarab beetle in the area.  For my dad, June bugs will always be green scarabs because that’s what he grew up with.  My dad eventually ended up living in Arizona, so he naturally assigned the name June bug to another common green scarab, the fig beetle.  When I was very young, my dad taught me that these were June bugs (pardon the abysmal quality – today’s photos are very old, but I hope to replace them with better ones soon):

June bug - green

My June bug, the fig beetle (Cotinus mutabilis)

They might look like the June bugs my dad grew up with, but my June bugs are not my dad’s June bugs!  His June bug is an invasive species while mine is a native.  His has mostly brown elytra while mine has mostly green elytra.  My June bug is bigger than my dad’s June bug.  They have the same name, but they’re not the same species.  You can see where the common name confusion comes into play!  Geographic differences make a huge difference when it comes to assigning common names to species.  If two people from the same immediate family think of two different beetles when they hear the name June bug, it’s no wonder so many people are confused!

Now let’s complicate matters even further.  My mother grew up in Missouri.  In her part of the country, June bugs are beetles that look a lot like this:

brown June bug

Brown June bug

I didn’t know that this was a June bug to my mom until I was 9 or 10 years old and we were visiting our family in Kansas.  My sister and I were playing with the beetles we called potato bugs (i.e., the little brown scarabs, my dad’s name for them) that were crawling on the window screen under the porch light and my mom slipped and called them June bugs and not potato bugs for the first time.  My sister and I were so confused!  Weren’t June bugs those big metallic green beetles we had back in Arizona?  My mom had to explain that our dad called the green scarabs June bugs, but the little brown scarabs were June bugs to her.  We had no idea that such a thing was possible!  How could one name be applied to two completely different insects in two completely different areas?

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I didn’t even have the same June bug as my dad.  The same June bug as my sister, yes.  The same June bug as nearly every other kid I’ve talked to in Tucson, yes.  We all grew up in the same city, so we share the same June bug.  But my June bug isn’t my dad’s June bug because he grew up in a different place.  My mom’s June bug is very different from both my June bug and my dad’s June bug because she grew up in yet another place.  Ultimately, it all boils down to this: there isn’t a single June bug!  In fact, the common name likely applies to 50 or more different species of scarab beetles.

Now that I’m an entomologist and people ask me what a June bug is, I ask them what color they think a June bug is before I give them an answer.  Nearly everyone I’ve polled thinks that June bugs are either green or brown, though the size of the green or brown scarab varies a lot according to where the person grew up.  I then explain exactly what I’ve written here: that June bug is a common name that is applied to a variety of scarab beetles, usually green or brown, and that one person’s June bug can be very different from the next depending on where they grew up.  I actually love the June  bug question because it lets me discuss the problems associated with using common names.  Common names have their place for sure, but they also cause confusion.  I think it’s good for people to be aware of that.

And just because I’m curious, I’ll finish with a quick poll:

_______________

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46 responses to “What is a June Bug?

  1. While ours are brown, they also have a thick layer of yellow fur on their thorax underside. It is thick enough that I think they are actually using it for thermal insulation, so that they can warm their wing muscles up enough to fly during our cold June nights.

  2. In my part of NC, the June bug is the Cotinis nitida.

    • Interesting to know that even different parts of the same state will choose different beetles as their June bugs! I think C. nititda is in the area where my dad grew up, but they went for the Japanese beetle for some reason.

  3. I believe the ones called “June bugs” here in the Missouri Ozarks are Phyllophaga sp.

    • That might be the same sort of June bug my mom knows from the opposite corner of your state. Certainly looks a lot like it! (But then again, I think all scarabs look mostly alike…)

  4. Michael Suttkus, II

    Fun with Common Names, Florida Edition:

    Salamander: Southeastern Pocket Gopher
    Scorpion: Any of several species of skink or snake

    And our June bugs emerge in May. We’re just a messed up state.

    • Ha ha! Fabulous! Love the cross-phyla common name confusion. On the other hand, everyone seemed to understand the concept of “alligator” quite well when I was there. :)

      • Michael Suttkus, II

        Yeah, well, you get confused by the name “june bug”, there’s not a lot of penalty for it, maybe your friends mock you for a minute or two. Get confused about the meaning of “Alligator” and you’re short an arm. : – )

  5. My cat’s name is Djuna, but her nick-name is June Bug! She’s a tiny little Devon Rex cat, barely 5 pounds but full grown.

  6. I always think of June bugs as being reddish brown, glossy in nature, with a body the size of a grown man’s thumbnail… And Potato Bugs are those small gray armored centipede like critters… lol, thanks for the fascinating article.

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  8. I think that’s funny that you call Missouri’s June bug a potato bug, when Utah’s potato bug is this http://images.flowers.vg/1024×768/potato-bug.jpg. But, I’ve also seen potato bug applied to many different species, too. There’s another common term for ya. Oh, and in Utah, where I grew up, we called them Water Skiers. Or Water Skeeters. I don’t recall hearing June bug until I moved to Texas, and then Missouri (both brown, but the ones in Texas were much bigger. Everything’s bigger in Texas, right?)

    • I love hearing about all the different common names that various insects have! Those things get passed from parent to child right on down the line, so you end up with these little pockets of people that use one common name while the people the next town over might use something completely different. I’m sure there’s some sort of linguistics project in there somewhere! BTW, your potato bug has always been a roly poly to me. :)

  9. I live in western New York state. The species I know as the June Bug is a type of brown scarab beetle. They only come out in late June, and as a matter of fact, tonight is the first night I’ve seen them this year. They always come out around 9:00PM and swarm the house until about 9:30; then they disappear until the next night. If you are outside during this invasion, they will pelt you like little drunk kamikazes. Any idea why these bugs swarm my house like a tide of drunkards; and only between 9-9:30?

    • I’m not a scarab person so I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet they’re particularly active at that time of night. Do you have lights on around the outside of your house? I know the brown scarabs in Arizona are HIGHLY attracted to lights and will flock to them at night in droves. If you’ve got lights on, turning them off might help cut down on the numbers if they bother you, though there’s probably always going to be a little light leaking out through your blinds and whatnot that will attract at least a few. As for why they ram into you when you go outside, that might be a light thing too – you’re bathed in light and therefore attractive to the beetles. That’s my best guess, though like I said, I’m no expert on this group. I’m basing all of this solely on my own observations of what are likely very similar beetles to the brown June bugs you’re seeing.

      Love the image of a tide of drunkards too! Made me laugh.

  10. I’ve been in Tucson 3 summers and this is the first year my house has been covered with these reddish-brown beetle-like bugs. My first though was a June bug, except it started in July. Could they still be ”june” bugs?
    I’m really glad I found your site and this post. I was going nuts looking for an answer to this!

    • Whether they’re “June bugs” or not depends so much on where you’re from originally, but a lot of people in Tucson do call those little brown guys June bugs. The bugs I call June bugs there are the big metallic green ones, but they’re ultimately all scarabs that are out during the summer. Tucson gets a LOT of those little brown ones! Are they coming to your lights at night? That’s where I always got the most of them.

  11. I’m from Kentucky and the June bugs here are the large green ones. We have the brown beetles that come out at night and we have a striped brown one we call a potato bug, because the red larva will eat potato plants up. The hard shelled ones don’t do as much damage.

  12. Mutabilis is the June bug dive bombing me today in Charlotte. We get the Japanese invasion in May/June.
    Those little brown clumsy dudes are prolific right now too. I love bugs.

    • Me too! I’ve moved to North Carolina in the last few months and am really enjoying all the nitida flying around the area where I’m working. I’ll actually be writing a blog post about it soon!

  13. I grew up in San Diego, CA. Our June bugs there were ‘Red’ with a black underside. About 1/2 inch in size. Tried to find a pic of them online but was unsuccessful.

  14. Dottie Johnson

    I lived in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana for 45 years and our June bugs have always been the brown ones. I moved to Virginia 2 years ago and my boyfriend and I have had an ongoing disagreement about what a June bug really is. Today he found a Japanese beetle outside and called it a June bug much to my shigrin. I had to admit to him, after searching several web sights and reading many articles that we are both right! To me, the true June bug will always be the brown ones! I had a little satisfaction though when he picked his beetle up and it relieved itself on him!

    • Yes, this is one instance where you’re both right! There aren’t too many situations in life that work out that way, but by all means continue thinking June bugs are brown because that’s how you learned then and everyone has a slightly different idea of what they should look like. I love the comment at the end too. Ha ha! Funny.

  15. I grew up in southern cali. and when i was there The scarabs we called “June bugs” were a very flourescent green color. Now i live in Pennsylvania and the bugs they call june bugs here are a dull brownish yellow color.

  16. The Fig beetle (Cotinis texana) and the June beetle (Cotinis nitida) are Not the same. Figs are commonly misinterpreted as June bugs because of the strong resemblance in appearance, However, June beetles are slightly smaller and have a heavier golden hue.
    This is not limited to my state of Arizona, this is internationally accepted.

    • I don’t think I ever implied that C. nitida and C. mutabilis ARE the same beetles. Clearly they’re different species, but my point is that most people are going to be hard pressed to know the difference between the two and thus “June bug” is applied to both species. I grew up in Arizona, lived there for 20 years altogether. I am an entomologist, and I still call mutabilis June bugs, not fig beetles, because that’s what I learned a June bug was as a kid. I think if you ask most other Arizonans (and I’ve asked A LOT of them) you’ll find the same thing. June bug is even listed on the Wikipedia page as an alternative common name for mutabilis, along with fig beetle, figeater beetle, and green fruit beetle. I don’t think you can say that June bugs are nitida and fig beetles are mutabilis because the choice to call one species or the other – or something completely different – a June bug is an individual choice that doesn’t have much to do with the scientific names. I could start calling mutabilis “mega awesome super fliers of greenness” and the name isn’t any less valid than calling it a June bug or a fig beetle because it’s a common name. That’s why scientific names were developed, so we’re absolutely SURE we’re talking about the same species. Common names just aren’t applied consistently enough to expect a single common name to refer to a single species.

  17. Citing certain Wikipedia sources regarding a “nickname” for a species isn’t very proper, but I understand where you’re going with all this. I have to disagree that they can vary regionally on a professional scale, but then again, whats the point in caring if the majority of experts prefer the actual species name. I suppose my whole argument is trivial. In retrospect I don’t care what names people identify other animals with, so long as the textbooks are consistent.

    • I guess I consider all common names nicknames anyway. So few groups of insects have “official” common names that you end up with several different common names for the same species, or the same common name referring to several different species. Even when there are “official” common names, nothing’s stopping anyone from calling it something else. Dragonflies have official common names in the US, but even so the wandering glider (Pantala flavescens) is often called a hurricane fly or a globe skimmer, both in the US and in other countries. Scientific names exist for a reason: to eliminate the ambiguity caused by common names. Any other name applied to a species is just a convenient nickname as far as I’m concerned.

  18. June bugs are so gross haha hate them. I live in maine and we get them so thick sometimes the whole screen door will be covered at night and you’ll have to open and run in and try not to get one in your hair ugh in maine they’re dark brown. They’re the most annoying thing ever alway pinging at window screens ew

  19. I grew up in Memphis, TN during the 70′s and the green Fig Beetle was quite plentyful. As a kid I recall just how powerful they were. Now in Eastern, PA I am getting my fill of the Green June Bugs again. In fact, this morning there were at least 100 hovering and diving into the grass in our background.

    • Our June bugs just emerged here, but there are tons of them out right now! It’s crazy how many there are. The western ones didn’t seem to swarm around bushes the same way the ones here do, or maybe they didn’t do the same sort of mass emergence the eastern ones do. Regardless, I think it’z marvelous, and I’m glad you’re seeing lots too!

  20. Green June Bugs

    The beautiful multi-green metallic June Bugs of Southern California are always a sign of summer to me. The ones here are clumsy flyers; always banging into walls, needing helped being turned back over (I turned over the same June Bug twice today when he landed on his back first in my diningroom and then later in my bedroom!) & feel plastic to the touch.

    • That sounds about right! I love them in part because they ARE so clumsy. It seems odd to see a beetle that has such terrible coordination! But they’re fun. Glad they’re a sign of summer for you too!

  21. In Tucson, Arizona there are both the brown (pork’n bean type) and the big shiny green ones. I have a green one living with my young bearded dragon in an aquarium. It has been living in it for almost 2 months and seems to like it. I’ve been feeding it cherries, peaches and other fruit. I want to see how long it will survive if given proper living conditions.

    • Yep, Tucson definitely has both (I wrote the post in Tucson actually!), but depending on whether you (or your parents) grew up there or somewhere else, which one you call a June bug can vary. Most of the native Tucsonan children I talked to when I used to do outreach programs in schools thought of the green ones as the June bugs, not the brown ones. People that came there from the Midwest tended to lean toward the brown ones. It all depends on your personal history and who taught you what a June bug is!

  22. Koreen Terwilleger

    I’m from Oregon,I thought a June bug was a big black Beatle with white stripes. I took one to our local city hall and was told it was a June bug.

    • Interesting! Sounds like a great beetle to have as a June bug! Now I want to ask my entomologist friend who grew up in Oregon what she considers as a June bug. Her family is from the same part of the south and midwest that my family is, so she might have the same ones as me, but perhaps she has a cool stripey beetle too!

  23. Love your article on June Bugs! I spent a good part of my childhood in the Beaumont area of Texas, where our version of the June Bug looks to be the European chafer, small, brown and would be everywhere in the spring. As an adult I had just settled in the Houston area and my yard was taken over by these beautiful iridescent beetles called Figeater beetle in the fall. I had no idea they were both considered June Bugs. My back porch is filled with the lil brown ones right now…:)

    • Yes, both are often called June bugs, depending on where you live. We had the figeaters as our June bugs in Arizona, but June bugs are the brown beetles you grew up with in many other places in the country. I would one day love to do a study looking at common names of insects and the geographic distinctions among them. I think it would be incredibly interesting!

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