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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