Gypsy moths are one of the most destructive invasive species in the world, chewing through millions of tree leaves each year, leaving forests bare and bird populations suffering.

But they have now also become the latest victim of the culture war, after the Entomological Society of America (ESA) launched a review into insect names that “may be inappropriate or offensive” and decided to “remove” the moth’s common name.

Along with the gypsy moth, which is now known only as Lymantria dispar, the gypsy ant has also seen its common name “discontinued” because it was identified as containing a derogatory term for the Romani people.

Now, the Society has launched the ‘Better Common Names Project’ and is seeking public help to point out any other potentially offensive insect names.

Candidates include the Oriental rat flea, the Asian needle ant and the West Indian cane weevil.

Gypsy moth caterpillars have been blamed for huge defoliation

Credit: AP Photo/Mel Evans

“We don’t want to associate invasive pests with particular regions of the world or particular ethnic and cultural groups,” said Joe Rominiecki from the ESA.

In what he described as a “cultural awakening” last summer, some society members started to “raise some questions about common names” and a taskforce was set up to see how widespread the issue is.

Entomologists, scientists, and the public have now been invited to participate in identifying and proposing alternatives for insect common names that perpetuate negative ethnic or racial stereotypes.

"The purpose of common names is to make communication easier between scientists and the public audiences they serve,” said ESA president Michelle Smith.

“By and large, ESA’s list of recognised insect common names succeeds in this regard, but names that are unwelcoming to marginalised 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."

Gypsy moth caterpillars merrily working their way through my cotinus. pic.twitter.com/ZC2gjRrpzM

— Caron Blay (@CaronBlay) July 8, 2021

The news has been welcomed by Terry McGlynn, a Professor of Biology at Cal State Dominguez Hills and a Research Associate at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who coined the name “gypsy ant”.

In a blog post two years ago he said that he was studying Aphaenogaster araneoides and wanted to give them a common name.

“Chatting with a couple friends at the field station, a buddy of mine came up with what I thought was a witty and charming suggestion: why not call them “gypsy ants?” 

“They are itinerant critters that move from one place to another, with a number of specific places they will stay temporarily, but never occupy a single one permanently. 

“That sounds like a pleasant way to encapsulate serial monodomy in a common name.”

But Prof McGlynn says he made a mistake, and applied to have the name withdrawn.

He hasn’t faced any criticism or complaints about the name, but said: “Nonetheless, I’ve become concerned, and it’s been clear for more than a short while that I made a bad decision to describe the ants using an ethnic slur, and I need to fix it.”

Gypsy ants have not yet been renamed, but suggestions made online include ‘nomad ants’ ‘wandering ants’ and ‘AntsBnB’.

The top 10 garden pests in the UK, according to the RHS

Problematic insect names

Not all of these have been recognised by the ESA.

Gypsy moth

First brought to America from Europe in 1869, Lymantria 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 US and eastern Canada are seeing some of the largest outbreaks of the insect in decades.

Large faggotworm

The Eumeta crameri was first described in 1854 and is found in tropical and subtropical habitats, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Puerto Rico.

The nickname has come about because it spins its cocoon all its larval life, decorating it with small twigs, bark and thorns from the trees on which it feeds. A faggot, while widely recognised as a homophobic slur, is also the name for a bundle of twigs used as fuel.

Slave-making ants

Formica sanguinea capture broods of other ant species to increase the worker force of their colony. They are found in the UK.

Slave-making ants

Credit: Juniors Bildarchiv GmbH / Alamy 

Hitler’s beetle

German collector Oscar Scheibel was sold a specimen of a then undocumented species in 1933 and named it the Anophthalmus hitleri in dedication to Adolf Hitler. The Nazi leader sent Mr Schiebel a note of thanks. Efforts to rename the beetle were rejected by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature.

Oriental rat flea

The Xenopsylla cheopis is a parasite of rodents and a primary vector for bubonic plague and murine typhus. This occurs when a flea that has fed on an infected rodent bites a human.

It was first collected and described in Sudan in 1903.