Insect Pollinators or Pollinator Insects?

Recently, a reviewer of one of my manuscripts requested that I change the term “pollinator insects” to “insect pollinators” throughout the manuscript, because the latter was the usual term found in the literature.

I’ve nearly always used “pollinator insects” in my publications, partly from habit because one of my PhD supervisors once told me that was correct usage, and partly because “insect pollinators” sounded ambiguous to me – was I talking about insects that pollinate things, or about other organisms that pollinate insects? But this was the first time I had been specifically requested to change my phrasing to conform to apparently common usage.

The reviewer is right. Search any journal database or linguistic corpora, and you will get many more hits for “insect pollinators” than you will for “pollinator insects”. Usage of “insect pollinators” also goes back further than the alternative (Scopus results: 1933 for “IP” and 1991 for “PI”). Even the reliable source Google Trends doesn’t register any interest at all for “pollinator insects”!

Yet grammatically, both terms are correct and choosing one would depend on how you were using it.

A compound noun is made up of two separate nouns (or sometimes a noun and an adjective). The order those nouns appear in is important – the first one qualifies the type of thing you are talking about and second notes the group of things being referred to. So a “school tree” is a tree owned by the school and a “tree school” is a school that teaches about trees (or perhaps teaches the trees themselves!).

In the case of pollinators, “pollinator insects” would be most appropriate if you were talking about insects generally but wanted to specifically discuss particular species that pollinate flowers. Whereas “insect pollinators” would be most appropriate when talking about all pollinators generally but making specific mention of the pollinators that are also insect species.

Interestingly, for most compound nouns, the order of each term is pretty clear. For example, an ecologist doesn’t collect field data doing “work field” and a scientist doesn’t wear a “coat lab” in the laboratory. Insect pollinators/pollinator insects is one of the few cases where both variations of a compound noun are used interchangeably to mean the same thing.

In the context of a scientific article published in an academic journal, it really wouldn’t matter which term you used. I prefer “pollinator insects” because it is less ambiguous and it is a natural progression from the more generally used “pollinators”.

You could perhaps argue that one was more appropriate than the other based on the audience and subject matter of the journal it was being published in – for example, “pollinator insects” might be more appropriate in an article about particular bee taxa for a specialist entomological journal, while “insect pollinators” might work better when mentioning the contribution of insect species to pollination of flowers generally. But generally, both will be appropriate and even complementary within a single article.

So how did “insect pollinators” become the most common form of usage, even in cases where it might not have been the most appropriate?

I wonder if it might be because the demand for using “pollinator insects” appropriately (see above) was historically lower than for the alternative. Most specialist entomological studies of insects that pollinate flowers (i.e. “pollinator insects”) don’t necessarily need to use that term – the authors use taxonomic names and refer to the pollination relationship between plant and insect indirectly. Discussion of pollinators and pollination generally, and therefore specification of the “insect pollinators” among the broader group of animal pollinators, is more of a recent thing.

Any ideas?

Is this some kind of a linguistic desire line?

What other terms are common, but perhaps not the most appropriate, usage in ecology?

Any linguists know of studies that consider how scientific literature influences language?

© Manu Saunders 2017

6 thoughts on “Insect Pollinators or Pollinator Insects?

  1. jeffollerton March 14, 2017 / 6:17 PM

    “Pollinator insects” sounds wrong to me – I don’t know why, but it comes across as clumsy compared to “insect pollinators”. Rather than “pollinator insects” I would say “pollinating insects”.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ScientistSeesSquirrel March 15, 2017 / 8:15 PM

      I agree with Jeff, right down to agreeing that I’m not sure why! Perhaps it’s only my greater familiarity with the term that’s more common in the literature. A lot of word choice boils down to “which phrasing is everyone already familiar with” – people often think words mean what they “should” mean, but in fact they mean what the majority of people think they mean. (Consider a “moot point”, as an example).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Manu Saunders March 15, 2017 / 8:38 PM

        Agree, ‘pollinating insects’ is often a better alternative, but still gets less hits than ‘insect pollinators’. Interesting how that version of the compound noun became the most used.


  2. Kit Prendergast March 14, 2017 / 7:13 PM

    Likewise, I use pollinating insects – that is, the noun (insects) pollinates (a verb), and what they do (pollinating) is an adjective describing what the insects do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Colin Purrington March 15, 2017 / 9:01 PM

    In 19 century books catalogued by Google, usage of “insect pollinators” is earliest (1869 in Nature) and most popular (8 hits), beating “pollinator insects” (1 hit from 1893). I’m sure there’s a better database to check for such, but perhaps useful. If “insect pollinators” was first, that might explain the pattern. “Pollinating insects” was also used in that 1869 article, and is also a popular term (9 hits in 19th century books).

    Liked by 1 person

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