Why common names are essential for bee conservation

This is a guest post by Dr Tobias Smith, a bee ecologist and stingless bee expert at University of Queensland. He founded Bee Aware Brisbane and is also on the board of Wild Pollinators Oceania. Tobias is one of Australia’s leading native bee experts and has published an easy to use identification key to Australian bee genera, which you can download for free here. Effective communication plays a key role in conservation of bees (and biodiversity generally), a topic Tobias and I have published on before.


Lately on social media I have seen some spread of the idea that common names for bee species are detrimental to the science and conservation of bees and so should be avoided. I disagree, and in fact I regard common names as a vital part of bee conservation. Let me explain why.

First of all, let’s look at scientific naming, using Australia’s two biggest bee species as an example, Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki. These are big (males up to 26mm in length, females up to 22–23mm in length) beautiful, furry, yellow and black bees. These bees have the genus name Xylocopa. In Australia there are eight known Xylocopa species, but there are hundreds more found around the world. The second name, Koptortosoma, is the subgenus name. It tells us which part of the evolutionary tree of Xylocopa these bees are in.

Bees are actually a little strange in that many have subgenus names like this. Most species in the world do not have a subgenus name. In fact, not even all bees have a subgenus name, although most do. The last names of our two big bees are the species-level names, aruana and lieftincki. The difference in species-level name between these two tells us that although they are closely related, coming from the same genus Xylocopa and subgenus Koptortosoma, they are indeed different species.

All of the Xylocopa bee species in Australia are commonly called carpenter bees. The six species in the Koptortosoma subgenus are collectively referred to as the great carpenter bees, and the remaining two, which are in a different subgenus, Lestis, are usually referred to as the green carpenter bees. So, the common name ‘great carpenter bee’ refers to any of the six species of Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) bees, and the name ‘green carpenter bees’ can refer to either of the two species of Xylocopa (Lestis) bees. You can see that in using these common names we are being less precise than if we were talking specifically, using a scientific name for a particular species, such as Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki.

Scientific names for species are an essential pillar of the system we use to describe, understand and explore biology. They allow us not only to be precise about the species in question, they also convey information about evolutionary relationships among species. This avoids any chance of confusion among species, and so allows the compilation of information for respective species in a robust and reliable way. Without scientific names for species, biological science would flounder in inaccuracy and uncertainty. And that is exactly why scientific names are used by scientists in biological science.

But what about the use of common names? These are popular names given to species, that make talking about and remembering them easier for non-scientists (and sometimes easier for scientists too). In our example above, we have the great carpenter bees and the green carpenter bees. Much easier names to learn and remember than their full scientific names. In fact, in this case their common names are also more descriptive for most people, because they tell us something about these bees. These bees are carpenters in that they make their nests in timber, by chewing nest tunnels into dead branches in trees. Common names are great for getting to know organisms, and are easier to learn and remember, but they are less precise. If you see a great carpenter bee, which of the six great carpenter bees have you seen? If a scientist wrote a scientific paper about great carpenter bees but did not use individual scientific names for the bees they were studying, the value of the work would be greatly reduced, because there would be uncertainty as to which individual species were the focus.

Let’s go back to our two big bee species, Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki. These two bee species are found in the same areas (parts of NSW, QLD and the NT), and are similar ecologically and behaviourally. They are also similar in appearance. In fact, if you see a female of one of these two species flying by, it is impossible with the naked eye to know which of the two species you have seen. The only way to reliably determine which species it is, is to catch it, kill it, scrape off the hairs on the top of its face, and then look at this area under a microscope with very good lighting. The pattern of tiny pits on the exoskeleton on the top of the face differs between the two species.

Two gorgeous Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) (Supplied: Tobias Smith)

How many of us have any desire, or need, to do that? So, we cannot reliably identify that bee flying past to a specific species, but we could say that we saw a Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) bee species. Or we could say that we saw a great carpenter bee species. (Note: it’s always a good idea to also say where you saw a species if sharing the sighting on social media or elsewhere, as sometimes the same common names are used for different groups or different species in different parts of the world.)

Scientific names are the ultimate names to use for precision when talking about species and are essential for science. But that does not mean that common names do not still have immense value. It would be great if everyone knew the scientific names of all sorts of bee groups and species, and that hearing them and saying them was commonplace. But it is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect everyone, especially non-specialists, to learn all scientific names and speak taxonomic language.

Common names, on the other hand, are a lot more accessible. In the conservation of bees, everyone is a stakeholder, and everyone has an impact. Bees are of vital importance to ecosystems and crop production, and as a result of both of these, to humanity. But bees the world over experience a range of threats, and they need us to help protect and support them. The first part of widespread bee conservation is in the recognition by society of the value of bees and bee diversity. But we do not value what we do not know. We need society talking about bees if we are to collectively understand and value bees.

This is where common names have a vital role. We need to start somewhere, and common names get people talking about organisms. Common names are a valuable tool for science communication, helping to make science more accessible to non-scientists. Science communication is about the inclusive sharing of scientific knowledge, not about locking knowledge away in a vault, accessible only by elitist scientists who have had the training to interpret that information. Science must be shared, in an accessible way, so as to improve the scientific literacy of society.

In improving bee literacy in Australia, we cannot only preach to the choir of bee enthusiasts who soak up every bit of bee science they can get. We also need to talk to the people who do not yet think much about bees. Supporting bees means getting everyone involved in valuing bees. If school children, teachers, politicians, farmers, office workers, trades people, truck drivers, and everyone else know that great carpenter bees exist, that is an excellent thing. If some of them go on further to call them Xylocopa bees, amazing. If some eventually go on to know about the subtle difference between Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) aruana and Xylocopa (Koptortosoma) lieftincki even more amazing, and those are the people we need to encourage even further to consider becoming the next generation of bee professionals.

I aspire to having Australians as informed about bees as they are about birds. There are more than twice as many bee species in Australia as there are bird species. But people talk about native bird species in day to day life much, much more than native bee species are talked about. Common names are common practice for talking about birds all around the world, including among bird experts when engaging in both science communication and in their conversations with other bird experts. Mammals, reptiles and fish also have common names that are widely used and accepted by scientists and non-scientists alike.

How many of us know the scientific name for the koala, or eastern grey kangaroo, or humpback whale, or bottlenose dolphin, or yellow tailed black cockatoo, or laughing kookaburra?

Yet millions of Australians know these species, think about these species, and value these species. When we have collective value placed on bee groups and species, society is more likely to collectively conserve them too. Bees are already at a disadvantage compared with birds and mammals, because they are much smaller and harder to see, and much more diverse. So, we need all of the tools we can get in helping society value them, including encouraging and enabling the use of common names.

Common names have a very important part to play in making scientific information more accessible to non-scientists, and as such, in the case of bees, help to broaden the bee literacy of the Australian public. Ultimately if more people grow to value bees, we may make better decisions as a society about protecting and supporting bees. We need to keep plodding along by making bee science more accessible to, and inclusive of, non-scientists, not by treating it as an elite practice accessible to only a select few.

© Tobias Smith 2020

Carpenter’s Daughter (Supplied: Tobias Smith)

11 thoughts on “Why common names are essential for bee conservation

  1. Dee Murphy October 9, 2020 / 9:13 AM

    Well presented article. I am only just starting to learn about Australian bees, and find I still need to group them by common names. As a botanist, I know the value of scientific names, and I will start to learn and remember more bee’s scientific names as time goes on

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Cristina October 9, 2020 / 9:50 AM

    The scientific name should follow by the common name, specially for those of us that find very difficult that pronunciations .
    Also, is such a list of common names, if so where?.
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Marc Newman October 10, 2020 / 6:50 PM

    I agree entirely. Very few bird watchers or butterfly lovers use scientific names. I’ve been looking at native bees since 2006 and have over 120 species photographed mostly around our property. I feel confident with their scientific names but will always use a common name if there was one. One big difficulty is the lack of common names for many of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tobias Smith October 12, 2020 / 9:17 PM

      Very True Marc. Not many common names out there for Australian bees. Common names mostly exist for groups, rather than species. Terry Houston lists some common names, and Gina Cranson’s posters popularised some common names too. But I think we should get creative and popularise some more common names!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tobias Smith October 12, 2020 / 9:19 PM

      I agree Marc! Terry Houston’s book lists some common names for groups, and Gina Cranson’s posters popularised common names for a handful of species. But I think we could all do better at thinking of some creative and appropriate common names for more relatively easily recognisable bee species.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Tobias Smith October 12, 2020 / 9:15 PM

    I agree Cristina, both names should go together in popular science. Unfortunately though, the is not exactly any list of common names for Australian bees. In Terry Houston’s book (A guide to native bees of Australia, 2018), he lists common names for groups where they exist. Some common names even incorporate the genus name, in the absence of any particular common name.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tobias Smith October 12, 2020 / 9:20 PM

    Marc Newman (I can’t reply directly to your comments for some reason?): I agree Marc! Terry Houston’s book lists some common names for groups, and Gina Cranson’s posters popularised common names for a handful of species. But I think we could all do better at thinking of some creative and appropriate common names for more relatively easily recognisable bee species.

    Liked by 1 person

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