Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Bug: A Damsel in distress?

Damsel Bug (Nabis) lurking on Echinacea
I've always wondered why members of the family of rather small and innocuous predatory bugs are called Damsel Bugs (Nabidae). 'Damsel', according to the OED, comes to us as a "Proto-Gallo-Romance dim[inuative] of L[atin] domina lady: see DAME". In the past, a damsel was a young unmarried woman of noble birth, but now a damsel gets by as a literary, archaic, or jocular reference ('damsel in distress'). To me, 'damsel' usually congers up an image of a young woman in a flowing gown, a peaked hat, and wispy veils. Of course, at least half of all damsel bugs are dames, but both their implied nobility and fragility escape me.
Female Lestes cf disjunctus - a damselfly
Pierre AndrĂ© Latreille named the type genus of the Nabidae, Nabis, in 1802. However, rather than resolving the origin of 'damsel bugs', this simply adds to the confusion. The last king of Sparta was a Nabis: interesting, but unilluminating. Also, a group of French post-impressionists who followed the ideas of Paul Gaugin (born in 1848) called themselves 'Les Nabis' - from the word for 'prophet' in Hebrew. Unfortunately, 'Prophet Bugs' they are not (and it would indeed have been prophetical if Latrielle had named his bugs for the painters). 'Nabis' is Latin for a giraffe, but calling these small, short-necked bugs 'Giraffe Bugs' would be stranger still.
Male Lestes congener perhaps confused by his common name
In contrast to Damsel Bugs, Damselflies do have a rather whispy and delicate nature that seems not at all  odds with their common name. Others may disagree (e.g. John Acorn calls them 'flying neon toothpicks') and the origin of generic names does tend to emphasize habits not generally attributed to damsels. The Spread Wing damselfly genus Lestes, for example, comes from the Greek for a pirate or plunderer; the Eurasian Bluets genus Coenagrion appears to be from the Greek for 'common' and 'fierce' (one suspects that mosquitoes must view damselflies in just such terms). Oh well, not all etymological exercises will bear fruit. I think I'll just appreciate their beauty and wait longingly for Spring.


  1. I much prefer the 'fly' to the 'bug' ! ;)

    Another very informative post. Are you ento by trade or passion ?

    1. By both, although technically my trade depends more on my acaro skills.