Language matters

I guess enough of a deal has been made out of “nope” and “yuck!” people on social media… but just had another experience on a Facebook group where someone was hoping for butterflies and instead - yuck! - found out they were sawfly larvae.
Now, I don’t know much about sawflies, but are they really that bad? I have only had black-headed ash sawflies on my Ash tree, and understood they weren’t doing to well since the demise of the ashes. They didn’t kill the tree, but EAB did - and it wasn’t even 3 years old. It keeps regrowing suckers though.
Trying to look objectively at it, I looked to see if there were other threatened sawflies, and instead found scores of descriptions of the behavior sawflies exhibit when threatened (wow!). I don’t find much information on their status… but I do see them being described as “attacking” trees.
So why do we use this language? Why do butterflies “feed” and sawflies “attack”? And can we lump all sawflies together as pests - there seem to be tens of thousands of species… surely they cannot all be bad. Am I just naïve about the damage sawflies do, or is it just public perception that also makes people say “nope” at the image of a spider? Can the sawfly be rebranded so they are as desirable as a butterfly?
And, on another note, what other instances of language have changed a public’s attitude towards an animal? Definitely anything called a “parasite” will get bad rap…

9 Likes

being rebranded as “orange roughy” wasn’t great for some populations of slimehead fish, and rebranding as “Chilean seabass” wasn’t great for the Patagonian toothfish either.

as a group, i don’t think sawflies are bad. a lot the larvae even have cute faces which caterpillars don’t have (ex. https://youtu.be/yOATFY9s33Y ). it sounds like it in your example, the person might have just had a fear of waspy insects, which i guess could be just tied to some basic fears that some people are never able to overcome.

6 Likes

Could the language of “attack” vs “feed” be about the host plant, too? Maybe trees are deemed more important than, say, milkweed?

2 Likes

Adult sawflies aren’t as showy as butterflies, and some of the bad rap probably comes from the fact that the larvae feed on trees, which potentially makes them pests in the eyes of the forestry industry. I tell my “Gardening for Wildlife” students that these larvae are great food for baby birds, so leaving them on your trees is good for your local bird populations.

6 Likes

Related:

5 Likes

I wrote about this in the intro to a blog about a clearwing moth (aka borers). Often moths and sawflies are pests, while butterflies are celebrated. https://pollinatorweb.com/glamorous-moths-5-penstemonia/

One of my favorite sayings (forget where I heard it first): if something isn’t eating your plants, your garden isn’t wild enough

5 Likes

A butterfly is cute. But those caterpillars are eating my plants making them look ugly! Even the pretty butterflies have no future.

1 Like

:smiling_face_with_tear: :violin: :musical_note: :hibiscus::bug:

3 Likes

But not the cabbage white. Or, presumably, the alfalfa yellow. I think that “attack” is used when the insect feeds on a plant that humans value.

4 Likes

Yes, but none of those threads really talk about our use of language to influence feelings - just what gives us the creeps. I remember reading once about how phrasing helps a community accept areas set aside for wildlife - I believe they found that if they called them “wilderness areas” it had a negative connotation, but if they called it “green space” people would have a positive connotation. I just thought the same could be done for animals.

4 Likes

That feeds back into discussions about dealing with appropriate water use in cities during drought, or COVID vaccinations.
The scientists and doctors need to work with sociologists to find effective ways to spread the message. Which is the (winning) half of the battle to change people’s behaviour.

4 Likes

I only know English, and it is indeed a strange language. We refer to people as being ‘creepy’ or a ‘creep’, being sick as a dog, eating like a pig etc. Animals often get a bad rap - they infest, destroy, are invasive, toxic, slimy, disgusting. Some associations are so bad that I suspect a name change would not change our perceptions. If we renamed the cockroach as the house blattid, it would still do what it does and be reviled for it. I suppose renaming it would help the many wild species, but associations would remain.
Some English words just feel bad to say. L. dispar (original name had negative connotations) has been renamed as the Spongy Moth. I hate saying ‘spongy’! Don’t know why, it just is gross to say. Oddly, the correct names for reproductive organs are kind of gross to say - penis. Testicles (testes is nicer to say for some reason). It’s not what they are that is bothersome, but the actual words themselves. Perhaps it is the ‘ee’ and the hard ‘i’ sound that makes words just sound bad. Crawl is a better word than Creep. Even a word like ‘see’ is somehow less nice to say than ‘visualise’. Sea vs ocean - similar, although the soft ‘s’ smooths out the ‘ee’.
I’m just thinking out loud here. ‘Sawfly’ is a nice word to say, and for the most part, they are just fine. Although there is very little in the world that I find repulsive. There’s that ‘ee’ sound again!

1 Like

Sorry, when I posted it as related, I didn’t mean to imply the post was a duplicate, only that it covers a similar topic of discussion.

Your point about language and how it influences thought about nature is certainly valid. I’ve seen it echoed in this book, for example where the authors mention difficulty in getting people to support conservation of a particular tarweed.

I think you are opening up a broader topic of how language influences thought which is interesting…

5 Likes

I have to admit, “rose” does sound nicer than “thornbush.”

3 Likes

If you’re from my neck of the woods that all depends on if the word “multiflora” precedes it :wink:

1 Like

Like that song: :notes: Every rose has it’s thornbush… :notes:

2 Likes

:notes: And every nightingale has it’s song :notes:

2 Likes

Tarweeds! Such gorgeous little flowers that bloom when most everything else is crispy and dried up! They definitely need a much better name!

4 Likes

Yes, I agree. the not so pretty insects get a bad response generally speaking. I think all of nature needs lots of images put out there - every little life-form is precious and all interconnected. Those interconnections help maintain our planet’s human-damaged health. And sawflies can be very beautiful - look at these eyes: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/79850822
Thanks for raising this topic!

3 Likes

Language does matter. I love to go berry picking and friends love the jam. I have separated them by whether they curse the berry canes for all those thorns, or whether they thank the thorn canes for sharing their precious berries. And gift accordingly.

2 Likes