Posted 11:27 a.m. Friday, May 6, 2022

Photo: Bug Hartsock with their artwork "Neon Centipedes," created on an iPad.

The smallest creatures have the largest impact

By Bug Hartsock

When I was in preschool, we had a class project – keeping mealworms. They’re small, squirmy little larvae of a beetle that eats decaying leaves. My favorite was one that had a slightly lighter color than all the others. I would carefully carry that particular larva around in a plastic cup. One day, a fellow preschooler approached and asked to see. He bashed the cup out of my hand.

I wish I could tell you that was the first and last time someone hurt something to upset me. But it was one of many. Young people push boundaries, and this includes inevitable poking at the sensitivities of others. My sensitivity was obvious. I would cry at even the idea of something being killed, particularly those small arthropods we casually call “bugs.”

At five, the all too classic question of what I wanted to be when I grew up was answered with a confident “entomologist!” I knew the word because I had consumed every book about insects (and their segmented, jointed-legged relatives) in my public library. My mom even set my first email account with the password “buglover” (it isn’t anymore - please don’t try). I was obsessed. Maybe it was growing up in the Texas country, surrounded by an invasive bamboo forest and wood-boring beetles in our log pile. All I can say is for as long as I can remember, I was entranced by this miniature alien world. And I knew it was something I wanted to protect.

Growing up, I often convinced myself that raw vulnerabilities are better left unspoken if you don’t want to get hurt. And though this may be true in the short term, it isn’t an effective way to change things for the better. Once I’d re-decided I wanted to pursue entomology (after majoring in sociology), I was told that I wouldn’t be able to do science because I’m too sensitive. I was told that I’m silly for caring about animals that are “essentially robots.” In contrast, I was also told that this was of course the thing I should do – that I’d wanted it since I was a kid.

It was two years ago when I officially asked my closest friends to call me “Bug.” It was my username online, a cute nickname in childhood, but never a name. Never something official. I toyed a bit with other gender-neutral monikers, including an email that featured the name “Stevie.” But nothing ever felt like me. Except for Bug.

The greatest barrier to the legal name change was money. People, overall, were surprisingly supportive. I paid the city of La Crosse $170.26 to file the forms. And then the La Crosse Tribune $108.97 to publish the announcement (an odd bureaucratic requirement). It’s funny that something that belongs to me more than anything else was so expensive to change.

My name is Bug Hartsock. I’m decently sensitive, and I’m an entomology graduate student. I like to draw comics about bugs. I don’t take myself very seriously, and I won’t believe it’s a bad thing for a scientist to care. I think it probably makes for more ethical science if killing something makes you sad. I don’t want to be unfeeling and clinical. I want to be someone who can excitedly tell people I named myself after my favorite thing. Like insects in metamorphosis, we are all changing. Though we’re small, a tiny revolution begins when someone cares just a little bit more. And if enough people care, something new might take flight.