People often ask me that question in a tone that suggests they cannot conceive how anyone could possibly find insects worthy of even fleeting concern. Trying to recognize the person has contempt for insects and notnecessarily the people who study them, I summon an answer. I used to rely on my mother’s memories of my childhood experiences, but I have discovered that my affinity for the six- and eight-legged runs deeper than simple appreciation of their diversity and beauty. I honestly empathize with the predicament of living in a world that bullies, belittles, and ignores living beings that are different, small, and misunderstood.
The agreed-upon account of my love affair with insects begins in kindergarten. I vividly remember the portrait of a trapdoor spider outlined on the chalkboard by the teacher. She called it a “torpedo spider,” and considering its habit of speeding to the mouth of its burrow to ambush prey, the name was entirely appropriate. Our class also studied dinosaurs, birds, reptiles, the whole spectrum of the animal kingdom. It was all fascinating, and stimulated my curiosity and sense of wonder like nothing else.
What truly stands out, however, is what specific animals I most closely identified with. Sharks (before they were cool), bats, birds of prey, and snakes were among my favorites. They also shared something in common with insects and spiders: most people feared, hated, or were repulsed by those critters. These organisms were outcasts of human sentimentality, and that is also how I felt.
Throughout grade school, as my parents engaged in constant verbal combat, and my peers were ignoring me, teasing me, or terrorizing me, I felt unable to stand up for myself, assert my right to a conflict-free environment, and gain self-confidence. Instead, I transferred my feelings to insects. I could champion arthropods as examples of durability in the face of continual challenges.
I am not a physically large person, either, so I can also relate to being small and easily overlooked and intimidated. I almost envied the insect, snug in its crack or crevice, the torpedo spider insulated in its tube. Most of the big, powerful, aggressive, mean and nasty animals walk by without even seeing them.
On the positive side, my enthusiasm for the small world did lead me to many adults who have served as mentors and positive role models. I was even invited to join a mostly professional society of entomologists when I was only eleven or twelve years of age. This experience finally gave me, an only child, a sense of belonging, and helped turn the hobby of insect collecting into the career of entomology.
Would I trade it all just to be “normal?” I suspect that my passion for “bugs” is as much a part of me as my arms and legs. Some folks say they never chose their passion or vocation, but say that it chose them instead. I tend to agree. There’s no turning back now.