Smuggling Can Mean Big Trouble
It was Spring 2008, and the rhinoceros, hercules, and
king stag beetles--some 6 inches long--that arrived in Natalia Vandenberg’s
office were all dead. But they were still impressive for their size
Authorities with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection
(CBP) sent her the beetles in late May 2008, after postal workers
in Mohnton, Pennsylvania, heard scuttling noises inside a package
from Taiwan. An investigation followed and the beetles were taken
As an ARS expert on the insect group Coleoptera, which
includes beetles, Vandenberg was asked to identify the specimens that
CBP agents had taken. After careful study, she decided the species
were native to Asia, Australia, Central and South America, and Papua
New Guinea—but not the United States!
And that was a problem.
“Foreign beetles are a potential threat to agriculture
and the environment,” says Vandenberg, an entomologist with
ARS’ Systematic Entomology Laboratory at the National Museum
of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
Special permits and handling are required to ship live
beetles into the United States. Otherwise, the beetles might escape,
multiply, and start feeding on native plants or crops.
But the package from Taiwan didn’t come with any permits. Its
label listed toys, gifts, and jellies as the contents. Instead, it
contained more than two dozen live beetles--males and females.
The person who ordered the beetles never received them.
In fact, he was charged in federal court for illegally importing foreign
plant pests! But he wasn’t the only one. In another case, a
Virginia man also was charged with smuggling in a bunch of the jumbo-sized
The beetles had to be killed, but they weren’t
destroyed. After all, they were still prized specimens. In June 2009,
the court allowed the Smithsonian Institution to publically display
the beetles as part of the museum’s national Entomology Collection.
One of the largest and oldest in the world, the collection
contains 35 million insect and mite specimens. Vandenberg is among
scientists from ARS, the Smithsonian Institution, and Department of
Defense who maintain this collection.
Each year, she and other scientists at the ARS lab identify about
35,000 insect and mite specimens! You’d think that’d keep
them plenty busy. But no, they also investigate the biology, taxonomy,
and whereabouts of both new and recently arrived species. These pests
go by such names as the red palm mite, glassy-winged sharp shooter,
and emerald ash borer.
The scientists’ “detective” work helps
protect our crops and natural resources from the harm that exotic
pests can cause--whether they sneak in of their own, or are smuggled
By Jan Suszkiw,
Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff