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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Bug 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 and beauty.

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 evidence.

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 beetles

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 in illegally.

By Jan Suszkiw, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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