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ASU professor launches project to study little-known but lucrative trade: Bugs on the black market

Arizona State University professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner recently started a project to sort and identify dozens of preserved insects.

She and a team of six undergraduate students are sorting boxes full of “bags and bags of different types of insects that were basically seized at a port as they were trying to be illegally smuggled into the U.S.”

All of the specimens they’re working with are from adjudicated or resolved cases.

“These were already preserved, and they’ll usually be,” Weidner said of all the beetles, mantids and other kinds of insects now stored in her lab on ASU’s West campus.

According to Weidner, collectors make up most of the customer base. But aside from that, “there’s not a lot of information about what insects are being illegally trafficked or smuggled.”

“If you say ‘wildlife forensics,’ people think ‘rhinos in Africa,’” said Weidner. “They don’t think, ‘insects in the mail.’ And what I want people to understand is, it is happening right here on our doorstep. It is not a far away problem. It is happening everywhere in the world and it’s extremely lucrative.”

It’s a multibillion dollar industry annually, said Weidner, and people don’t even realize it.

“If you go on eBay right now, you can find a bunch of insects for sale,” she said. “Can you confirm if they were illegally taken or not? I don’t know.”

But what makes it illegal?

“It can be where they were collected,” said Weidner. “Were they collected from a national park, or on some type of land like that?”

It can also be the act of bringing them over the border, especially without an import or export permit.

The team’s investigation will be tough — preserved specimens can only tell them so much.

“We’re trying to look at what specific insects are being trafficked, where they're coming from,” Weidner said. “And then we're going to work with attorneys and agents and investigators to see what information we can give them that will help them while they're working these cases.”

Then they plan to develop information “cheat sheets" about each type of insect. Weidner said she and a team of students are also working to create museum displays to help increase awareness of bugs on the black market.

“We really want to emphasize the diversity and show that they can be beautiful,” said Weidner. “They’re not just this little thing that’s scurrying in the corner of the home or something like that. [We’re trying] to break down that stigma of all ‘insects are creepy and gross,’ because they’re really beautiful and do amazing things.”

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the photographer in some photo captions.

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.