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

By Kirsten Dorman
Published: Tuesday, January 30, 2024 - 7:05am

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Lauren Weidner is a woman with long hair and glasses. She is seen here posing with an array of preserved insects, all displayed on paperboard and wrapped in plastic.
Richard Holland/ASU
Lauren Weidner, a forensic entomologist and ASU professor, poses with an array of preserved insects that were intercepted at ports of entry.

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.

A pair of hands are in the foreground, holding a plastic sandwich bag with about half a dozen preserved beetles set on small pieces of paperboard. More preserved insects can be seen in a cardboard box in the background.
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner started a project to sort and identify insects that were seized at ports of entry. She said beetles are the most common kind they see so far.

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.”

Three mantid insects are displayed side by side. They
Richard Holland/ASU
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner started a project to sort and identify insects that were seized at ports of entry. Mantids like this are more delicate and tricky to transport compared to insects with harder, 'heartier' bodies.

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.

Displayed side by side in multiple rows, lantern flies and other winged insects are visible here. They are splayed out on paperboard and individually wrapped in plastic.
Richard Holland/ASU
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner started a project to sort and identify insects that were seized at ports of entry.

“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.”

A cardboard box full to the brim with insects displayed on paperboard and individually wrapped in plastic is seen here. Some of the insects are stored in rows and wrapped together, and some are placed in resealable plastic bags.
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner and a team of six students are working to sort and identify boxes full of insects intercepted at ports of entry.

A row of resealable plastic bags in a cardboard box is seen here. They all contain preserved insects, but what kinds are not clearly visible.
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner and a team of six students are working to sort and identify boxes full of insects intercepted at ports of entry.

A stack of resealable plastic bags in a cardboard box is seen here. They all contain preserved insects, but what kinds are not clearly visible.
Kirsten Dorman/KJZZ
ASU professor and forensic entomologist Lauren Weidner and a team of six students are working to sort and identify boxes full of insects intercepted at ports of entry.

Lauren Weidner is a woman with long hair and glasses. She is seen here posing with a preserved beetle resting in the palm of her hand.
Richard Holland/ASU
Lauren Weidner, a forensic entomologist and ASU professor, poses with a preserved beetle.

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