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Jennifer Graham

Insects in the mail: Let the buyer beware

The sale and distribution of insects isn’t entirely benevolent


Amid all the moaning and groaning about the lackluster American economy, outmuscled of late by China, remember this: We’re not broke yet. We still have enough money to buy bugs.

Bug business is booming in America, thanks in part to the US Postal Service, which, like Noah, ships most everything that creeps and crawls upon the Earth. But mail-order bugs are just the start. At the garden center, we buy mealworms to feed wild birds. We buy butterflies to release at weddings. We buy bees to pollinate our gardens. We even buy bugs to eat other bugs.

In doing so, we think we’re getting back to nature, getting chummy with the land and the earth spirits, but it’s like a package of “all-natural cigarettes.” Technically, yes, they’re natural, but they will kill you anyway. The sale and distribution of insects, while not as patently harmful as the sale and distribution of fried Oreos, is troubling to anyone paying attention to the giant crashing through the forest, leaving nothing behind but a trail of crushed beanstalks.

The giant, yes, would be us. And while overfed warblers and confused butterflies aren’t destroying the ozone, their manipulation at the hands of benevolent overlords, the human race, contributes to what Massachusetts author Elizabeth Kolbert calls “reshuffling the earth’s biota.”


In her new book “The Sixth Extinction,” Kolbert catalogues the ways in which modern species are dying, from golden frogs of Panama to the little brown bats of New York state. But the cataclysm is not just that animals and plants are dying out, but also that they are moving, relocated to strange and often inhospitable environs by humans, with forethought and without. “The process of remixing the world’s flora and fauna, which began slowly, along the routes of early human migration,” Kolbert writes, “has, in recent decades, accelerated to the point where in some parts of the world, non-native plants now outnumber native ones.”


Animals, too, are turning up in places you wouldn’t expect them, and the outcome of forced relocation is rarely good. This is why the North American Butterfly Association begs brides not to release migratory monarchs as part of their nuptials. The butterflies get all confused, like a man on the interstate with a malfunctioning GPS. If you must be married in the presence of butterflies, you can hold your ceremony at the Butterfly Place in Westford.

Because insects are not puppies — in fact, in certain industries, they are known as “pests” — the bug business benefits from a liberal spray of euphemism. Horse owners, for example, order non-segmented roundworms to help control flies, fleas and maggots. But not really. They’re “beneficial nematodes” according a promotional brochure I received in the mail. To control pets on their crops, farmers can order “pirate bugs.” Who doesn’t want a dashing pirate bug in their garden?

The truth fares poorly in insect marketing, which is why no ads say, “What springtime occasion is not enhanced with an infestation of small, dotted beetles that bite?”

Instead, “Celebrate with ladybugs!” exhorts the catalogue of Arbico Organics, an Arizona company specializing in bugs by mail. “Ladybug celebrations are great for the environment, fun for friends and family, and make your event unique and extra special!” Anyone who’s ever tried to rid a room of ladybugs will be considerably less enthused. (Tip: vacuuming works; scented candles not so much.)


Any fretting over mankind’s meddling in nature, of course, assumes a judgment that everything breathing has a PETA-given right to exist. This runs counter to our cherished judicial system, which holds that our right to operate in the world extends only to the point at which we start harming others; after that, we can kill you or lock you in a cell. All justice-loving people, therefore, should look skeptically at efforts to preserve the ancient traditions of pythons and alligators, even if we sing along, with moist eyes, to “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.” Humans are altering the earth, yes, as even kind-hearted giants do. But the only remedy is a vast immobility that looks something like death. Maybe that will be the planet’s retaliation.

A memory is stirred, of the classic children’s story of ecology and the food chain. A revision for our time is in order:

There was an old lady who purchased a fly. I don’t know why I purchased a fly. I think we’ll all die.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @grahamtoday.