Office of Law Enforcement
Pacific Region



November/December 2010

Butterflies, Beetles, Busted!

We hear of smugglers dealing in weapons and drugs, but what about insects? Insect smuggling sounds unlikely, but it happens. Believe it or not, there is a black market for all kinds of creepy crawlers. People smuggle various species of insects in and out of countries illegally and sell them for astounding prices.

Beetle collection.
Beetle collection.  Photo credit:  Notafly/ Wikimedia Commons


An important thing to remember is that while drugs and weapons can be manufactured at will, insects cannot.  Once they have all been taken from the wild, there will be no more left.  Ironically, it’s the rarest of these that are most sought after by collectors. A few of the more popular insects that fall prey to smugglers are butterflies, moths and beetles. 

Rare butterflies and moths are highly sought after by collectors and can sell for up to $8,500 for one butterfly!  The moths and butterflies in this type of trade are usually killed carefully so as not to damage the wings or appearance of the butterfly and are delicately wrapped in wax paper for transport.  Transport is fairly simple as the butterflies are extremely light and already dead and therefore don’t need access to air.  Smugglers have crossed borders with them in their suitcases as well as mailed them to buyers.  The butterflies are often framed and sometimes used in artwork.


Endangered Queens Alexandra Birdwing
The endangered Queens Alexandra Birdwing, ornithoptera alexandrae species of butterfly is listed under CITES Appendix I. The asking price for a pair of these endangered butterflies has been as much as $8500. Photo credit: Robert Nash, Curator of entomology, Ulster Museum/ Wikimedia Commons

While butterflies are beautiful, the beauty of beetles is in the eye of the beholder.  However, beetles are also in high demand by collectors.  They play an important role in some cultures.  U.S. Customs and Border Protection also recently encountered beetles bedazzled with jewels glued to their backs and sold as “live jewelry”.   Beetles are usually traded alive and kept as pets.  Rare species have been sold for as much as $3000 per beetle.  In one case, smugglers tried to ship beetles to the U.S. using the U.S. Postal Service.  In that case, a worker heard scratching coming from the box and x-rayed the package to discover 25 giant beetles inside. 

A Be-dazzled Beetle
Beetle used as live jewelry found on a woman entering the U.S. from Mexico. Photo credit: Customs and Border Protection


There are a couple reasons why the U.S. places trade restrictions on some species of insects.  It could be illegal because trade in the species may harm the population to the point of it becoming extinct, or it could be that if the species somehow gets out into an environment it has never been a part of, it could disrupt the ecosystem and cause harm to the native species.

If the insect is threatened or endangered of becoming extinct, it will be listed as such by the Endangered Species Act or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  The Endangered Species Act incorporates CITES into U.S. law making it illegal to import into the U.S., possess, carry, deliver, transport, ship in interstate commerce, or export out of the U.S., any listed species without a permit.  Violating the ESA could result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to $100,000.  To check if a species is listed, click here

The insect could threaten our native plants and wildlife.  For example, the Asian long-horned beetle hitched a ride to the U.S. on a boat in 1996.  Since then the beetles have been burrowing into hardwood trees and destroying them.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if allowed to expand to its full potential range, the Asian long-horned beetle could take out 50% of the hardwood forests in North America and end up causing an economic impact loss of $650 billion!  (Watch the video in the link.)  All because a non-native beetle got loose in the U.S.  Imagine what would happen if some of the beetles that collectors are importing illegally get out too. 

We need to respect our threatened and endangered insects as much as any other species and we need to take care not to destroy the ecosystems we have in the U.S. by carelessly importing species that can cause devastating harm.

To contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about this piece or to report a violation you have witnessed, please go to and click on the “contact us” link at the top of the page.

Close up of an Asian long-horned beetle
Asian long-horned beetle.  Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


Last updated: December 3, 2013

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