Written by Joe Ballenger
Is it true that you can order insects when it is illegal for me to order them? Example I would wanna buy a beetle from Japan and it’s illegal for me to own one can you bypass that law since you are a entomologist?
Wow. OK, yeah. This is a really good question.
It’s very short to answer, and the answer is really important.
If I wanted to own something that was a potential pest, I could not legally do that despite my profession. In fact, there’s probably a lot more scrutiny on what I have access to than the normal person. I work with a lot of agricultural pests, and there’s a lot of laws I have to follow in my every day work. These laws are in place because the insects I work with could be extremely damaging if accidentally released into the wrong area.
In my lab, I can’t just bring something in because I’m an entomologist and I want it. First, I have to justify the risk of transporting it to the USDA, specifically an agency called APHIS. Not necessarily transporting it into the country, I have to justify the risk of shipping it over state lines.
There’s a permit process which controls what I bring in, how I keep it, and even how I transport the insects inside buildings. If I need to kill an insect colony, there are very strict requirement as to how I must kill those insects. After those insects are dead, there’s even specific requirements I have to meet to dispose of them…I can’t just toss them in the trash.
There’s also shipping protocols I need to follow if I need to send something somewhere else, even if it’s within the US. It’s something which needs to be meticulously documented at every possible step.
There are actually really good reasons for this. Entomologists have some really weird interests, and the stuff we’re generally interested in tends to be a bit more obscure than most people’s interests. The wrong release, and we’ve got an ecological disaster on our hands.
Cautionary Tale: The Trouvelot Incident
The history of entomology is full of great cautionary tales on this topic. One of my favorites is the case of the amateur entomologist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, who wanted to do some breeding experiments with silk moths. Specifically, he wanted to try to cross some moths from Europe with silkmoths being raised in America for disease resistance.
This happened in the late 1860s, and even then we knew that the species he was working with were too distantly related to cross. Entomologists at the time knew this was a very bad idea. Technically it wasn’t illegal, because the USDA had only been created in 1862.
He was basically conducting his experiments in a bedroom, and the insects quickly escaped shortly after he received them. He told some folks, but nobody really took an interest because there just wasn’t much that could be done at the time. Soon, his moths begun defoliating the trees in the region.
Those moths, by the way, are still in the region. It turns out that Trouvelot was working with Gypsy moths, which still cause millions of dollars in damages to property every year.
It’s interesting to note that despite the fact the introduction of the Gypsy moth occurred in 1868, this was not the animal which spurred the US and Canada to begin quarantine programs. The accidental introduction of the Brown-tail moth and White Pine Blister Rust had more damaging effects on the lumber industry, which is why they were the last straw.
The importation of potentially dangerous insects and plants wasn’t outlawed until the Plant Quarantine Act was passed in 1912. The path to how, exactly, this happened is a fascinating case-study in scientific conflict and cooperation on an international scale.
However…that’s a story for another time.
The Bottom Line
Since I work in agriculture, I’m under a lot of scrutiny when it comes to what gets brought into my lab. Bringing something in is a process which requires a lot of oversight, and a lot of paperwork. I need to convince a lot of people there are good reasons to bring something in.
There’s good reasons as to why this is. If something goes wrong, it pays to be able to know exactly who’s working with what. There have been accidental introductions of things that scientists were working on. The only reason we were able to determine these introductions were accidental was because we knew who was working on them, and were able to do the genetic detective work to quickly solve the mystery.
It would be nice to have a colony of stick insects at my desk, but it’s not something I can really justify in my research program.