Alive or dead, rare or mundane, bugs are weirdly easy to find for sale online. However, in some cases, the insects or spiders sold through the various e-commerce sites, both niche and large-scale, may be of dubious provenance. Some may be bred and reared in sustainable programs. Others might be taken from wild populations that are at risk, according to new research out of Cornell University that was published last week.
“It’s not always clear… if they’re sustainable or not,” John Losey, a Cornell entomology professor and one of the paper’s authors, told Ars. “There are sites out there that are definitely not providing documentation that what they’re selling is being done sustainably.”
According to Losey, some websites will provide no documentation or proof showing that a rare pinned butterfly specimen or pet tarantula was collected in a way that doesn’t pose a risk for wild populations. Some of them could very well have been reared in a sustainable program, Losey said—there’s just no way to tell.
However, the researcher noted that his paper, which surveys the sale of insects and arachnids online, highlights the need for better regulation of these sales. Mandating more information about how the bugs were sourced could help buyers make more informed decisions and limit damage to the environment, he said.
Let me Google that
The research began in the fall of 2019 as part of a class on insect conservation biology. The inspiration for the work came from the news that a dead specimen of a particularly rare bee—Wallace’s Giant Bee—was found for sale on eBay. According to Losey, the students in the class decided that they would scour the Internet to find examples of insect and arachnid species (either pinned or alive specimens) that should be protected.
Throughout that fall semester, the class surveyed online sales while drilling down into specific lists of at-risk species. These lists included the CITES appendices, the IUCN Red List, and the US Endangered Species list. The team also looked at online platforms such as eBay, Etsy, Alibaba, and Amazon. Students examined the different platforms’ regulations regarding the sale of illegal or restricted products. “Definitely, some of the bigger platforms are some of the places where you can find these things for sale,” Losey said. “We didn’t drill down into the dark web. These are things you could just come across with a quick search.”
In 2020, after the semester had ended, Losey brought all that research together into the final paper. Other researchers with expertise in monitoring illegal or restricted online sales—not just of creepy crawlies—also contributed their knowledge to the study, Losey said.
Most of the individual and rare subjects are dead and have been pinned for the sake of display. For example, a Luzon peacock swallowtail—a particularly rare and endangered butterfly—was available from Amazon in a display box for $110. Losey said that there are some cases in which butterfly houses, usually part of a greenhouse, will sell live specimens, but “they tend to be really careful about where they’re getting their specimen from,” Losey said.
He added that most of the sales that are not clear about the provenance and sustainability of their sourcing tend to come pinned and dead. Losey noted that some of the sales of dead bugs could be of antiques. If cared for properly, a pinned specimen could last for decades without deterioration. This could “take pressure away from collecting in the wild,” he said. “It’s possible that you’re buying a specimen, even one on the restricted list, and you’re not harming the species in question.”
The most common in this category of live insects is the sale of tarantulas as pets. Somewhat less common is the sale of live beetles or praying mantis species. Online shoppers can also purchase boxes of “service insects,” such as pollinators for their gardens. Losey noted that in general, living specimens are more common to smaller, more niche platforms compared to Amazon.