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Interviewae Insectae

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During our never-ending quest for fun in the Bay Area, Heather and I stumbled across the Antique & Collectibles Flea Market held at the Embarcadero’s Pier 29 every Sunday morning. San Franciscans who can peel themselves out of bed at the crack of dawn will find interesting odds and ends at the flea market. Of the dozens of tables, one display of mounted and framed beetles, scorpions, moths, and butterflies (all varieties ranging in size from thumbnail to gym sneaker) caught our attention.

The proprietor, Bruce Frybarger, began selling insects fourteen years ago. As a young man, trips to Asia and Africa fed Frybarger’s craving for ethnographic tribal art. He says he noticed his friends buying their first new cars and houses around the time his travels drained his bank account. Fortunately, he found a market for the mounted insects and art he collected overseas. Diligence paid off, and a few years ago Frybarger was able to quit his day job and sell his bugs full-time to retailers and collectors who come to the flea market.

How are these insects killed? Do you run around with a big ether jar?
On the bigger beetles, you lift up a chink in the armor and get a needle in there. The butterflies are squeezed in the thorax and that kills them.

Have you ever been given a hard time by animal rights activists?
Now it’s so politically incorrect to wear furs and so on. Insects are a very renewable resource. They are something you could hang on your wall and not feel like you’re depleting the environment.

Do you ever go on bug hunts yourself?
I mostly do that for fun. There’s a lot of prep work involved in getting insects ready to ship. Beetles, for instance, take a long time to dry out and they’re stinky. I prefer to buy from regional dealers who may have fifty or a hundred people working for them. There’s no way one can make a business out of tracking insects down and catching them on their own.

Tell me a bug hunt horror story.
This butterfly (points to an iridescently blue-colored specimen) is the most expensive genus in the world. The reason is that most butterflies breed clones that will all look the same. But this one will come out a slightly different color [every generation]. In Japan everybody’s looking for a new color of butterfly no one has seen before, so some Japanese collectors will pay up to ten thousand dollars a piece for these. One of the people I know who goes out to look for these ran out of food, so now he’s living on roots and bugs while he’s out there looking for this butterfly.

Is this the largest scorpion in the world?
That’s an Emperor Scorpion. They’re the second largest in the world. The largest is a Rock Scorpion from Africa. Those are very hard to come by. I carry [versions of] the largest insects in the world. That’s the biggest insect in the world (pointing to an eight-inch beetle). It’s called Titantus Gigantus. But that’s not a big example—they get a lot bigger but those cost about a thousand dollars.

Does insect collecting go through trends like other collectible markets do?
There’s no real trend. I’m a little concerned it might become a fad. The studio that did Toy Story is doing one now called Bugs—a whole bunch of people will be entering the business. But that business will only be for framed insects. As far as the collectors out there buying specimens, that doesn’t change.

Why do you only sell insects from foreign countries?
I don’t carry any US insects, because I only have to deal in Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is known as CITES, by having the overseas insects. But if I dealt with US insects I would be dealing with the Lacey Act, CITES, and they Endangered Species Act. It just becomes too complicated and too much paperwork. Not only that, but tropical insects are more brightly colored. A lot of the US insects don’t look that great at all.

Is there a difference between what foreign and domestic collectors look for in insects?
In Japan and France, a collector wants everything. They don’t care what it looks like. Some Japanese will pay a thousand dollars for some ugly brown little beetle. In the US, people want the beautiful insects, and that’s my whole business.

More about Jacaré

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