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Just What Are “Mexican Jumping Beans”?

You go to a market in Mexico looking for souvenirs for your friends and family back in the States. You pass stands of t-shirts, sombreros, and shot glasses. Suddenly, you see something moving on a table. Small brown nuts are twitching and jumping as if alive. The guy at the stand smiles his gold-toothed grin and puts one in your hand. After a second, the nut starts to jump in your hand. You give him 5 pesos and leave with your magic Ziploc bag of Mexican jumping beans.

But what the heck are they? How can these “beans” move of their own volition? Are they possessed by Satan? No. The answer is much more disgusting. Mexican jumping beans are seed pods from a special shrub that lives only in Mexico. The larvae of a type of moth called the jumping bean moth burrows its way inside the pods. They then spin some silk around the inside of the seed to make a yucky bug hammock. Much like Gollum and other creatures of darkness, they don’t like light or warmth. When you expose them to light or heat, they start twitching inside the seed pod to get away. Your body heat is enough to send them into spaz mode. They can live for months in the “beans” unless they get too hot, in which case they hatch and turn into moths. Ew.

Mexican jumping beans were a popular novelty item in the 1950’s, when American tourists first started traveling to Mexico in large numbers. Like most classic “novelties”, their popularity has waned over the years. Still, hundreds of children a year are fooled into playing with worms. Who thought it was a good idea to market disgusting bug larvae to kids? That’s not a toy. It’s as if someone were to hand a child a cockroach with a string tied to it and said, “Here kid, this is your new puppy.” I had Mexican jumping beans as a kid, but I only learned a couple of years ago what they really were. If I ever see that gold-toothed jumping bean salesman again, I’m kicking him in the crotch as hard as I can. Larvae? Gross.

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