mushi catchers
The Japanese have traditionally had great affection for insects. Many people have fond childhood memories of reaching for insects with nets and classical Japanese literature is full of stories about crickets, mayflies and fireflies.

Japanese are perhaps the world’s most enthusiastic insect catchers. Many children while the hours of their summer vacation in parks and forests chasing after insects with long-handled insect nets and have clear plastic boxes with the insects they catch---mostly beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, crickets, katydids---at home. Kids often know the scientific names of the insects they catch and identify the body parts and explain what they do. Adult males spends hundred of thousands of dollars on rhinoceros and stag beetles. Neighborhoods sponsor firefly counting outings. Bookstores have entire sections devoted to insects.

Mushi is the Japanese word for insect. Konchishonen is a word for a boy that loves to play with insects. Astroboy and Pokeman were created by self-professed insect fanatics. Japanese fascination with bugs goes back a long time. A thousand-year-old story Mushi Mezuru Hime is about a free-spirted young princess who loves bugs while other girls only love butterflies and flowers and how her passion for insects interest stirs up an interest in boys around her.

Some samurai identified with insects such as praying mantises and dragonflies and placed images of these creatures on their helmets. Some samurai believed that the human soul dwelled in butterflies. Insect motifs can also be found on kimonos, painted screens and lacquerware items. The first reference to the selling of insects dates to 1685 in Kyoto when streets vendors sold crickets in small cages and suspended from sticks. In 1820 fishermen and farmers roamed the countryside in the off season and sold a variety of insects from pushcarts. The first insects shops opened in the late 19th century. In the 1960s, department did a good business selling large beetles to children.

Despite their love of insects, Many Japanese are terrified of caterpillars,especially hairy-looking ones, and share the near universal disgust of cockroaches. Their fear of caterpillars is partly connected to their fear of centipedes. A species of large black centipedes with yellow legs found in Japan is poisonous.

The mosquito coil was invented in 1902 in Arida, Wakayama Prefecture by Eiichiro Ueyama from a mixture of incense and pyrethrin seeds sent to him from America. Pyrethrin is a flower with insecticidal properties that was used in flea powders in the United States at the time. Pyrethrum in an incense stick was effective but the sticks didn’t burn very long, The idea of making it as a coil was provided by Ueyama’s wife Yuki who was inspired by a coiled snake, suggesting, “How about winding it,” The first mosquito coil was produced in 1902 was 75 centimeters in length when uncoiled.

On the film Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2010), Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker: “Jessica Oreck’s documentary essay about Japan’s fascination with insects observes the phenomenon with a curious, incisive eye and delves deep into the nation’s culture and history in search of explanations. From urban pet shops specializing in beetles and stores selling paraphernalia for catching bugs and raising them at home, she ranges far afield to record such transfixing wonders as swarms of fireflies glowing on schedule at tourist sites and joins bug hunters on nocturnal ventures to trap exotic species on large, screen-like contraptions. Joining stunning macrophotography by Sean Price Williams to a narration that invokes eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, and the fourth-century development of wet-paddy rice farming, Oreck engages in an enthusiastic cultural anthropology that teases broad horizons from her nuanced attention to the infinitesimal.” [Source: Richard Brody, The New Yorker May 17, 2010]

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Japanese Insect Lovers article in Natural History ; Insects and Spiders in Japan ; Wikipedia article on Japanese Rhinoceros Beetle Wikipedia ; Stage Beetles ; Japanese Stage Beetle ; Kids Web Japan on Stage Beetles ; Bug Smuggling ; Mushi King---King of the Beetles ; Film: Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2010), a documentary by Jessica Oreck.


Good Sites on Wild Animals: Animal Info ;Japan Animals Blog / ; Hub Pages on Wild Animals in Japan ; ARKive (do a Search for Japan or the Animal Species You Want) Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive

Insects Collectors in Japan

An estimated 1 in 10 males is a serious insect or butterfly collector. There monthly magazines and manga comic books devoted to insect collecting. Famous legends and haiku poems explore the joy and wonders of insects and insect collecting. In the old a present of a grasshopper or cricket was a cherished expression of love and friendship.

Pet shops sell a wide variety of containers and accessories to make and outfit an insect homes. Insect collectors that are really into their hobby have professional nets with telescoping aluminum poles, a variety of hand lenses, collecting books and equipment for manipulating and feeding insects. There is monthly magazine devoted to bug collecting called appropriately enough Gekkan Mushi ("Bug Monthly"). Pokeman was inspired by insect collecting.

Describing mushi collectors in the 1970s Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “I had never owned, or even seen, a long-handled net before. I was also very surprised to see children keeping insects like crickets and katydids in small wooden cages, feeding them fruit and vegetables and listening to their delicious songs...One small boy was anxious to show me is prize---a huge, beautiful beetle--- that “made an incredibly harsh rasping sound every time to boy picked up.” The boy “placed a piece of waste paper in front of the insect’s jaws. He wanted so much for me to see that his beetle could use these scissorlike jaws to make a short but precise cut on the paper.”

According to the Guinness Book of Records, largest cockroach is 3.81 inches long and 1.77 inches across. It is in the collection of Akira Yokokura of Yamagata, Japan.

Insects in Japan

Procession of Insects by Nishiyama Hoen
Shigekatsu Yamaucho wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, that crickets “inform us of the arrival of autumn. Some are daytime singers, while most sing in the evening and through the night. In my childhood, I went out with my friends in the evening to catch them in the nearby fields, to keep them at home. People would breed and raise them to enjoy their nightly recitals at home. Even contests could be held to select champion singers.”

Many of the ladybugs found in Japan are black with red spots. There are orange one with black spots too. The “human face? shield bug has patterns on its back that looks like a kabuki actor with big, busy eyebrows. Japanese beetles were introduced to the United States and became pests.

Darryl Fears wrote in the Washington Post, The so-called kudzu bug, a type of Asian stink bug, has established itself in Georgia. It eats invasive Asian kudzu, a good thing. But the kudzu bug also eats soybeans and other lucrative Georgia legumes. The pest was first spotted in Georgia in 2009. Back then, state entomologists had to search kudzu patches repeatedly for a sign of the insect. But as female bugs lay eggs, with no natural predator, the population exploded in two years, making them easy to sweep into butterfly nets by the thousands. Kudzu bugs are now established in 143 Georgia counties, 42 counties in North Carolina and five in Alabama, according to the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. [Source: Darryl Fears, Washington Post , March 16 2012]

“For a while, they appeared to be a kind of welcome pest. Kudzu bugs, from Japan, chomped on Asian kudzu, reducing growth of the vine by up to 50 percent, said Dan Suiter, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Georgia. But as it turned out, the bug had a taste for other legumes, such as soybeans. It migrates from kudzu in spring to soybean in July, reducing yields by about 20 percent for two years and costing farmers millions of dollars. [Ibid]

“On top of that, the bugs are really annoying. “They’re a general nuisance,” Suiter said. “I was just driving home and had one in my vehicle. They fly very well. We’ve found it on the 40th floor of high rises. When we first found it in 2009, they covered 2,500 square miles in the area. Their known distribution as of last fall is 108,000 square miles.” [Ibid]


The loud buzzing, screeching noises made by cicadas (semis) in Japan is a sign that the dog days of summer have begun in earnest. Cicadas are associated with Japanese summers. These massive thumb-sized insects produce a loud buzzing, droning noise in the morning when it is hot. The hotter the weather the more noise they make. Matsuo Basho’s famous poem about cicadas goes:

In the utter silence of the temple,
A cicada’s voice alone
Penetrates the rocks

“Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Cicadas are large, noisy insects, but are completely harmless. The long strawlike mouth-part looks scary, but is used only to suck sap from trees, and cannot work as a sting. Even small children can easily and safely hold a cicada in their fingers, simply by pressing the wings lightly against the body. Turn the cicada over and check for the flaps to determine the sex (only males have the flaps). Also note the three jewel-like ocelli, or simple eyes (tan-gan in Japanese), arranged in a triangular pattern on the head, between the two huge protruding complex eyes (fuku-gan). These simple eyes do not form clear images but can distinguish between light and shadow and help warn the cicada of the approach of danger from above. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, July 14, 2011]

“Among the most common cicadas in the Kanto region are the abura-zemi (Graptopsaltria nigrofuscata), large (five to six centimeters long) insects with black heads and bodies and mottled brown wings. This species' ocelli are deep ruby red, and their call is a loud, piercing jii-jii, often with a rough tinny finish. The nini-zemi (Platypleura kaempferi) also emerge about this time, but are only about half the size of the abura-zemi. [Ibid]

“In the warmer areas of western Japan the kuma-zemi (Cryptotympana japonensis), slightly larger than the abura-zemi, are very common. These cicadas also have black bodies, but can be easily told apart by their clear wings and softer sha-sha songs. In recent decades, perhaps as a result of global warming, this species has been steadily expanding its range northward and eastward. [Ibid]

Cicadas have been messing up Internet service in Japan by piercing fiber-optic cables to lay their eggs. Normally they lay eggs using their ovipositors to pierce tree branches. They mistake the cables for branches and penetrating them.

Cicada Life Cycle

Cicadas spend many years living int the ground before they emerge for their brief life above it. It is only the male cicadas that make a noise. They do so to attract females. Kumazemi cicadas are the largest cicadas in Japan. They can reach a length of seven centimeters. They are particularly plentiful in the Osaka-Kyoto-Kinki region. These insects live underground for five to seven years, sucking on sap in tree roots with long hollow mouthpieces, and emerge in summer and break free from their last larval shell as adult cicadas. The larval skins can be found around trees. Cicadas spend the hot months of the summer, making noise to attract mates, and mating, and die when the whether gets cold. Just as they signal summers arrival when they appear the signal it’s end when they disappear.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Cicada nymphs live inside the soil, where they survive by sucking the juice from tree roots. In Japanese cicadas, this underground nymphal stage ranges from two to three years in smaller species to up to seven years in the larger ones. One North American cicada, however, spends 17 years in the soil! [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, July 14, 2011]

“When the cicada nymphs have reached their final larval stage, they burrow upward until reaching a point just below the surface. Separated from the air by only a thin layer of soil, they can feel the temperature and humidity above. As long as the cool weather of the early summer rainy season persists, the cicada nymphs remain in place. After a few consecutive days of hot summer weather, however, they break out and climb up the nearest tree, where they metamorphose into adults. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, July 14, 2011]

Taking their cue from the change in weather, as the rainy season ends and the hottest days of summer take hold, the cicadas emerge from their burrows and are particularly noisy from around sunrise to 10:00am. Only the male cicadas sing, to proclaim territory and attract mates. Inside their abdomen is a hollow chamber fitted with a stiff membrane. By contracting and expanding certain muscles the cicada is able to snap the membrane in and out, much like the thin lid or bottom surface of a tin box. The resultant sound is amplified in the chamber and modulated by two wide valves that work like reeds on a wind instrument, opening and closing to control the escape of air. [Ibid]

“Although cicada larvae live for many years underground, the adults last only a few short weeks. Once their mating is completed they quickly perish. Females use their sharp ovipositors to cut slits into tree twigs, and lay their tiny eggs inside. The eggs quickly hatch and the first-stage larvae drop down to the ground. Those that are not snapped up by ants and other predators immediately burrow in to begin their long subterranean lifestyle. [Ibid]

Hummingbird Hawk Moth

Describing a hummingbird hawk moth found in Japan, Sam Anderson wrote in the New York Times: “After a few minutes, a strange creature fluttered into my view of the garden. At first it seemed like some kind of bird---a strange hairy hummingbird, maybe, based on the way it was hovering. But then it started to look more like two birds stuck together: it wobbled more than it flew, and it had all kinds of flaps and extra parts hanging off it. I decided, in the end, that it was a big, black butterfly, the strangest butterfly I had ever seen. It floated there, wiggling like an alien fish, just long enough for me to be confused---to try to resolve it, never quite successfully, into some familiar category of thing. [Source: Sam Anderson, New York Times, October 21, 2011]

“The nectar of thistle flowers is hidden deep inside a long, thin tube. Butterflies and moths, with their extendable tubelike proboscises, are ideally adapted to sucking the nectar out of these sorts of flowers. Most incredible among these are the hojaku, or hummingbird hawk moths, that hover in front of the thistles. Their wing beats are so rapid their wings appear only as a blur. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, November 24, 2011]

“Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Numerous species of hummingbird hawk moths are found clear across the Eurasian continent. Japan alone is host of several dozen of them. Closely related forms are distributed in the Americas as well, where they are called simply hummingbird moths. Although most species of moth are nocturnal, the hummingbird hawk moths are active during the daylight hours, especially in the late afternoon. Many of the species show colorful markings, as opposed to the drab grays and whites of nocturnal moths. [Ibid]

“The similarities between hummingbird moths and actual hummingbirds comprise a classic example of what biologists call convergent evolution. In this process, plants or animals in widely separated lineages independently develop structures that function in a similar manner. Both the moths and the birds have evolved similar ability to hover in front of and extract nectar from deep inside long, tubular flowers. The birds suck nectar by probing their long bills and tongues deep into the flowers, while the moths accomplish the same feat employing their proboscises, which can be rolled up or extended much like a garden hose or elephant's trunk. Here in Japan, where there are no native hummingbirds, the moths have a field day. [Ibid]

Japanese Grasshoppers and Locusts

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Using their powerful rear legs as springboards to get airborne, hoppers of all sizes rocket off and fly at a low trajectory for a few meters before dropping suddenly back down again. This is their basic escape strategy. Once on the ground among the weeds their mottled green and brown colors make them nearly invisible. Without a net the best way to catch them is to just keep right on their tail. Jump by jump the insects will tire, and the length of their escape flight will gradually decrease. Eventually you can just reach out and grab yourself a magnificent prize.” [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 16, 2010]

“Some hoppers are truly huge, up to six centimeters long. The big hoppers are not dangerous, but are a bit hard to handle. The back-facing edges of the shin portion of their rear legs are lined with sharp spines, and they can kick out with incredible speed and force. Kicking and raking an enemy with these spines is their desperate last-ditch effort for escape. Also, when held they like to dribble a noxious brown liquid from their mouths, which is almost impossible to wash off later on.” [Ibid]

“One of the most common of Japan's big hoppers is the tonosama-batta, or "king-grasshopper," known as migratory locust in English. The term locust is applied to several different species of grasshopper that show distinctive solitary (tandoku) and gregarious (gunsei) phases. In the solitary phase, all the individual insects go about their own business, interacting only to mate. In the gregarious phase, however, the hoppers form up into enormous swarms that sweep across the landscape, traveling hundreds of kilometers and consuming everything in their path.”

“Entomologists believe that the shift from solitary to gregarious phase is triggered by an increase in population density, often following a period of unusually heavy rains that produces an expanded food supply. When the immature hoppers, or nymphs, are constantly rubbing up against each other, a special hormone is triggered that causes them to metamorphose into the gregarious phase adults.”

“The migratory locust enjoys a wide distribution, from Japan clear across the Eurasian continent to North Africa. In some areas, this species has historically caused great destruction, but nowadays it is the desert locust (Schistocera gregaria) that is most feared. Japan, a land of forested mountainsides and wet valleys, lacks the sort of extensive dry grasslands that favor huge locust swarms. Smaller swarms, however, are occasionally recorded. The gregarious stage of the migratory locust is darker in color, and better equipped for flight, with shorter rear legs but longer wings.”

“Be careful not to confuse the tonosama with the very similar kuruma-batta-modoki (Oedaleus infernalis). Both these species show remarkable individual variation in color and markings, and the most reliable way to tell them apart is to spread out the rear wing (Ouch! Ouch!). The kuruma-batta-modoki's wings have a black crescent-shaped mark, while those of the tonosama-batta are clear with a light yellow tinge.”

Fireflies and Bees in Japan

Catching Fireflies by Hiroshige
Japan is home to three species of aquatic fireflies. Out of the 2000 or so species of firefly these are the only ones known to be aquatic. This means that for many Japanese the best firefly spotting areas are around streams and rice paddies. One popular children song goes: Come over here, fireflies The water here is sweet and tasty The water over there is bitter and uninviting

Firefly viewing is a childhood activity remembered fondly by many older Japanese. Unfortunately urbanization has done a number on firefly populations. In an effort to bring them back special breeding houses have been set up in the Tokyo area. They replicate the firefly stream ecosystem in a greenhouse.

Because so many indigenous bees have been killed off with pesticides pear trees are pollinated by introduced horned-face mason bees grown inside reeds with pollen pellets and mud and by women who go from flower to flower with a goose-down tipped stick.

Alien bumblebees introduced in the 1990s to help with tomato cultivation in Japan have become wild and expanded their territory. There are concerns that in Hokkaido they may drive out native species and threaten the pollination of alpine flowers and plants.

Hornets in Japan

In September a 77-year-old woman was found dead in a cedar forest in Nasukarasuyama in Tochigi Prefecture, the victim of a hornet attack. She died from shock after being stung 91 times on her head and legs. Hornets in Japan are said to be particularly aggressive during their mating season in September and October and often to attack object that are black and blue. The victim had black hair and was wearing blue pants.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Hornets are big, powerful insects with viselike mandibles and smooth stingers that can deliver a heavy load of potent poison. In addition, when a hornet stings, she also splashes out a pheromone that adheres to the skin of the victim, and serves as a target marker for the rest of the hive. The first person stung thus often endures a concentrated attack. Multiple hornet stings can be highly dangerous, and in some cases even fatal. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, July 1, 2010]

“The nest was of a kiiro-suzume-bachi (Vespa xanthoptera). Suzume-bachi, or "sparrow-bee" is the generic Japanese term for hornet, and kiiro means "yellow." Hornets feed their larva on bits of meat from caterpillars, grasshoppers and other insects that they hunt. I watched carefully, waiting until the queen flew off on a hunting foray, then quickly snipped the branch to which the nest was attached.” [Ibid]

The outside of hornet nest is “covered with a thin paperlike sheet shaped like an upturned long-necked. Inside a small nest are about two dozen or so heaxagonal compartments. Those in the center are covered by a cap of tough white cocoon silk. This silk is woven by larva when they reach their final growth stage and are ready to metamorphose into worker hornets. After completing the transformation in the protected environment inside the cocoon, the new hornets use their powerful jaws to cut through the silk and crawl out. I had to be careful that this didn't happen while my students were examining the nest!” [Ibid]

On a nest he observed Short wrote: “Arranged around the cocoons, one to a cell, were fat yellow larva that would soon be spinning cocoons of their own. These were constantly snapping their heads back and forth to attract the queen's attention and get fed. Further to the outside were smaller larva, and in the outer ring of cells were tiny white eggs that had not yet even hatched. From this distribution I could see that rather than build the entire nest first and then lay the eggs all at once, the queen builds the compartments a few at a time, laying the eggs as she goes. This of course, makes perfect sense. If the nest had continued according to schedule, soon the first batch of five workers would have emerged, and then helped the queen feed the remaining larva. [Ibid]

“Hornet queens are born and mate in autumn. With the sperm from their partners packed away in special pouches, they then hibernate during the cold winter months. The following spring they wake up, and each individual queen constructs a new nest from scratch. At first, the queen must do all the work herself. Hornets build their nests from a sort of paper. They use their jaws to scrape fibers from the bark of trees or the walls of wooden buildings, which they then chew into a pulp and mix with saliva in their mouth. Finally they spread the pulp out in thin layers. As the pulp is derived from various sources, the nest covering often sports a beautiful patchwork pattern of different shades of brown, gray and yellow.”

“The first generation nest is always small, but once the workers (all females) begin emerging, the pace of work intensifies. By autumn, when the males and next-generation queens are ready to emerge, the nest can be as big as a beachball, with thousands of workers. Only the new queens, however, survive the winter. With the coming of the cold the males and workers all die off, and the huge nest is never used again.”

“Hornets feed their larva exclusively on meat. Among their favorite pray are caterpillars and grasshoppers, insects which if left unchecked can do great damage to crops. Japanese farmers thus traditionally recognized hornets as beneficial, and whenever possible left their nests intact. In some regions the villagers even considered hornet larva (hachinoko) a delicacy, and the abandoned nests were taken down and placed in entranceway vestibules, where they were said to protect the farmhouse against intruders.”

Beetles and Japan

Japanese stag beetle
Japanese are fond of buying and collecting beetles and keeping them as pets. They are particularly fond of stag beatles, fearsome- looking black insects with large jaw-like mandibles, and rhinoceros beetles, similar to stag beetles except the have a large "horn" protruding from their thorax above their head.

Stag beetles possess mandibles that are nearly as long as the beetle's body and resemble the antlers of a stag. Varying in lengths from 0.6 centimeters to 8.5 centimeters, they are smooth, black or reddish brown. Males are larger than females and have enlarged mandibles that are used in fights over females. There are about 1,000 species of stag and rhinoceros beetles in the world, with 20 species in Japan. Generally found in the forests and mountains around rotted logs and oak trees, the Japanese species are between 5 centimeters and 8 centimeters in length and hibernate in the winter.

In the wild, stag beetles are active mostly at night. Despite their large size they, like all beetles, can fly. Eggs are laid in decaying tree stumps or roots. Larvae live in rotten logs or are buried in the soil, feeding on rotten wood. Once they are large enough they pupate. Adults either do not feed on drink fluids such as nectar or sap, which they can smell.

In November 2007, new species of stag beetle---the takaneruri kuwagata beetle or Platycerus sue Imura---was discovered in Japan. Males have a turquoise metallic luster; females are bronze colored. Almost immediately after its discovery catching the beetle was banned and the place where it was found was kept secret after a pair of the insects was put for auction in the Internet for $1,000.

Rhinoceros Beetles (Stag Beetles)

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Male rhinoceros beetles have huge horns and solid, heavily-armored tanklike bodies and are immensely popular among elementary school boys. Called kabuto-mushi for their resemblance to the kabuto horned helmets worn by medieval samurai, they use their brushy mouthparts to mop up the sap that issues from the trunks of oak trees, and are thus very common in coppice woodlands. The larvae develop underground, in soft, humid substrate such as found in rotting logs or fermenting compost. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, July 8, 2010]

“Male rhinoceros beetles are highly territorial. They stake out a good feeding spot and wait for females to arrive. All other males they challenge as opponents and competitors. A fight consists of two males trying to bulldoze each other off of the tree trunk. If one combatant gets his long front horn underneath his opponent, he uses it to flip him off into space. Boys manage their pet beetles like sumo champions, pampering them and bringing them to fight in mock tournaments.”

“Longhorn beetles are another interesting beetle species found in Japan. They “take their generic English name from their extra-long, whiplike antennae. In Japanese they are called kamikiri-mushi or "hair-cutter insects," based on their strong, sharp-edged jaws, which are said to be able to cut hair just like a pair of scissors.” [Ibid]

“Like the rhinoceros beetles, the longhorns feed primarily on tree sap. They use those powerful jaws to chew into the bark, causing the sap to flow, then lap it up. The females, however, deposit their eggs not in soft substrate, but directly into the tree trunk. The larva chew their way through the trunk, digesting the wood as they grow. Longhorn beetle larvae do not usually damage the trees directly, but they can wreak havoc by spreading fungal and bacteria diseases from one trunk to the next.” [Ibid]

The Batocera lineolata--- called either white-striped longhorn beetle or chirping longhorn beetle in English and shirosuji kamikiri in Japanese, which means white-striped paper-cutter---is pale pastel yellow in color and nearly 5 centimeters long. It has powerful legs and thick, segmented antennae that are longer than the body. When picked up, the insect make a constant ghih-ghih chirping sound. The chirps are made by rapidly rubbing two serrated sections of the thorax together. [Ibid]

Beetles as Pets in Japan

Stag beetles make good pets. They take up little space in small Japanese dwelling, require little care and can be left alone for long periods of time. Some live to be five years old, which is longer than most hamsters.

Stag beetles are usually kept in plastic boxes. Some wood is usually placed in their box to make them feel at home. Instead of sap, the beetles are usually given pieces of cucumber or watermelon with a ball of cotton wool soaked in sugar. Pet shops sell a special jello used to feed them.

Pet shops say their most enthusiastic customers are men in their 30s and 40s. One adult beetle collected told Reuters, "I liked insects, even as a child. The shape, the black color, how it shines and the smart appearance of the beetles is what I like best.”

Another collected said "When I raise it and hold it in my hand I feel affection for it...They had different personalities---this one shy, that one is more aggressive, and so on." Schools sponsor beetle-hunting field trips for their students.

Buying Beetles in Japan

Beetle vending machine
Stag beetles can be purchased at pet stores, department stores and shops that specialize in beetles. Enthusiasts can buy beetles from vending machines for ¥400. Credit card holders can order them through the Internet. The beetles are usually sold in pairs.

Millions of dollars worth of beetles accessories are sold every year. The are groups tours to the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia whose sole purpose is to collect stage beetles.

Most pet shop beetles sell for the equivalent of four or five dollars. High-priced ones go of as much as $2,500. Generally the bigger, the more valuable. Nepalese Dorcus antaeus, a type of stag beetle prized for its size, was selling for around $3,000 in the summer of 2001. Monster over 10 centimeters sold for $8,000 or more.

A massive Japanese stage beetle said to be a "black diamond" with "one in hundred of million" size was sold for $89,000 to a 36-year-old company president from a Tokyo insect specialty shop called Waku Waku Land. It was considered so valuable because of its size (9 centimeters).

The market for beetles is highly volatile. Big one that are worth thousands can be become worth hundreds in a matter of months depending on supply and demand and trendiness. The price of Japanese stage beetles collapsed after it was discovered how to breed them.

Beetle Fights in Japan

Mushi King, a beetle
fighting arcade game
Beetle fights are held in small rings with the objective being for one beetle to turn its rival over or drive him out of the ring.

Describing a stag beetle fight, Masaki Iijimi of Reuters wrote, "Two giant black beetles lunge at each other on top of a log as dozens of children and adults watch eagerly. The long curved mandibles of the fighting stag beetles make clacking sounds on contact...The crowds gasps as a beetles lifts up its seven-centimeter opponent with its jaws and flings it off the log."

In the wild stag beetle males fight each for prized sap wounds. Sap wounds are also where males hang out in hopes of attracting a female. Males fight over the right to mate. To prepare their beetles for fights some collectors forced them to pull weight or have them fight smaller opponents to build up their confidence.

Mushi King, See Games

Mushi King

Mushi King arcade game
The biggest video game craze in the mid 2000s was Mushi King: the King of the Beetles---a game that involved separately buying cards with images of large beetles’such as the Giraffe stag-beetle, the saw-tooth stag beetle or the Thailand five-horned beetle---on them and various information and feeding them into an arcade machine that show 3-D images of the beetles battling to the death.

Mushi King (“Bug King”) was introduced in 2003 by Sega who made money both from the selling of the cards and from the machines that played the cards. The game and cards were especially popular with preteen boys who fed cards into machines at toy stores and arcades. As of March 2007, 420 million cards and half million copies of the software that allowed the game to be played at home on Game Boy or PlayStations had been sold. At its peak more than 13,000 Mushi King arcade machines were in 5,200 locations.

There are 856 Mushi King cards, each one with a real beetle species. They sell for ¥100 a piece and are available only from the arcade machines. Each card carries a number that measures the beetle’s strength and stamina, which can be enhances with supplemental special “skill” cards. The beetles use moves like those found in profession wrestling. Each has a special Finishing Attack such as a Running Cutter, Tornado throw or Rolling Smash which it use to finish off an opponent.

Cardholders can battle other cardholders or beetles on the machine. The battles begin after the machine scans the bar codes on the cards. Players chose when and how to attack and the outcome is based as much on their skill and the values on their cards.

Mushi King is a make-believe version of an insect fight staged in a small ring such as those held between crickets in China. There is a television animation series that goes along with the game as well as merchandise such as lunchboxes and gloves.

Sources of Beetles in Japan

Most of the stag beetles sold in Japan are Japanese varieties. More and more large beetles from the jungles of Indonesia, Malaysia Cambodia, Nepal and India and being brought in the country. Some of these have exotic colors such as gold and iridescent blue-green. Finding beetles for the Japanese beetle collecting market is quite lucrative. More than 500 different species stag beetles, a third of the world’s known species, have been imported to Japan from Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia.

Originally foreign beetles were not allowed in the country due to fears they might multiple and destroy crops. That changed on November 1999 when the government approved 31 kinds of foreign stag beetles for import. By January 2001, a total of 74 species had been approved.

In Japan, wild stag beetles are collected from oak trees that have been cut so that sap oozes out. The beetles as well many other kinds of insects are attracted to the sap. There are tour to the Philippines and Indonesia to collect beetles and other bugs there.

These days most of the beetles sold commercially are bred in farms. A typical farm produces 4,000 or so beetles and requires relatively little investment. The beetles are basically fed and left alone. In August adults lay eggs and wild beetles are introduced to prevent too much inbreeding. Desired traits such as large size and color are singled out and breed. Many collectors breed them at home and say that is the most interesting aspect of their hobby.

Beetle and Insect Poaching and Smuggling in Japan

Malaysian stag beetle
Some of the species that have been approved in Japan are protected species in the countries they originate from. This has led to lucrative market for beetle poaching and smuggling, which is less risky than smuggling other animals because they are much smaller than other protected species and can easily be hidden in luggage. Particularly prized are the giant stag beetles found only in northen India, Nepal, Bhutan and Taiwan.

In August 2001, two Japanese men were arrested at Nepal's international airport for attempting to smuggle 271 pairs of indigenous stag beetles out of the country. Earlier a Japanese man was arrested in the Daman forests of Nepal for collecting insects without a permit. He was found with 49 varieties of insects. Violations involving stag beetles have also been reported in Brazil, India, and Taiwan.

Steeling beetles from shops also occurred. One shop in Tokyo had 80 beetles worth $70,000 stolen. It was not clear weather the thief was a professional thief after money or a fanatic collector after the prized beetles.

In December 2003, two Japanese men were arrested at Sydney airport, trying to smuggle out rare beetles and butterflies from Lord Howe Island. The men faced punishment of 10 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000. Authorities were expected to be harsh with them to set an example. The insects were airlifted back to Lord Howe Island.

Japanese beetles are face extinction as they are cross bred with non-native stag beetle specie.s from Southeast Asia that have been introduced as pets. They are also threatened by hunting for pets.

In July 2009, a Japanese man was arrested for illegally importing the world’s largest butterfly---the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, a native of Papua new Guinea---and selling it to a customer for $8,000. The man purchased the butterfly in Italy and had it sent to Japan from France.

Japanese Spiders

The jorogumo (Nephila clavata)---a fairly large black, silver and yellow orb web spider---is a common sight across Japan. Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The huge jorogumo we often see sitting head-down at the center of the web are all females. You have to look hard to see the males, which are only a third or a fourth as big, waiting quietly around the edge of the web.” [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 16, 2010]

“The jorogumo's immense orb webs are common along country roads, and even in the parks, gardens and backyards of the big cities. The base lines of these webs are often five or six meters long, stretching clear across a road or from a roof top to a nearby tree. In addition to the main, densely woven central sheet, there are additional, sparser sheets in front and back. Arachnologists...believe these extra sheets help slow down larger prey, such as heavy dragonflies, before they strike the main section. Some larger species of orb-web spider have even been known to catch and eat small birds.” [Ibid]

Poisonous Spider Scare in Japan

In 1995, poisonous Australian redback spiders were found in the Takaisho district of southern Osaka and in Yokkaichi, a western port city in Mie prefecture. The black spiders, with a red stripe on their back, are less than a two inches in size and have a half inch body. They produce venom equivalent to a bad bee sting that in some cases makes people sick for a couple of days. No one has died from a redback bite in Australia since the antitoxin was developed in 1956. [Source: Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, the Washington Post]

In spite of assurances by Australians who consider the spider shy and non-threatening, the Japanese freaked out. Men in toxic-waste suit, armed with vacuums, fumigators tweezers, nets and chopsticks, searched swear and drain pipes for spiders. Schoolyards and parks were fumigated and shipments of antitoxin were airlifted from Australia. The stock of Fumakilla, Japan’s largest insecticide maker, jumped 16 percent in one day. Headlines in newspapers screamed, "Archipelago Panic!" and "Redbacks Spin Web of Wear in Osaka."

About 800 spiders were found in the drain of a public pool in Sakai in Osaka and another 100 were found 60 miles away in Yokkaichi. It is believed the spiders arrived in Japan from Australia in a cargo of fruit or vegetables in the early 1990s. In August 2005, redback widow spiders were found in the Kanto area in Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture.

Australians were highly amused by the Japan reaction. Redbacks are very common and few people have ever been seriously hurt them. A popular schoolyard goes" "There was a redback on my toilet seat when I was there last night. I didn't see it in the dark, but boy its felts its bite.” One Australian journalist told the Washington Post, "It's impossible to live in Australia and not see them. They're fairly timid spiders...But Japan is in a panic. The whole thing is hilarious."

Japan also has an increasing population of poisonous brown widow spiders in Okinawa Prefecture. They have also been seen in Osaka, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Fukuoka and are believed to be transported around Japan on ferries. They have the same kind of poison as redback spiders.

In September 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Authorities exterminated more than 100 poisonous redback spiders spotted near the Inagawa river the day before, police said. According to the police, a local man spotted a swarm of spiders in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture and reported it to police. Police officers rushed to the scene and found more than 100 spiders inside a drainage pipe in a river wall about five meters high located along a walkway. Officials of a local health center later confirmed the spiders to be redbacks, a species legally designated as invasive and foreign. They were exterminated by health center officials Thursday morning. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, September 7, 2012] (Sep. 7, 2012)

Land Crabs and Snails in Japan and Alien Insects

Land crabs are fairly common on Kyushu and Honshu. They live in pools of water that collect in leaves.

The Bonin Islands of Japan are overpopulated with Giant African snails. These five-inch mollusks were introduced from east Africa in the 1940s as a folk medicine for everything from tuberculosis to kidney trouble and were given to Japanese soldiers in World War II. In some places the snails are so numerous it is hard to take a step without crushing one of their shells. They do have one attribute: they are an early warning signal for storms; whenever a typhoon is coming the head for higher ground.

Pests that originated in Japan that have caused problems around the world include: 1) tiger mosquito, thought to have entered the United States in a shipment of used tires; 2) tsugakasa aburamushi, a hemlock-killing aphid thought to have entered the United States in a shipment of hemlock wood from Japan; and 3)brown marmorated stink bugs, dime-size shield-shaped creatures that give off an unpleasant smell when squashed or irritated. The latter first arrived in the United States in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2001 and are now found in 29 states.

Image Sources: 1) 2) Ray Kinnane 3) British Museum 4) Library of Congress, 5) 8) Japan-Animals blog 6) Tosa website 8) 9) 13) 14) Japanese stage beetlers Asahi net 10) Doug Mann Photmann, 11) 12) Mushi King official site

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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