He discovered that Lapkiewicz had a track record in the U.S. too. Two months earlier, emperor scorpions and giant African millipedes from Tanzania had escaped from a package addressed to Lapkiewicz on a postal service delivery truck. (An exterminator killed the animals.)

Around the same time, Bessey says he learned that Lapkiewicz was selling spiders, millipedes, and emperor and dictator scorpions on Facebook. The criminal complaint alleges that Lapkiewicz was instructing suppliers to mislabel boxes to evade customs officers. “It showed this was part of an ongoing commercial enterprise,” Bessey says.

Lapkiewicz didn’t respond to multiple Facebook messages from National Geographic requesting an interview, and his lawyer didn’t respond to emails and a voicemail.

It’s illegal to import most insects and other arthropods, including spiders, scorpions, and millipedes, or their parts, into the U.S. without a permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also requires a permit to bring in some live invertebrates. Emperor scorpions and dictator scorpions require special paperwork because they’re listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement that regulates cross-border sales of species.

Then three years later, in 2018, U.S. customs officers in Indiana seized about a dozen giant African millipedes from a Lapkiewicz-bound package labeled “Plush Toys for my Friends Child about to be born,” according to the criminal complaint. A couple of weeks after that, wildlife inspectors at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport opened a shipment addressed to Lapkiewicz to find 245 small cylinders containing the egg sacs of orchid mantises, pink and white insects from Southeast Asia that look like flower petals.

In August 2018 the U.S. District attorney’s office charged Lapkiewicz with smuggling wildlife and false labelling—federal crimes that carry a collective maximum of 25 years in prison. Lapkiewicz pleaded guilty to smuggling wildlife only. He was sentenced on July 2, 2019, to six months home confinement and four years probation.

“I knew at the time that there was a market for invertebrates,” says Bessey, who had worked as an agent for five years before investigating Lapkiewicz. “I really didn’t realise how large the market was until this case.”

Cockroaches—“great pets”

Demand for what most of us may think of as creepy crawlies—live as exotic pets or preserved as collectors’ treasures—has fueled a massive trade in everything from beetles and stick insects to tarantulas and scorpions. People even want cockroaches, the creature that once made me flee my apartment for 24 hours after finding one skittering around the shower. They make “great pets,” says Carlos Martinez, the owner of Reptile Factory, a pet shop based in Southern California.

Many insects and other arthropods are captive bred or otherwise sold in accordance with the law, but a global black market flourishes alongside the legal trade. It’s a little known corner of the illegal wildlife trade, a multibillion-dollar industry associated more with rhino horn and elephant ivory than the tiny creatures that can terrify us.

“A lot of things you find in the trade haven’t been legally exported from the area of origin or legitimately imported from the destination country,” says Stéphane De Greef, an environmental engineer and insect enthusiast from Belgium who runs a popular entomology group on Facebook. “It’s sadly very common.”

News stories of bug skulduggery abound. Take, for example, the Czech national fined in 2017 for attempting to smuggle 4,226 beetles, scorpions, spiders, and other invertebrates out of Australia. And the 7,000 spiders, insects, and other invertebrates stolen from the Philadelphia Insectarium and Butterfly Pavillion last year in a suspected attempt to sell them into the pet trade.

There’s no centralised database of seizures, which means there’s no way to estimate the global scale of the illegal trade. But Fish and Wildlife Service data obtained by National Geographic show that authorities in the U.S., a major demand country, seized at least 9,000 live and dead arthropods (not including crustaceans) that were being brought into the country for commercial purposes between June 2018 and June 2019. This likely represents a fraction of the total number of smuggled arthropods, which are easy to conceal in suitcases and shipping boxes.

Many countries ban or require special permits for the capture and export of certain species or species in particular areas, such as national parks, but that hasn’t stopped people from snatching little critters from the wild. Some people take them to keep or study. Others collect them to sell regionally as food. When it comes to the global commercial trade, poaching afflicts tropical countries in particular, where warmth and a plentiful food supply give rise to jumbo-size insects that explode with colour. Buyers around the world are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars apiece for the rarest, flashiest, or otherwise most distinctive creature to breed or display alive or framed in their living rooms.

Scientists worry about the effects of the collecting craze on these small animals, which can be vital to food chains by pollinating crops and recycling nutrients back into the soil. “Whenever you take a large-scale collection of a single species and you extirpate it, or remove it, from an environment, you’re going to impact that ecosystem in one way or another,” says Floyd Shockley, who manages the insect collection at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

Going to the fair

If there’s anyone who knows about the market for invertebrates, it’s Brent Karner. He’s the division manager for BioQuip Bugs, a company based in Rancho Dominguez, California, that offers preserved and live insects and other arthropods.