South of the border on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, women love to make a fashion statement with the Maquech Brooch — a live beetle decked out with colorful rhinestone jewels and gold chain. The docile, wingless bug crawls on the wearer's shirt within range of its three-inch-long chain "leash" that's attached with a decorative safety pin.
If bugs make you jumpy, it’s hard to imagine the appeal of wearing a creepy-crawly beetle as a "pet-cessory." One might even find it disheartening that the creatures are destined to go through their lives as animated bling, but the bugs don't seem to mind having beautiful baubles glued to their backs. They generally live for up to three years on a diet of apples and wet, rotted wood.
The bejeweled beetles have played a romantic role in Yucatan culture for centuries. According to legend, a Mayan princess was not permitted to marry a prince from a rival clan, and when they were discovered, the lover was sentenced to death. Recognizing their plight, a shaman changed the man into a shining beetle that could be decorated and worn over the princess's heart as a reminder of their eternal bond.
Tourist shops in the Yucatan have been selling Maquech jewelry since the 1980s. Today, the glittery crawlers sell for about $10.
U.S. tourists may not bring the blingy beetles over the border. Defying the law carries a fine of up to $500. According to Smithsonian.com, several confiscated specimens are glittering among the Coleoptera collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
"It doesn't take much to keep them happy," Warren Steiner, an emeritus beetle researcher at the Natural History Museum, told Smithsonian.com. "They need to eat a little starchy material, but they can survive for a long time with no water. The adults are often found under logs, bark stumps, that kind of thing. They're wood scavengers, and really sluggish. They usually play dead when you find them."
Finding and collecting Maquech beetles is the work of "Los Maquecheros," a group of men who specialize in sifting through decomposing vegetation on the forest floor.
Animal rights activists are on the record as opposing living ornamentation. Back in 2010, PETA spokesperson Jaime Zalac told The Monitor, "Beetles may not be as cute and cuddly as puppies and kittens, but they have the same capacity to feel pain and suffer.”
Interestingly, the ancient Egyptians may have been the first people to wear insects as jewelry. Historians believe that Egyptian soldiers wore scarab beetles into battle as the beetles were considered to have supernatural powers of protection against enemies.