Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Jumping bean crop a dud for fifth year

The Arizona Republic

The Arizona Republic

Mexico City Bureau

ÁLAMOS, Son. – Tipping up the bottom of a blue plastic bucket, José Trinidad Hurtado Solis poured his paltry crop of Mexican jumping beans onto a homemade sieve in his back yard.

“This is all I’ve been able to get this year,” he said with a sigh, looking into the empty bucket. “But at least they’re good jumpers. Watch.”

Seconds passed. The brown, pea-size beans just sat there in the sun.

Then suddenly, one of them jerked. Then another. Soon the entire pile was popping and hopping and bouncing like mad, making a sound like sizzling bacon on the metal screen.

“Nice, isn’t it?” he said proudly as the little pods tap-danced back and forth. “I just wish there were more.”

It’s a lament heard often these days in Álamos, 270 miles south of Douglas, as bean wranglers in the “Jumping Bean Capital of the World” finish up another disappointing harvest, the fifth in a row.

No one’s quite sure why the crop is declining. Most people blame spring rains, which seem to be increasing and disrupting the habits of the hyperactive larvae that live inside the prancing pods. Others blame eclipses, global warming and even the light from street lamps.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Alicia Alcorn, a dealer who, like Hurtado, buys jumping beans, which can last up to several months, from residents and sells them to exporters.

“Last year, I think, was the first year in history that we’ve had nothing, not a single bean,” she said. “And this year, the harvest has been very bad, too.”

Part of the economy

Jumping beans have been part of the economy in this town of 13,000 since the 1940s, when a local entrepreneur named Joaquin Hernández began marketing them to novelty shops in the United States.

The beans are known as frijoles brincadores or saltarines in Spanish, but they’re not really beans. They’re seeds from the yerba de la flecha, or arrow shrub, which grows in the western foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Only Álamos and a few small pockets in neighboring Sinaloa state have the right combination of moth, seed and climate to produce the beans. Efforts to farm them have failed. So have attempts to transplant them to other countries.

In late June or early July, daily rains begin to fall in Álamos, turning the landscape a brilliant green. The jumping-bean moth, known to scientists as the Laspeyresia saltitans, lays its eggs in the immature seed capsules of the blooming arrow bush.

As the seeds grow, the moth larvae burrow inside and begin to spin a web. Every few seconds, they yank on the strands. That makes the seed jerk around like a bean possessed, which, of course, it is.

Twenty days after the first rains, the seeds begin to drop to the ground. The harvest is only two or three weeks, so time is of the essence as Álamos residents climb into the hills to collect the fallen pods.

“You can hear (the beans) rustling and jumping in the leaves. That’s how we find them,” said Luis Manuel Reyes, 26.

Patience, patience

Bean-hunting takes patience and a stealthy step because the beans fall silent if they sense outside movement.

To demonstrate, Reyes brought out a 1-liter container of beans, all he could find this year, and poured some into a baby food jar. He stirred a finger in the jar, and the beans froze.

After a few minutes of silence, they again began tinkling away inside the glass.

The bean hunters separate good jumpers from duds by shaking the beans. If they rattle, the larvae inside are dead.

Every afternoon during the harvest, buyers gather in Chalaton Park, on the outskirts of town, to meet the bean collectors as they descend from the hills. Deals are sealed with handshakes as the captured beans rattle in buckets and cardboard boxes.

The dealers in Álamos buy the beans for 150 to 200 pesos ($15 to $20) a liter, and resell them to exporters for 200 to 250 pesos ($20 to $25). Each liter contains 1,200 beans.

In the United States or Europe, a package of 10 beans can sell for up to $7 in gift shops, making each liter worth $840 at retail prices.

European demand

More and more of the crop is heading to Europe, dealers say, because the beans fetch higher prices there. They are rarely sold in Mexico.

In a good year, Álamos exports about 20,000 liters of beans, Alcorn said. This year, the town will be lucky to produce a few hundred, she said.

The decline is a mystery, even to longtime bean wranglers.

As Hurtado Solis left Chalaton Park in a pickup truck one recent afternoon, a man flagged him down.

“Listen, Trini, none of the plants are producing this year,” he said. “Is there some kind of disease or something?”

Hurtado Solis shrugged. “Just those rains earlier this year, I guess.”

The prevailing theory is that rains in April, May and June are causing the plants to produce their seeds too early. The result are short-lived jumping beans known as breves.

By the time the moths are ready for action in August, it’s too soon for the plants to produce seeds again.

The early rains began occurring about 20 years ago, but have become more regular in recent years, residents say.

Other residents believe that as Mexico modernizes, artificial lights are distracting the moths from their reproductive duties.

“The mercury streetlights affect them a lot,” said Refugio Reyes Parra. “I think as development goes up into the mountains, it’s disrupting the life cycle.”

There may also be an economic factor, said Ernesto Garcia Solis, a ranger at Chalaton Park.

More work in construction

Álamos is experiencing something of a building boom, and there is more money in construction work than in traipsing around in the bush, listening for the rustle of a few timid beans.

“If they paid more, the season would be longer, because people would have a reason to go up there,” he said.

Outside the Casa de Los Tesoros Hotel, Bertha Alicia Sánchez sells her beans to tourists at three for 1 peso, the equivalent of about 3 U.S. cents per bean.

She keeps them in a metal colander, where they snap, crackle and pop for passers-by. But because it’s low tourist season, there aren’t many customers.

Her teenage son does the bean-hunting, but reluctantly, Sánchez said, because the hills are full of mosquitoes and thorns.

“My son doesn’t want to go anymore. He says it’s not worth it because there are so few beans out there,” Sánchez said. “Oh well, maybe next year.”

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