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Not what they seem



Some things in life you just can’t take at face value. Take Mexican jumping beans, for instance. Someone was talking about them just the other day and we all started wondering, A., if they really were beans and, B., were they edible?

The kind I remember from my play-day heydays sure weren’t either and they sure weren’t from Mexico. Also, they didn’t really jump. It was more like they meandered a short distance.

For a while there in Edmonton, Mexican jumping beans were quite the rage for kids. You bought an assorted collection of them in a little plastic bag for a quarter. They were dazzlingly coloured plastic capsules, the same size, in fact the same look as your basic vitamin capsule, only one half was usually black and the other some wild, ersatz cyan-blue or audacious red.

Older kids and uncles would tease that they wouldn’t move until they warmed up, just like they had been in Mexico. In Edmonton in the winter, as you might imagine, this could take considerable time. But really the secret was tilting and rotating the palm of your hand just so until they started flopping around end over end. Real masters could walk two, three or four jumping beans at the same time.

No, they weren’t alive; in fact far from it, as my cousin revealed when he cracked one open. Inside the shiny plastic capsule was a little ball bearing that rolled back and forth, and in so doing would flip the capsule end over end, making it walk across the palm of your hand like a jitterbugging caterpillar.

In fact, a caterpillar is more in line with what propels real Mexican jumping beans. While they aren’t beans, they are vegetative — part of a seed capsule of an evergreen shrub known colloquially as the jumping bean shrub ( Sebastiana pavoniana ) found in desert regions of mainland Mexico and in the Baja. Into a section, or carpel, of the seed capsule burrows the larva of a small gray moth called the jumping bean moth, a comparatively harmless relative of the destructive codling moth that infests apples and the oriental fruit moth that plagues peaches.

After it eats the seed in the self-contained carpel the little larva has the weird habit of kind of throwing itself against the walls of its chamber, making the so-called bean jump — well, really, it just rolls and tumbles. Eventually, it chews open a miniature round trap door and flies away, a tiny moth free to lay eggs on other jumping bean shrubs that will one day turn into larvae that will feast on the seeds.

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