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Bouncing Back : Mexican Jumping Beans Roll Into Stores, Providing Cheap Thrills, Teaching Chaos Theory

August 30, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's nothing they did, but Mexican jumping beans had been as scarce here as nickel candy bars. They are back in force, though, and merchants can't seem to keep them on the shelves.

Kids are buying them. Adults are buying them. Sold three at a time in little plastic boxes (usually for 99 cents), they have leapt back into the hearts and minds and pockets of many Southern Californians.

"No doubt about it, it's a fad item, and they came back in vogue this year," said Steve Choate, a buyer for American Drug Stores, Chicago-based parent of 249 Sav-on drug stores.

Sav-ons in Southern California began selling the little ambulatory pods last month--and at many locations sold out within a week. Before that, they were only available locally at a half-dozen or so independent retailers and specialty chains, such as Kay-Bee Toys. The beans, a seasonal item harvested from small desert trees in Mexico, have been more widely available elsewhere in the country all along.

"We ship 3 to 5 million beans each year," said Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties in Alamogordo, N.M., "and their popularity remains constant. We've had them out every year for the last 32 years."

Why haven't you seen much of them here? Simple, Clement says; she hasn't had a good distribution system in place in Southern California. Ron Miller, a novelty buyer with American Drug, said that as soon as the company hooked up with Clement (he calls her "the jumping bean lady"), he knew they had a winner.

"There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," Miller said. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.

"Everybody we talked to, whether they were in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, had had beans in their life," Miller said. "Parents and older people were just as turned on as the kids. They remembered their own childhood, marveling at the movement in their hands and not understanding why. Though it's obvious something is going on in there, I never knew until dealing in jumping beans that there was some sort of life in them."

*

There's life in there?

Yes. There's a quarter-inch caterpillar trapped inside.

Has the SPCA been notified?

The caterpillar wants to be in there. Make a hole in the pod, and it'll patch it back up within a couple of hours.

How does it breathe?

The shell of the pod is porous.

What does it eat?

It eats the seed inside the pod.

What does it do for water?

The jumping motion produces metabolic water at the rate of 1% of its body weight each day, which is comparable to man.

"We pee, they don't," said Mahlon Kriebel, professor of physiology at State University of New York at Syracuse.

What's a professor in New York got to do with Mexican jumping beans?

He's using the beans to teach chaos theory, a field that has revolutionized mathematics.

*

The life story of a jumping bean begins when an adult moth, Laspeyresia saltitans ( saltatory meaning to jump), lays an egg in the flower of the yerba de la flecha tree, Sebastiana pavoniana. The shrub is native to the Sonoran desert, particularly near the Rio Mayo in the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. The center of harvesting operations is Alamos, several hundred miles south of the U.S. border.

As the shrub's flowers develop into seed pods, the moth eggs hatch and develop within the pods. The pod falls off with the developing larva imprisoned. The larva metamorphoses into a pupa, which remains dormant during the winter months. It emerges, through an escape hatch prepared by the larva, as a moth in spring.

The caterpillars have a very strong activity span of six to eight weeks that begins with their fall from the tree. The caterpillar moving is what makes the bean jump. And the jumping is what causes the clattering that is the bean's natural marketing ploy when it reaches the shelf at check-out stands across the border.

"We begin shipping in July and we continue to ship through the first two weeks of September," Clement said. "The rest of the year, people think (the beans) are dead because they're not jumping."

How do you know if you've got a real live jumping bean? Shake it. If it rattles, it's a dud.

*

Kriebel, the physiology professor, has been studying the beans for years and has written several scientific papers (as yet unpublished) on the subject--including "The Jump of the Mexican Jumping Bean," which is also the title of a video he is developing.

Temperature has a dramatic effect on how the bean jumps, and that makes it an excellent candidate for scientific study, Kriebel said. "Here is a motion that can be controlled by one parameter, drastically.

"Study the interval between jumps. When it's periodic, they're going tick tick tick. When they're cooler, it looks as if they're jumping randomly, but if you analyze the data, you see that it's not random at all. They develop a pattern, mathematically what we call chaos."

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