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Jumping Bean Bounces Back : C'mon--you remember the fun of holding one in your hand. Now the little curiosities are hot once again.

September 11, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The fact that they turn into moths is what keeps jumping beans out of the House of Humor in Costa Mesa.

"I didn't get them in because there are bugs in them," said owner Sharon Newberg. "First, they have worms, then they become butterflies or moths. I got one in the mail, I put it on the shelf, and forgot I put it there.

"I have costume rental. I don't know if they're born in there or put in there, but they eat their way out of the shell. They come out of the bean and they eat the clothes."

An almost universal misconception, Kriebel said.

"Larva eat clothes, moths don't. And this moth would never lay eggs in clothes." This far from its beloved yerba de la flecha tree, the moth won't reproduce; here or there, it dies within a few days of emerging from the bean shell.

In any event, the United States deems the beans safe for importation (they're considered nontoxic if swallowed, but please don't).

Some retailers, such as Puzzle Zoo in Santa Monica and Teachers Supply in Long Beach, have never been squeamish about the beans and carry them as often as supply allows.

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"For the most part, Mexican jumping beans are an impulse item," Clement said. "People don't go to the store to buy them, but the clatter they make attracts your attention. If they're jumping, you're going to hear them. Making all that racket, they sell themselves.

"It really is amazing when you stop and think about their value--which is simply the curiosity that they inspire, in adults as well as children. They're all fascinated by them."

That includes scientists, of course. As much as they can tell us about the bean, at its core there remains a mystery.

"Maybe the beans jump to get out of the heat," Kriebel said. "Maybe they jump to generate metabolic water. . . . They may need to jump, but we don't know why they're jumping. That's why it's such a thrill."

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