Three yellow and black beetles clung to the shirt of German Víasos Tipamuso, a Colombian environmental engineer who uses beetle larvae to turn food waste into fertilizer.
As he encouraged them to move on, he mumbled to them in Japanese—trying to get them used to, he said, the sounds of their future homes.
These tiny insects—which can be up to 17 cm (6.5 in) long—enjoy a remarkably productive and complex life among the humans who keep and collect them.
Viasus operates a company called Tierra Viva in a rural area around Tunja, a city about 150 kilometers (95 miles) northwest of the Colombian capital, Bogota.
An attempt as a graduate student to compost with worms failed, Vyasos said, but he found beetle larvae in the remaining bags of earth. Try using it instead. And it worked.
Tons of food scraps collected from neighboring communities are spread in concrete trenches and covered with earth. The beetle larvae are then introduced – the stage between eggs and adulthood.
They chew waste and digestive microorganisms turn it into fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphorus.
After four months or so, the product passes through a filter that separates the compost from the larvae that are about to become adult beetles.
They mate, and their eggs are used to start the process over. However, adults go on very different journeys. Some go to scientific laboratories. A lucky few embark on a future across the Pacific in Japan, where ladybugs are popular as pets and even sold on online stores like Amazon.
Tierra Viva has been exporting insects — largely Hercules beetles — since 2004, and Viasus said they can bring in up to $150 each.
This year, the company sent 100 ladybugs to Tokyo — down from 300 last year — held in small plastic bags with air holes and food.
Sales are often in the company’s version of the cryptocurrency, which is called “Kmushicoin” — a variant of a Japanese word for beetle.
Vyasos, 52, said he hopes the project can grow and thrive for another century — perhaps with fertilizers used in reforestation projects.
“The situation is very difficult in Colombia… because we are doing this without any help from the state or any other entity. In no other country in the world would a project like this get so much help.”
Associated Press writer Mary Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Astrid Suarez, Associated Press
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Colombia environmental waste disposal