University student German Viasus was researching ways to speed the natural decomposition of chicken bones when he came across what has become...

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TUNJA, Colombia — University student German Viasus was researching ways to speed the natural decomposition of chicken bones when he came across what has become one of Colombia’s weirdest exports.

Viasus found 56 tiny, pearllike eggs nestled in a pile of rotting wood as he searched for bugs that could safely break down the tons of chicken bones in the nation’s garbage dumps. He didn’t know what would hatch from the eggs, but became attached to them as he waited.

“I took care of those eggs as if they were my babies,” he recalls. The eggs finally hatched, producing larvae that grew into the samurai of insects — a fierce-looking beetle that is one of the largest in the world.

Known as Dynastes Hercules, the beetles are found only in Central and South America. Fully grown, the males measure up to 6 ¾ inches long, boasting saberlike horns. The females are about half that size.

After making the discovery five years ago, Viasus found the bugs were worthless for breaking down chicken bones. Still, he thought he might be able to make something out of them.

He built a laboratory and breeding center on a hillside outside Tunja, a city 80 miles northeast of the capital, Bogotá. Marked by a roadside billboard with a picture of a flying Hercules beetle, the whole facility is just under a half-acre.

One day, a group of visiting Japanese businessmen saw the beetles and became wildly enthusiastic.

“All they kept saying was ‘Pretty, pretty, pretty!’ ” Viasus says. So he hatched the notion of exporting the fierce-looking creatures to Asia and Europe.

Live male Hercules beetles sell for around $130 apiece, while preserved dead specimens sell for slightly less. Live females go for between $40 and $50, with dead ones also selling for less.

The live beetles are shipped in small, clear plastic containers to Japan, China and Thailand, where they are sought as exotic pets. Dead ones are sent to collectors, museums and scientists in Europe.

Under Colombian law, Viasus — Colombia’s only registered beetle exporter — says he is allowed to export a maximum of 300 live beetles and 100 dead beetles a month, to avoid endangering the species.

Wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves, the 33-year-old Viasus puts hatched larvae into 105-foot-long beds filled with sawdust, where they pig out on ground-up organic waste such as corn husks and rotten fruits and vegetables.

After six months and reaching thumb-size, the white larvae are transferred to terrariums for three to four more months, when the beetles emerge from the pupa stage as adults.

The largest and most energetic beetles are shipped off alive. Others are saved for breeding. Once the breeders and other beetles die of old age — usually only six to eight months after reaching adulthood — they are preserved and sold abroad.

Not all of them are sold, though. Viasus is so fond of the bugs, he keeps some choice ones in his own home as pets.