Magnificent Mexican Jumping Beans

Magnificent Mexican Jumping Beans

Published On: 08-07-2013 08:46pm

Comments: 20 - Hits: 0

Category: Other

The last several days, my husband and I were in Santa Fe - DH to play in a golf tournament and me to soak in the sights and flavors of one of my all time favorite cities.  One day, after putting many miles on my feet, I stopped in the Five and Dime on the Plaza to buy a bottle of water.  As I waited in line to pay for the water, I heard a familiar "tick, tick" sound coming from the checkout counter.  Eureka!!!  Mexican jumping beans!!!  Now you might ask why I got so excited about finding Mexican jumping beans?  And I'll answer, "I don't really know".  

Photo courtesy of ConnecticutValleyBiological

It might be because jumping beans were so common when I was growing up in South and Central Texas that they take me back to the simplicity of play before computers and other electronics.  All of my friends had Mexican jumping beans and we would spend hours "racing" them, actually betting pennies or candy that our best bean would win (:  Those were the days!   Needless to say, I picked up two boxes of jumping beans at the Five and Dime, 5 "beans" in each plastic container.  There is something so relaxing to me as I hear them "tick, tick" against the container as I sit here and type this!

And I do feel immensely sorry for those who have never experienced the wonder of Mexican jumping beans.  So I decided to share some information about them.

My magnificent Mexican jumping beans, photo taken just this morning!  Aren't they pretty?  And some were "jumping" as I took the photo.

Native to several regions in Mexico, Mexican jumping beans, also known as "brincadores" (the leapers), are thin shelled seed capsules that contain the larva of a small, nondescript gray moth, Laspeyresia saltitans.  The "beans" are from the deciduous shrub, Sebastiana pavoniana, that have dark green, leathery leaves that turn red during the winter months.  The jumping bean shrubs grow on rocky desert slopes and along arroyos in the Rio Mayo region of the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora.  It is not a member of the bean family at all but is in the Euphorbia family.  Like most euphorbias, the plant exudes a poisonous milky sap when cut.  In fact, the shrubs are sometimes called "yerba de la flecha" (herb of the arrow) because several native Indian tribes were said to use the sap to poison the tips of their arrows.

Mexican jumping bean shrub, Cydia deshaisiana.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jumping bean shrubs usually bloom during the spring and summer.  The female moth will lay her eggs on green, immature capsules of female flowers.  When the eggs hatch, the tiny, immature larvae eat their way into the soft green carpels.  By late summer, the capsules of the shrub have separated into three sections, each section splitting open and dropping its seed.  The carpels that contain moth larvae start "jumping".  No one knows specifically why the larvae jump.  The main theory is that it is a way to move the seed carpel out of the hot sun into a shady area under a rock or into a crevice.  If they don't find a cooler place, they will die.  However, the beans also jump in shady, cooler areas suggesting other factors involved.  When there are hundreds of jumping beans under a shrub, the sound is supposed to be like that of the patter of rain on dry leaves.  

The larva and its web inside a Mexican jumping bean.  The photo with a blue background shows three carpels forming a complete pod.  Photo courtesy of  There is a very short video if you click the link.

As winter approaches the larvae spin silken cocoons around themselves.  They will remain motionless during the winter months as the larva transforms into a pupa.  The following spring or summer, when jumping bean shrubs are once again in flower, the pupa pushes through a small circular trapdoor in the wall of the carpel (which it created before pupation), the pupal covering splits open, and a small gray moth crawls out of the pupal case.  The moth only lives a few days, enough time to mate and lay eggs to start the whole process over again.  

A photo showing pods with the pushed open trapdoors, a pupa shell and the nondescript gray moth a Mexican jumping bean larva transforms into.  Photo courtesy of greenbuzz

How does the Mexican jumping bean jump? Amazingly, the larva spins a silk lining on the inner walls of the convex shaped carpel.  By grasping the silk lining with its forelegs and snapping its body, the larva is able to transfer the full force of its movement to the carpel causing it to suddenly "jump".  The larva also will walk up the side of its pod, causing the bean to roll on a level surface.  Despite their name, it is very rare that the bean jumps off of the surface.  As was mentioned earlier, they are much more active when the temperature is hot.  But mine move around even in the coolness of air conditioning (like they are now as I type this). 

A whole bunch of Mexican jumping beans ready to be sorted.  Photo courtesy of fontplaydotcom

Alamos, a small historical town located in the Mexican state of Sonora, calls itself the "Jumping Bean Capital of the World".  It was there that Joaquin Hernandez, at the age of 12, cornered the jumping bean market in 1921.  He paid the citizens of the town to bring him the "beans", where he employed people to carefully sift through and pick active jumpers from inactive ones.  Each year close to 20 million jumping beans are sold worldwide, although I have read that the number is dropping due to overharvesting.  Maybe that's why I don't see them as much anymore.  If cared for properly, their life expectancy is usually 3-6 months. 

I remember buying Mexican jumping beans as a kid from displays like this (:  Photo courtesy of Chaparral Novelties

Well, there you have it:  everything you ever wanted to know about Mexican jumping beans but were afraid to ask - LOL!  Such simple pleasures that life can offer if we would just take the time to look and experience.

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Reader's Comments

By Guest on 10/26/2013 @ 12:51am

Interesting! It sure does bring back memories. I had to order some...just to show everyone around me that they really do exist! Found some online at clickety-click...clickety-click...they are jumping like crazy!

By Guest on 09/10/2013 @ 06:01am

I'm glad you enjoyed this small insight into my "jumping bean experience." I wanted to share another thought and image. Joaquin Hernandez's "factory" was a mostly abandoned villa, which he had taken over for the business. There was a large indoor swimming pool. That is where the jumping beans were housed. The large pool was FULL of the beans, moving around and.. making a racket!! In fact the noise was so great inside that room because of the movement of the beans, that in order to speak to someone standing right next to you, you had to shout in their ear! I'm pleased to come across your blog entry on these little known and fascinating creatures.. Marva Marrow

By ShadowDogDesigns on 09/10/2013 @ 03:35am

Guest, what a fascinating story - something to be cherished lifelong. Thank you for sharing it! Sometimes being precocious can lead to great things, great memories! Peace and joy . . . Catherine

By Guest on 09/10/2013 @ 03:17am

I spent a summer when I was 13-14 years old with Joaquin Hernandez and his family. I had written to him as a precocious 7 yr old when an article about the jumping beans appeared in the Denver Post and I was curious. I wrote to ask to purchase $1 of the beans. Someone at his company wrote back (in Spanish) that they did not sell such a small amount. Undaunted, I wrote back to persuade him - and thus began a correspondence that lasted for years. When I was 10 years old, my family and I visited him and his family (he had seven children and lived in a mansion on the main square in Alamos, Sonora), went to the beach and spent a couple of days there. When I was 13 or so, I was invited for the summer. Much longer of a story than this, but this is the gist of it..

By ClaireMDesigns on 08/10/2013 @ 07:51pm

Wow, that was interesting! I've never seen real Mexican jumping beans. We used to get the plastic ones at the corner candy store back in the "old days" in Brooklyn.

By CardsbyLiBe on 08/09/2013 @ 10:19pm

Oh my goodness, what a terrific read. I'd love to get some and bring them into the classroom and share your blog :) Great job as always Catherine. Lisa

By bluemorningexpressions on 08/09/2013 @ 05:09pm

I had jumping beans as a kid! My grandparents went to Mexico and brought us back those little tabbed boxes with beans in them. I remember having the little blue box, like your display, with little bouncing beans. There was a small piece of paper that came with it that explained the jumping. I spent a lot of time with my ticking beans. Thank you for those fond memories.

By JewelryArtByDawn on 08/09/2013 @ 01:59am

Very interesting, Catherine! My sister and I used to play with Mexican jumping beans, but we didn't know all of this cool stuff about them.

By craftsofthepast on 08/08/2013 @ 10:16pm

Absolutely fascinating as always. I warn you in advance. I am going to attempt to make a polymer clay design based on the first pic of them in the blog above. It just cries out for it. ;) Off to this information with others. Anna

By ChristieCottage on 08/08/2013 @ 04:24pm

I remember playing with Mexican umping Beans as a child. It was like we were magicians! LOL <>< http;//

By PolkadotOrchid on 08/08/2013 @ 12:40pm

Thanks for the information. I remember seeing jumping beans once as a kid, but I haven't seen them in a very long time.

By DesertCreations on 08/08/2013 @ 07:08am

WOW I did not know all this great information about the Mexican Jumping Bean. Thank you so much for sharing!!

By KanweieneaKreations on 08/08/2013 @ 01:03am

I didn't know that, that is so interesting!! Thank you for sharing :).

By Guest on 08/07/2013 @ 11:50pm

I too, had some Mexican Jumping Beans back in Massachusetts. Thanks for bringing back childhood memories!

By Thecrochetcubby on 08/07/2013 @ 11:31pm

AMAZING info!!!! My mom and I were just talking about Mexican Jumping Beans to my children (3 & 5) It kind of made me sad that they had no idea about them. Then Mom and I sat and wondered what made them jump. We guessed some kind of bug... I am going to show her this blog. It's not silly that they make you happy. Sometimes it is the tiniest thing that sparks that one memory. Thank you so much for sharing this!! I'm so glad that mom and I are not the only ones who still like the mexican jumping bean!

By ShadowDogDesigns on 08/07/2013 @ 11:26pm

Thank you, everyone! As I mentioned earlier, pleasure in simple things (: Peace and joy . . . Catherine

By EweniqueEssentials on 08/07/2013 @ 11:23pm

Oh, I remember playing with Mexican Jumping Beans when I was a child growing up in Tucson, AZ. I haven't even thought of them in years. Thanks for bringing back fun memories! And I learned something new today. :)

By Guest on 08/07/2013 @ 10:38pm

I never thought much about Mexican Jumpingt Beans, but will the next time I see them. Very interesting!

By lindab142 on 08/07/2013 @ 09:18pm

A great post! Thanks for sharing.

By Guest on 08/07/2013 @ 09:03pm

I vaguely remember getting some jumping beans when I was about 4 or 5. My sister and I were amazed by them, a lot of fun. I thought I rememered something about an insect inside, thank you for sharing.

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