Bountiful butterflies plus more on moths: Why you should appreciate both this summer

Houston is brimming is with butterflies this season! Moths, too.

After a dismal showing during last year’s prolonged drought with almost no butterflies at all, this year local butterflies have bounced back with a vengeance! Or maybe “vengeance” isn’t a word usually associated with butterflies. In any case, there are lots of them.

gulf frit1A Gulf Fritillary

I have never seen so many butterflies in my backyard garden – both as babies (caterpillars) and adults. Pipevine swallowtails are particularly abundant right now, and I had dozens of monarchs a few weeks ago. I’ve seen black swallowtails and giant swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, and a few sulphurs as well. I just acquired three small sassafras trees, and they came complete with a couple of my favorite caterpillars: the spicebush swallowtail, which are the inspiration for the giant caterpillar sculpture at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. And I’m not the only one who is seeing an abundance of butterflies; many Houston gardeners have made similar observations.

spicebush cat2A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

In addition to these garden species, I’ve noticed big numbers of some of the forest-inhabiting butterflies such as hackberry and tawny emperors, question marks, and red admirals. These butterflies typically visit sap flows or rotten fruit, and their caterpillars eat hackberry or elm leaves (or nettles, in the case of red admirals), so to see them you need to take a walk in the wood. I take my dogs walking at “Wortham Island,” a former oxbow bend of White Oak Bayou that is now an off-the-beaten-path wooded area in northwest Houston, and have seen clouds of emperors, lots of question marks, and a red admiral or two. Snout butterflies, another species more common in wooded areas, have appeared in my yard for the first time, sipping water off the sidewalk.

emperors feeding
Tawny emperors feeding

And a new butterfly species may be on the horizon! As we reported in the latest Museum News, a zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), until now unknown in Houston, was spotted laying eggs on paw paw plants at a local nursery. Hoping that this sighting might not be a complete accident, I’ve planted a couple of paw paws in my yard, and am keeping my eyes open and fingers crossed. Zebra swallowtails are fairly common in the Big Thicket area, less than 100 miles northeast of us. I’ve always said that if people from Cleveland, Texas to Houston would just plant paw paws, we could probably bring this gorgeous butterfly to our area!

Eurytides marcellusZebra swallowtails may be migrating to Houston

On the down side, I have not seen any orange-barred sulphurs for a couple of years, and the polydamas swallowtails, which seemed to be overtaking the pipevine swallowtails, have also been less visible.I’m guessing that the cold winter of 2010-11 may have knocked back the populations of these tropical species, and they haven’t made it back in large numbers yet.

So why is this year so good for butterflies? I can only guess that the weather conditions have been just right this spring and early summer. We’ve had enough rain and lots of warm, sunny weather in between. Certainly all the interest in planting for butterflies can’t hurt. The only reason there are so many pipevine swallowtails and monarchs in my yard is because I’ve had dozens of their caterpillars eating all the Brazilian pipevine and Mexican milkweed I’ve planted. Providing host plants is vital. Of course, where I’m seeing the butterflies now is at the pentas and Mexican bauhinia that are blooming profusely these days, so nectar plants are important too!

pipevine cats1
A Pipevine caterpillar

On a different note – but still keeping with the lepidopteran theme – there is a wonderful new Peterson Field Guide available on moths of northeastern North America. Unfortunately it is NORTHeastern – but many of the species portrayed in the excellent illustrations do occur in our region. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. Moths may have more subtle coloration than butterflies, but many are quite spectacular mimics of lichen, bird droppings, leaves, or other insects. And although a few are pests of forest trees or in the garden, most are harmless and are important sources of food for bats (as adults) and songbirds (as caterpillars).

I was interested to read in the moth book introduction that there is a citizen science program on moth-watching in Great Britain. So little is known about our moth fauna here in the USA; it would be great if something similar could be launched here. Did you know that there are about 15 to 20 times as many moths as butterflies? In North America, there are about 11,500 moth species to 725 butterfly species. Perhaps with the availability of books like this one, people will start to pay more attention to these poorly known and poorly understood creatures. All it takes is leaving your porchlight on and observing (and trying to identify) the nocturnal creatures that are attracted to it. But be aware that some of the most colorful moths fly during the day.

Another useful thing to do where moths are concerned is to rear the caterpillars you find. Just because they don’t turn into beautiful butterflies does not mean they are not interesting in their own right! Do keep a record of the host plant the caterpillars eat.

Long live the Lepidoptera!

The LaB 5555 launch had a serious bite: Read patron reactions and add your own!

LaB 5555 launched Friday with the help of some 700 patrons who gathered to geek responsibly and boogie among bones for a paleontological party dubbed “Skin & Bones.” Each LaB 5555, held monthly from here on out, will feature a scientific theme with one hour of educational pre-party time, live music, local food truck fare, cash bars and more. For a full schedule, click here.


bloggy wog

Educator How-To: Teaching taxonomy with simple sorting exercises

It’s time, once again, for our monthly Educator How-To! Today we’ll help you teach kids to classify and categorize.

Objective: To gain a basic understanding of taxonomy by practicing sorting and classification skills.

Bags of assorted plastic animals
Index cards


Preparation: The beauty of this activity is that it takes very little teacher preparation!

Separate your class into groupings of no more than four children. Have the children collect small plastic animals from their homes to contribute to the project; they should all have them at the bottom of a toy box. Each group should have at least 20 animals, of any kind, that will all fit into a large zipping freezer bag.


1.    Working in groups, students will separate all the animals in the taxonomy bag into groups by identifying the various similarities the animals have in common. An example of this first grouping would be animals that have legs and animals that have fins. There are many ways to go about the first grouping; encourage each team to go with what makes sense to them.
2.    Next, the groupings are made smaller by sorting a second time. For example, you can separate by animals that have six legs or animals that have four legs.
3.    The teams should explore the many different ways they can sort and categorize the animals.
4.    When a team comes up with system with which they are satisfied, they should write a short, descriptive note card for each group of animals.
5.    The group will explain to the class how and why they sorted the animals in the manner they chose.


The taxonometric system of organism classification and organization is based upon the similarities between organisms. Carl Linnaeus, a biologist, is credited with the invention of this system of choosing standard scientific names for every organism. He chose Latin as the language to be used in this process.


Carl Linnaeus, the creator of the Binomial Naming System.

These are scientific names, not the common names that people use day to day. You may call your pet a cat or a dog, but the scientific name for your dog is Canis familiarus.  A scientist that doesn’t speak your language would understand which animal you are speaking of if you use the taxonomic, or scientific, name.

Linnaeus’ Binomial Naming System is employed to provide the scientific name for each organism. This system provides a two-part name for each organism based upon the genus and species of that particular organism. The first part of the name is the genus and the second the species. Homo sapiens, for example, is the name given humans in the Binomial Naming System.

Recipe for a successful Sunday night in: Watch HMNS’ KTRK special June 24 at 10:35 p.m.

Got Sunday plans? If yes: Cancel. If no: read on!

We’ve compiled a surefire recipe for a successful Sunday night in that’s impossible to fudge up. (Get it? ‘Cause we’re making fudge cakes.)

molten lava volcano cake image10
Thanks to Wants and Wishes for the great molten lava volcano cakes recipe! Click the image for the link to more dinosaur party ideas.

HMNS is the topic of a special Sunday-night special on KTRK channel 13 that explores the behind-the-scenes work that went into putting together our compelling new Hall of Paleontology.

The half-hour special includes footage shot over three years on-site at HMNS, at South Dakota’s Black Hills Institute of Geological Research and up-close at dig sites, providing new insight into how major exhibitions are put together.

What you’ll need:

8 tablespoons (or 1 stick) of unsalted butter
2 teaspoons of flour
4 ounces of bittersweet chocolate (Giradelli’s works best)
2 large whole eggs
2 large egg yolks
1/4 cup of sugar

1 couch

What you do:

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees
  2. Butter and lightly flour molds
  3. Combine butter and chocolate in top of broiler set over simmering water; heat until just melted
  4. In a separate bowl, beat together eggs, yolks and sugar
  5. Add melted chocolate mixture and beat to combine
  6. Quickly beat in flour and pour batter evenly into molds once combined
  7. Bake until sides have set but the center remains soft – no more than 6 or 7 minutes
  8. Invert each mold onto plate and let rest for 10 seconds
  9. Garnish with melted red chocolate for lava

dinosaur party