About Erin M

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Erin designs, creates, and maintains exhibits for the Entomology Hall, raises and cares for live insects and insect relatives, and educates the public about the wonderful world of bugs.

Bell peppers, bananas and beer: the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Grocery List

Take a look at this list. You are probably thinking, “ok, someone’s shopping list, so what?“. What if I told you that most of these things are not even for human consumption, but for butterflies, reptiles, and other various insects? You’d probably think I’m crazy! Well, you’re not alone.


Have you ever bought Guinness at 8:00 am on a weekday? Or had a ton of produce rung up leading the cashier to comment “wow, aren’t you healthy!“, only to reply, “oh, it’s not for me, it’s for bugs.” Yeah, they all think we’re crazy! These are the realities of our weekly grocery shopping for the Cockrell Butterfly Center

The truth is that it costs us $150-$200 a month at the local HEB to keep our butterflies, bugs, iguanas, and tortoises well fed and happy. And yes, our butterflies drink beer, and not just your run of the mill pilsner, it’s gotta be the good stuff! Actually, we feed our butterflies an appetizing mixture of overripe bananas, brown sugar, and dark beer. We use Guinness because it’s not pasteurized, so it contains the bacteria goodness that ensures the butterflies’ preferred level of fermentation. Yummy! Our nectar feeding butterflies get pumped up on Amino Fuel, which is a supplement that can be found on the health food/vitamin isle. We add it to our nectar bowls (a mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar) to give the butterflies a little more protein. Many of them would feed on pollen, or even feces in the wild to get additional protein in their diet. 

Oh, and butterflies are so high maintenance. The laundry detergent, it’s mostly to wash our “butterfly diapers”. When our butterflies emerge, they squirt out the remains of their last meal as a caterpillar. It’s called meconium and it’s quite messy. We use white towels to soak it up and they have to be laundered every week!

We have a lot of vegetarians around here too. Two iguanas, 3 tortoises, and A LOT of bugs. Grasshoppers, millipedes, beetles, and tons of cockroaches! I wonder how the people at the store would look at me if I told them that at least 50% of that produce is going to feed cockroaches. 

Finally, there are SOME humans in our office that do require just a few things to keep us going while we’re running around feeding all of these animals. Also, all of those humans are females, so we need to keep the coffee and chocolate well stocked!

Sand Fleas Are Real! (But They’re Not What You Think They Are…)

Well, it’s summer time again and millions of people will be spending lots and lots of time outdoors. They will go to the lake, they will go to the beach, they will have picnics and barbecues and luaus. All the while, they will be joined by many unwanted guests — of the arthropod kind!

Many people think about the summer in Houston a little like this:


Cartoon by Gary Larson

Bugs, or arthropods, are everywhere, and our favorite time of year to play outside just happens to be the prime of most of their little lives. Every year I hear horror stories about bugs, particularly about the beach. Perhaps it’s because creatures that inhabit such an environment are so foreign to us. The oceans are the earth’s last known frontier, and animals that live inside or near it might as well be aliens to most of us!

We are so lucky to live in the age of having information at our fingertips. Want to know something? Just Google it! The almighty “internets” can’t be wrong! But anyone is allowed to write anything about any topic they desire, so the almighty internets are sometimes wrong.

If you want to go to the beach, and you Google, say, sand fleas, you’ll very likely read articles that will keep you away from the beach for good! So allow me to fill you in on some of these mysterious critters that call the beach home.

Arthropods are the most abundant and successful animal life-form on the planet and they can be found surviving and thriving in almost any environment. Naturally, they enjoy the beach as much as we do. The warm temperatures, that nice ocean breeze… If you walk along the beach at any time of day, especially the morning or evening, you will see all sorts of activity — mussels that have been unearthed by the waves wiggling back down into the sand, little crabs skittering around, flies buzzing about, and perhaps seaweed washed ashore, covered in small creatures.


Sand hopper, a crustacean in the order Amphipoda and the family Talitridae. Many different genera have a similar appearance.

These herbivorous creatures are most likely what we sometimes call “sand fleas,” though they are actually land hoppers or in beach environments, sand hoppers. You may have heard terrible things about these little guys, that they suck your blood, leaving awful welts, or even that they burrow into your skin to lay eggs. None of these things are true of sand hoppers. They are crustaceans, cousins to the insects, with five to seven pairs of legs and two pairs of antennae. Other well-known and delicious crustaceans are crabs, shrimp, lobsters and crawfish. Sand hoppers belong to the order Amphipoda and sort of look like a cross between a giant flea and a roly-poly. They mostly live in water, but some species are terrestrial and live in damp areas. They are scavengers that feed on rotting organic matter, so a nice pile of washed-up seaweed looks really good to them. They can hop, but that’s where the similarities with actual fleas begin and end! They do not suck blood, and in fact they want nothing to do with you. If you approach them, they will jump away, the obvious origin for their common name.


Mole crab (Emerita analoga) digging in the sand.

Another crustacean incorrectly called a sand flea is a tiny little crab called a mole crab — AWWWWW!!! (Oh wait, am I the only one who thinks it’s cute?) They are filter feeders, meaning they filter plankton from seawater. They burrow down into the sand where the waves break on the shore, and they’d also prefer to stay away from humans.


True sand fleas are native to central and south America and Africa. They lay their eggs in mammalian flesh, leaving a bad infection on the hands and feet.

Now, the true sand flea, the one that is an actual flea, is a nasty parasitic insect. But, they don’t inhabit North America. You can, however, find them in Central America, South America and Africa. Sand fleas, also called the chigoe flea, are the smallest known flea species (about one millimeter across). They burrow into mammalian skin to feed and may cause an infection known as tungiasis. But this is only really an issue in areas of poor sanitation. So please folks, don’t worry yourself over sand fleas.

2006 Frank Collins Leishmaniasis is transmitted by the bite of infected female phlebotomine sandflies, injecting the infective stage (i.e., promastigotes) from their proboscis during blood meals.  Promastigotes that reach the puncture wound are phagocytized by macrophages ,and other types of mononuclear phagocytic cells, and inside these cells, transform into the tissue stage of the parasite (i.e., amastigotes), which multiply by simple division and proceed to infect other mononuclear phagocytic cells.  Parasite, host, and other factors affect whether the infection becomes symptomatic and whether cutaneous or visceral leishmaniasis results.  Sandflies become infected by ingesting infected cells during blood meals.  In sandflies, amastigotes transform into promastigotes, develop in the gut, (in the hindgut for leishmanial organisms in the Viannia subgenus; in the midgut for organisms in the Leishmania subgenus), and migrate to the proboscis. See PHIL 3400 for a diagram of this cycle.

Sand fly (Phlebotomus papatasi), but the name can refer to any species of biting, blood-sucking insect found in sandy environments.

The only arthropods that may feed on you at the beach are things that will feed on you everywhere else, mosquitoes, and biting flies (sometimes called sand flies). Unfortunately, I don’t have much to say in defense of mosquitoes you’ll find at the beach, especially salt marsh mosquitoes (Aedis sollicitans), they’re kind of the worst! They’re large, fast, and pretty relentless. They breed in inter-tidal pools of brackish water and the eggs can lay dormant for years waiting for water!


Sand midges beside a dime and a pencil point to show their relative size.

Other flies that feed on you at the beach are small midges, commonly known as “no-see-ums” (yes, really), and just like mosquitoes, only the females feed on blood in preparation to lay eggs. The most you’ll get from these are classic signs of a bite, small red bumps that itch. A good bug spray containing DEET, or even some that contain effective essential oils such as lemon and eucalyptus, are effective at repelling all of these types of insects.

So if you’re heading to the beach this summer, don’t forget the sunscreen, don’t forget the bug spray, but leave the entomophobia (fear of bugs) at home. You have nothing to fear!

“I Have a Question! Where do Your Bugs Come From?”

When I’m maintaining the live exhibits in the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, or giving a tour of our Insect Containment Room, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “Where do the bugs come from?” It’s a very good question! Many people ask if we are able to actually collect them, and I wish that were the case. Travel the world to collect exotic live specimens? Yes, please!

But the truth is we get our animals in boxes delivered by FedEx or UPS. The boxes come from all over the place. Arizona, Thailand, Costa Rica… But most of our exotic shipments come from the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, which collects and breeds butterflies and other insects and arthropods. They provide us with a large butterfly shipment each month and several arthropods throughout the year. Whenever our supply of large exotic insects is dwindling, I place an order for mostly beetles, but also katydids, mantids, and even centipedes or spiders.

We recently received one of these shipments, and I wanted to give you a sneak peek. I love getting these boxes. It feels like Christmas!


This box transported five beetles, three large katydids, three mantids, two large spiders, and a few hundred butterflies!


Each animal is packed carefully in individual containers with a moist sponge inside. Materials are placed in the box, such as soft filler and ice packs, to make sure the bugs stay comfortable on their long trip. They leave Malaysia on a Monday and arrive here Friday morning.


The dead leaf mantis is nearly impossible to spot against a background of dead leaves.


Until it moves!


This dragon-headed katydid wasted no time finding a hiding spot! Katydids mimic leaves to keep them protected from predators.


Giant long-legged katydids are the largest species in the world. They are a favorite around here!


The giant golden orb-weaver has the largest and strongest web in the world. Although the web may sometimes accidentally ensnare birds or bats, the spider only feeds on flying insects.

orchid mantis

The orchid mantis has the most spectacular camouflage of all! They hide among orchid flowers waiting to grab unsuspecting pollinators such as bees and flies.

All of these and more can be seen on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology. Some can even be brought to your school for an exciting, hands on Bugs on Wheels presentation! See the HMNS website for further details!

A spider in your fruit? Unlikely, and less likely to hurt you.

This year we’ve seen a rash of negative publicity about “deadly” spiders hitchhiking in fruit from Central and South America, causing arachnophobes everywhere to, well, be super paranoid! In fact, spiders have not fared well in the media at all this year. Just check out some of these headlines:

Woman jumps from car after seeing spider, causes crash

Loose tarantula prompts Delta to call off flight

Man sets fire to gas pump trying to kill spider

So what’s the deal? Are spiders rising up against us by invading our fruit, vehicles, and homes? No. People are overreacting and the media is having a field day! We wanted to shed some light on what’s really happening and what you should do if you’re ever faced with a similar situation.

red faced banana

The redfaced banana spider, Cupiennius chiapanensis, from Central America is a harmless spider often misidentified as a potentially deadly spider from the Amazon in South America. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

Spiders hitchhiking in fruit — should we be concerned? Absolutely not; this is nothing new. Spiders and other arthropods have been accidentally hitching a ride in produce since it started being imported into the United States. Bunched fruits such as grapes and bananas make excellent hiding places for small insects and arachnids. Banana plantations, orchards, and vineyards attract plenty of insect visitors, both beneficial pollinators and detrimental pests. All of which make an easy meal for hungry spiders, so these are wonderful places for them to call home.

This can be a great thing for us because the spiders help control the pests, which can greatly reduce the amount of pesticide used on our food. But, obviously, when these fruits are harvested, it can bring them into our supermarkets and even our homes. The good news is that in the unlikely event you find a spider hiding in your fruit basket, it’s probably not a harmful one, according to arachnologist, Rick Vetter, who has been studying and identifying spiders brought into the country this way since 2006.

Most of the spiders that appear in banana shipments from Central and South America are either the pantropical huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria) or the red-faced banana spider (Cupiennius chiapanensis). Both are large spiders that can be misidentified as Brazilian wandering spiders, and both are harmless.

There have been several reports this year, mostly from the United Kingdom, of “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” eggs being found in banana shipments. The articles detailing these accounts have so many problems, it’s just mind boggling to me that they’re published and taken as any sort of reliable or accurate information. One article states that a woman purchased a bag of Tesco bananas and found an egg sac. After searching through Google, she saw an image that looked similar to hers, so she determined herself that they must be Brazilian wandering spider eggs. Hmmmm, interesting, wow, Google really can tell you EVERYTHING!

Another article states that a family “fled their home” after finding an egg sac on bananas from Aldi and an “expert,” some guy who runs a wildlife sanctuary, told them that “on the balance of probabilities, it was probably eggs from a Brazilian Wandering Spider.” Wait… what? That sentence doesn’t even make sense, come on, people!


The pantropical huntsman spider, Heteropoda venatoria, is a harmless spider found in many tropical locations around the world including Florida and Hawaii. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

The main problem here is the lack of an actual expert to identify the suspected eggs. Many trained entomologists cannot even correctly identify the actual spider, let alone their egg sack. Anyone who is not an entomologist or arachnologist is definitely not going to get it right!

Another major problem is with the media automatically labeling something as a “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” or “the deadliest spider in the world,” which creates so much hysteria. It makes people think that if they find a spider or eggs in bananas, it must be this kind, it will bite you, and you will die. But let’s look at the facts.

Brazilian wandering spiders are actually a genus of spiders (Phonuetria) found all over Central and South America. Each species in this genus has a different geographical range, size, behavior, and venom toxicity. The species reported to have the most toxic venom, Phonuetria fera, is restricted to the Brazilian Amazon and two similar species, P. nigriventer and P. keyserlingi, are restricted to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The two latter species are the ones usually involved in envenomations of humans in Brazil, as P. fera is usually far from banana plantations and not likely to come into contact with people or get into banana shipments. Furthermore, most banana shipments these days come from places like Ecuador and Costa Rica, not Brazil. This is not to say that other species in this genus found in Central America don’t occasionally get into shipments, because they can, and have. But these species are usually smaller and have less toxic venom.

The toxicity of the venom is always exaggerated as well. In a study of 422 bites from Phoneutria spiders in Brazil, only 2.3 percent of them had to seek treatment with antivenin, and only one death occurred. Most people had minor symptoms that resolved on their own. This is true when it comes to any spider considered “dangerous” like the black widow, brown recluse, or Brazilian wandering spider. Most spiders only bite in response to a threat they cannot escape from, such as being trapped.


Brazilian wandering spider.

If you succeed in doing this to a spider, the bite is a defensive one, which may not even result in envenomation. Most types of spiders, especially from North and South America, are capable of saving their venom and delivering a “dry bite.” If venom does make it into your system, it is most likely a very small amount that will cause no reaction or a very minor reaction. People who are sensitive may experience unpleasant symptoms and may even need to be treated at a medical facility to control these symptoms, but death is highly unlikely. The groups of people most susceptible to venom are small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Obviously those in any of these categories should be protected from spider bites, but knowledge and education are the best way, not overreaction and hysteria!

So if you do happen to bring home fruit and find a spider lurking there, don’t do what these people did. Don’t flee your house or try to sue the supermarket. (It’s not really their fault!) Don’t call the media or 911. First, try to contain the spider or eggs by placing the bananas in a sealed plastic bag or box of some kind. It’s important to keep it intact for proper identification, a smushed spider is very hard to identify! If the spider drops to the counter or the ground, try throwing a cup or glass over it and slipping a piece of paper underneath to trap it inside. From there you can preserve it in the freezer, which will kill it, or the refrigerator which will slow it down until you can get it to someone for a proper identification. It’s not a bad idea to give the store at which you purchased the fruit a call, just to let them know you found a spider in their produce and you’re trying to get it identified.

banana spider

Finding a spider in a food product can be jarring, but don’t freak out. It’s most likely harmless. Report the spider to grocery store personnel or call an entomologist to be sure of the species.

Next, find an actual expert to identify the spider. Stay away from pest control companies, they don’t always have an actual entomologist on staff, but they will be happy to give you a wrong answer and then tell you that your house needs to be sprayed for extra precaution. Call a university or museum and ask for an entomologist. If they don’t have one, they will know where to find one.

Deliver the spider and wait for an answer. Most likely the results will come back as a harmless spider of some kind. In some rare cases, it may be a type of Brazilian wandering spider or perhaps a black widow. (This has happened.) As long as you kept a cool head and caught and isolated the spider without picking it up with your hands, you were not bitten by it! Call the store and tell them what type of spider it was. Then, move on with your life.

And for goodness sake, if you see a spider on or near you, don’t jump from a moving car or try to set it on fire in the proximity of highly combustible chemicals. These other things will kill you, the spider will not!