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.

Meet the live animals that’ll be starring in this week’s Friday Feeding Frenzy

Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes!

Every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be hosting the Friday Feeding Frenzy, where we will be feeding live animals for your viewing pleasure at 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m.. The cost is included with admission to the Butterfly Center.

toadally memeWe have several arthropods and even some reptiles and amphibians that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up for this Friday (note: it changes weekly).

GREEN TREE PYTHON 
Morelia viridis

Our green tree pythons, Boo and Hiss, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch. When potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tail as an anchor to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

 

GIANT ASIAN MANTIS
Hierodula membranacea

Feeding Frenzy 4This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey.

Due to their amazing camouflage, praying mantises can resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, but it keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence.

An insect that wanders too close is quickly snagged by raptorial front legs (read: legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive.

Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their heads, allowing the insect to see all around them. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision.

Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents.

 

GIANT CENTIPEDE
Scolopendra heros

Feeding Frenzy 8Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs — 1 pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment.

This centipede, also known as the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue prey. Once caught, the prey is bitten repeatedly by two fangs, which inject venom to immobilize and kill. Then the meal is devoured!

Giant centipedes of this and other similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me and you’ll get more than you bargained for!”

A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas.

 

WOLF SPIDER
Hogna carolinensis

Feeding Frenzy 6This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States. Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas.

The name “wolf spider” refers to their hunting behavior. They don’t build a web designed to ensnare prey, but actively seek out their prey. Sometimes they wait to ambush their prey and at other times they chase it for a short distance.

Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquify the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach.

Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

 

GOLIATH BIRDEATER TARANTULA
Theraphosa blondi

Feeding Frenzy 7This is the big momma of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a Quarter Pounder) and have a leg span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate!). The name “birdeater” is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could.

They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents.

If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs that are kicked off of the abdomen into air. If these hairs come into contact with the skin, you get really itchy. And you don’t even want to know what happens if it gets in your eyes!

Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible.

 

GULF COAST TOAD
Incilius valliceps

Feeding Frenzy 3You see those toads everywhere around here — unfortunately, often they are smushed by cars in the street.

Well, these guys aren’t getting run over. They get a five-star aquarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet provide by the Butterfly Center! Toads are opportunistic predators and will eat any small animal they can fit into their mouths, so they should be fun to watch.

 

AFRICAN BULLFROG
Pyxicephalus adspersus

Feeding Frenzy 5Last but not least, meet Tofu! Tofu is staying with us while his owner, a friend of the Butterfly Center, is in Australia. We promised to take good care of him and feed him well, for all of you to see.

African bullfrogs are huge and the males can reach 10 inches. Like other frogs and toads, they are voracious predators and will eat anything they can fit in their mouths, including small rodents and birds.

African bullfrogs can spontaneously change genders in a single-sex environment — how’s that for a neat trick? Remember how, in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were all female, so they weren’t supposed to be able to breed? And remember what happened after frog DNA was added to the dinosaur DNA? Just like African bullfrogs, the Jurassic Park dinosaurs were able to switch their genders and breed, because as they say, “Life will find a way.” Silly humans!

We’re all pretty enamored with Tofu around here, so we can’t wait for you to meet him.

Well, there you have it folks, the Friday Feeding Frenzy line-up! Not only will you get up close and personal with these live animals, but you will also learn some cool facts and be able to ask questions.

While you’re in the Butterfly Center, don’t forget to check out 25 more amazing insects and other arthropods on display, and more than 1,000 free-flying butterflies. See you Friday!

FIELD TRIP!!! Bug Hunting in Southeast Texas

The summer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is always an interesting time. The hallways, offices, and classrooms are filled with children, eco-teens, and other interesting folks volunteering their time or just looking for a summer job. It’s a wonderful time because everywhere you look there is a smiling face and someone willing to pitch in to help wherever needed.

Every year, we have a horticulture intern that is sponsored by the Houston Garden Club. We have gotten to know such bright, delightful college students this way and we really look forward to the company and extra help.

his year, we have Felicia English from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has been a great addition to our team here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We have also been lucky to have Deborah Wagner helping out on the Entomology side of things. She’s currently getting her Masters in Museum and Field Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Since we have these new people around, we like to entertain them with things like lunches out to our favorite eclectic spots and field trips. Field trips usually have an emphasis on horticulture and are to places like nurseries, botanical gardens, etc. This year, we decided to take an Entomology field trip first! This was a little out of the ordinary for us as a staff, but super exciting for me and our other staff Entomologist Lauren. So we headed out to Bear Creek Park one morning in hopes of seeing some great bugs!

I have to admit, I wasn’t super optimistic about what we would see, considering the extreme drought Southeast Texas has been experiencing. But it wasn’t long after we arrived that we spotted our first insect, a velvet ant!

Velvet Ants!

Velvet Ant (1974)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hunter-Desportes

These are cool critters! They are very common in East Texas. They are only active during certain times in the morning and afternoon, so spotting them is always a treat! If you’ve never seen one, you’d probably be in for quite a surprise!

They are large, nearly an inch in size, fuzzy, red and black creatures that resemble huge ants. They have no wings and scurry around much like an ant, but they are actually a type of wasp. The females are wingless. They live in burrows and eat nectar. They hunt solitary ground-nesting bees to feed to their larvae. The males are quite a bit smaller, not as fuzzy, and look more like a typical wasp. They have wings and are rarely seen.  We often have these on display in the Entomology Hall and probably will have them at the end of the summer. They’re very fun to watch and are awfully cute!

Walking Sticks!

Not even 5 minutes had gone by until someone cried out, “I found some walking sticks!”  “Wow, seriously?” I thought! Zac, our horticulturist had been digging  in some rotten wood when he came across a small colony of Western two-striped walking sticks.

These are no ordinary walking sticks. Aside from an elongated body, they don’t look much like sticks! They have two longitudinal stripes running down their backside, and they are pretty pudgy for a walking stick. The females can be about 3 to 4 inches in length and the males are much smaller. The males are often seen riding on the female’s back and are usually mistaken for a baby because of the size difference! Pairs usually stay connected after mating. The male has a much shorter lifespan than the female, so as a result the female is often seen dragging the males lifeless body after her wherever she goes!

These walking sticks are known by many other names, including musk mares because of the defensive fluid they secrete from the sides of their thorax. This milky substance has a foul odor and can irritate mucus membranes. They can aim a stream for up to 40 centimeters and will aim for the eyes. Needless to say, a shot in the eye will result in pain, temporary blindness, and other unpleasant consequences, but luckily the effects are not permanent! We came away with 3 males and 4 females, more than enough to display and start a colony with. Despite the nasty defense, they are interesting critters and the fluid is easy to avoid!

Bug Watching!
Tiger Swallowtail

Back on the path, we headed further in to the forest, not seeing much of anything and feeling bad about how parched everything looked. We were happy with what we had encountered so far, however.

The surprises kept coming!

We had not expected to see any butterflies whatsoever until a very large, dark colored butterfly came soaring over our heads, coming to light on a branch up ahead. As we got closer we saw a female tiger swallowtail hungrily sipping nectar from a buttonbush, which as it turns out, is a great nectar source if you’re interested in butterfly gardening!

What we saw was the dark form of the female Eastern tiger swallowtail. Males have yellow wings with 4 black tiger stripes, while the female can have yellow wings, like the male, or black wings, like the one we saw. Any sighting of this breathtaking butterfly is awesome!

We also came accross an injured hackberry tree with sap oozing from the wounds. The sap was attracting tawny emperors from all over the forest to take advantage. The butterflies did not scare away easily and allowed us to take many pictures of the spectacle. We were very pleased!

Bug Watching!
Tawny Emperors

Buprestid Beetle!

As we went farther, there was one thing on my mind, lubber grasshoppers! I knew from early trips to this park with my friend Laurie that we would reach a creek with a bridge over it. On the other side of that bridge we could possibly find tons of lubber grasshoppers to bring back with us!

A few years ago, in the same area, there were so many of them that we had to try hard not to step on them! But, that was a very wet summer and I did not have high hopes. As we went along, everyone had their eyes peeled! We got to the bridge and right before we crossed it Zac, our horticulturist, had something fly right into his head. It was not what we were looking for, but it was quite a find!

A red-legged buprestid beetle. Buprestids are known as metallic wood-boring beetles and are on of those families that has many absolutely breathtaking species of beetles. Metallic, colorful, jewels of nature. This was a spectacular species that is actually no too common in our area, bonus!

Bug Watching!
Buprestid Beatle

Lubber Grasshoppers: Found!

So, over the bridge we headed, not before seeing a couple of alligator gars in the creek! Not 5 minutes after we crossed the bridge did someone pipe up, “found a lubber,” “oh here’s another,” “I found one too!”

Oh my gosh, they were everywhere! We caught as many as we could until they all started to retreat into a huge poison ivy patch. They were actually eating the poison ivy! We already know that lubber grasshoppers have bright coloration to warn potential redators that they are poisonous. We also know that they get their poison from eating nasty plants in the wild (if you don’t know, read my post about lubber grasshoppers!), so seeing them eat that nasty poison ivy was not a surprise!

Bug Watching!
Lubber Grasshoppers

We came back with about a dozen which will live out the rest of their lives on display and teaching kids about bugs. They are very well cared for, in fact, totally spoiled! It was a great feeling to know that even though the weather has been harsh, we still have a hot spot for lubbers and other amazing native Texan insects!

We had a great adventure and a lot of fun together as a staff. We saw not only the insects we were hoping for, but also other wildlife such as birds, fish, other invertebrates, and I even saw a deer! No one else saw it and many of them thought I was crazy, but I definitely saw one!

It was fun for me to be able to teach our horticulture staff a little bit about the fine art of bug huntin! Later, we visited Moody Gardens in Galveston. The rainforest pyramid has recently been renovated and it’s really neat! They have a slew of different wildlife in there including, white faced saki monkeys, cotton top tamarins, macaws, sloths, and many other things. Not to mention the plants in their conservatory are absolutely gorgeous! I would definitely recommend a visit there.

Next for me is my annual conference in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. This is another favorite part of the summer for me. There’s nothing like bug nerds from around the country meeting in a lush insect habitat for a week. I can’t wait to tell you folks all about it!

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Photo From You: Insect Identification

Egyptian star cluster / Pentas lanceolata / 草山丹花(クササンタンカ)
Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

If you’re an avid, or even amateur butterfly gardener, you are probably familiar with pentas.

Pentas, also known as star clusters, are one of our favorite nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. They have medium-dark green foliage with clusters of small 5-petal flowers that come in a variety of colors. I love them because they are very heat and drought tolerant! I try not to forget about watering my poor plants, but with 3 dogs, 2 turtles and a husband all needing my attention, they sometimes go by the wayside.

I was very surprised and pleased when, despite my neglect, my pentas grew tall and flowered often, providing yummy nectar for all of my butterfly, bee and fly visitors! If you’re familiar with this versatile plant, you may have seen our mystery bug for the month.


Picture from
Crosby, Texas

This picture (immediate right) was taken in Crosby, Texas. I immediately recognized it as a Tersa Sphinx caterpillar. Naturally, we have a lot of pentas here at the Butterfly Center and we have run into this caterpillar more than once!

I can tell it’s a sphinx moth caterpillar, also known as a hornworm, by the pointed protuberance  on its last segment. It stands out from other hornworms because it has a pair of eyespots on each abdominal segment, including one very large pair of eye spots on it’s first abdominal segment, similar to those on a spicebush swallowtail.

shade
Creative Commons License photo credit: lecates
The greenform,
showing eye-spots and horn

When the caterpillar feels threatened, it can retract it’s thorax into it’s abdomen, putting those eyespots in the face of a would-be predator in hopes to intimidate them.  They can be green, brown, or gray. After happily snacking on the leaves of pentas, firebush, buttonplant, or other similar woody plants, these caterpillars pupate close to the surface of the soil.

Adult moths fly starting at sunset and can often be mistaken for hummingbirds due to their large size and flight capabilities. Hawkmoths can hover next to flowers just like hummingbirds! These moths can be found all along the Gulf Coast and throughout most of the Eastern US. They reach far down through Mexico and into South America. They are not considered to be major pests and when we’ve found caterpillars there really hasn’t been major damage to our plants. They are just another cute caterpillar to observe and they’re very safe to touch and handle!

If you’re stumped by a creature in your garden, feel free to send in a photo. Or better yet, bring it in for us to see! We’re always happy to help with identification!

We have heard from a few folks that are over-run with caterpillars, grasshoppers, or other creepy crawlies. If this is happening to you, don’t kill them, donate them! We can sometimes use them for educational programs or display purposes! If you are interested in any of this, please send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

What in the World is THAT!!??

We often receive pictures that look completely and totally alien and WEIRD to most people, but like good little Entomologists, we know exactly what they are! The picture sent in to us most recently from a gentleman in Deer Park is a two-for-one special!

Have you ever seen a very large green caterpillar with strange-looking white ovals protruding from it? Well, it’s not just one insect, it’s two.

The picture clearly shows a large green caterpillar with a horn on it’s rear. It’s a little blurry, but it’s clearly a type of hornworm. Hornworms are the larvae of sphinx moths. Sphinx moth caterpillars are characterized by a horn-like appendage on their last segment, giving rise to the common name. This is more than likely a tomato or tobacco hornworm. These caterpillars can devastate plants in the solanaceae family (tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, peppers, etc.), so they are considered a major agricultural pest.  Fortunately for farmers these two species are often attacked by a little monster which lies inside those weird white protrusions.


Braconid wasps are tiny parasitic wasps of which there are over 50,000 species. These wasps are our friends. They do not sting, but they parasitize some of our most damaging pests like caterpillars, aphids, and  beetle larvae.  They are mostly internal parasites and they can parasitize most any developmental stage of insects. There are even ones minute enough to lay eggs inside itty bitty eggs of insects, like aphids. Braconid wasps are very species-specific. The species of wasp that commonly attacks tomato and tobacco hornworms is called Cotesia congregatus.

The female lays her eggs just under the skin of  the caterpillar and within days the larvae hatch and start to eat the caterpillar from the inside. After about a week the larvae of the wasp drill a hole in the host’s skin and form a silken white cocoon to pupate in. The cocoons are what you see protruding from the skin. If the caterpillar is still alive at this point, they don’t have much longer. The adult wasps later emerge and fly off to mate and parasitize another caterpillar.

As gruesome as this sounds, it’s all part of the delicate balance of nature. For every organism that exists, many others exist to keep their populations in check. This is the foundation of biological control. Biological control is a method that uses an insect’s natural predators and parasites against them. Way better than chemicals!

So there you have it, another mystery solved! If you have a tricky bug you’d like identified, or even just a question that’s been bugging you, send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org. We’ll take our best crack at it and feature your question or picture in our blog. Until next time, happy bug watching!