About Laurie

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Laurie’s main duties are receiving and processing exotic butterfly pupae, releasing adult butterflies into the conservatory, and sharing her love and knowledge of insects with school children through a program called “Bugs on Wheels.”

Beautiful Spring-time Butterflies!

Spring-time is almost here and the butterflies will soon be fluttering all around town.  I have actually seen a lot already, but we do live in Texas, so that’s not a surprise.  Since I work in an exotic butterfly house, I definitely have my favorite exotic butterflies, but I also have a few favorites that are here in Texas as well.  Many of you may be expecting me to write about the monarch, Danaus plexippus, but I thought I would write about some different, but still very common ones that we find around here in Houston.  If you are interested in monarchs, please check out Nancy’s blog - all about monarch migration.

Morning Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Joel Olives

The Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, is a butterfly that frequents Houston quite often.  Its caterpillars feed off of every single part of the passion vine plant, which make them poisonous and nasty-tasting to predators. 

A couple of summers ago, I had tons of these caterpillars on my passion vine plant.  The caterpillars have large spines along their body with an underlying bold purple, orange, and black coloration, serving to warn predators of their danger!  I’m sure many of you have seen this bright orange and black butterfly fluttering around nectar plants such as Lantana, Zinnia, Coneflowers, Butterfly Bush, and many others. 

One of the most distinct characteristics of the Gulf Fritillary is the spectacular silvery, almost mirror looking, spots on the underside of the wings.  The males and females look very similar, but the black stripes on upper side of the female’s wings are thicker and more pronounced.  Although this butterfly is not here in the Butterfly Center very often, take advantage of its beauty outdoors right here in Houston.  

The goldrim butterfly, Battus polydamas, is a member of the swallowtail family (Papilionidae), but it does not have the typical tails that many of these butterflies have.  The name ‘gold rim’ comes from the golden-yellow crescent shaped markings on the upper edges of both the fore and hind wing.  Caterpillars of this species are gregarious (living together) in the early stages but become solitary when older.  The caterpillars are a dark reddish gray color with paired fleshy tubercles along the back of the body.  

I am very fond of these cute caterpillars and was fortunate enough to take this adorable picture in our butterfly garden right outside of the museum.  Adults are mainly associated with disturbed areas of the forest and can be seen visiting gardens throughout the city.  They are nectar feeders and especially like Lantana.  Like many swallowtails, this butterfly flutters constantly while feeding instead of stopping to rest.  This butterfly is fairly common in Florida and South Texas and will at times stray to Kentucky and Missouri. 

Clouded Sulphur
Creative Commons License photo credit: tlindenbaum

Once spring-time hits, I seem to see this next butterfly all the time!  As a native of heavily populated areas such as parks, yards, gardens, and road edges, the cloudless sulphur, Phoebis sennae, can be seen almost anywhere along the gulf coastal states. It is characterized by its pure bright yellow to greenish-yellow wings. The males use strong rapid flight to search for a receptive female. The eggs are laid singly on leaves of Cassia,which the caterpillars happily consume, and hide underneath, to rest. The pupae are oddly shaped, compressed from side to side with a greatly distended “chest and belly”. They use a silken girdle to attach themselves to the leaf during pupation. These butterflies are harmless to plant life and are a welcome visitor to any garden.

One of the largest butterflies that I see around town is the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresphontesThis fantastic butterfly is native to large portions of North, Central, and South America. It very common in Houston and can be seen gracefully fluttering and sipping the sweet nectar of flowers such as Lantana, Azalea, and Honeysuckle.

Characterized by the striking diagonal yellow band across its forewing, and its long yellow-filled tails, this butterfly is a joy to see in one’s garden! The larvae feed strictly on citrus plants and are commonly called “orange dogs.” As a defense, they cleverly disguise themselves as bird droppings as they sit motionless during the day and feed at night. As with other swallowtails, these caterpillars’ posses a bright reddish orange, y-shaped gland called an osmeterium, which contains a mixture of highly noxious chemicals that smell like rancid butter. This gland helps to protect the caterpillar from small predators such as ants and spiders. The pupal stage remains inconspicuous, resembling a piece of tree bark.

These four butterflies are only a few of the wonderful butterflies that live in Houston.  If you are more interested in butterflies you should check out Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texasby John and Gloria Tveten.  It’s a wonderful book and has amazing pictures.

Love Butterflies?
Bring them to your garden with scrumptious (to butterflies, anyway) host plants – available at our Spring Plant Sale April 4, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Stay tuned for more details!

A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.

Merry Christmas Butterfly

I thought that for this month I would share with you a very special butterfly called the “Christmas Butterfly.” I have no idea why it is called this; it’s not green or red and it doesn’t sing carols or light up, but it’s beauty does make you smile the way that Christmas does! I actually got a phone call a few years back about why this is called the Christmas butterfly. I had never heard of this festive name, so I searched and searched for an explanation but came up empty.

The scientific name of this butterfly is Papilio demodocus. (You can see a great picture of one here.) The other two common names of this species are the orange dog and citrus swallowtail. This butterfly is native to Africa and is a common pest of citrus trees. We used to receive a similar species of butterfly, Papilio demoleus, from the Philippines, but the USDA has completely taken it off any permit because it is such an awful citrus pest. If that butterfly was to get out of the Butterfly Center it would most likely die, but it could also completely demolish our citrus groves here, so better to be safe than sorry!

The Christmas butterfly is a member of the Swallowtail family, Papilionidae. Caterpillars in this family are super cool because they all have this weird organ behind their head that they use for defense called the osmeterium. This organ protrudes from the back of the caterpillars head when it is threatened to ward predators off. It is forked, sticky, smelly, and reddish-orange in color. The picture below is of a Thoas swallowtail caterpillar, Papilio thoas, taken here inside the Butterfly Center when some caterpillars unexpectedly showed up on one of our plants.

The Christmas butterfly caterpillar starts off brownish black and white in coloration and it very closely resembles bird droppings. As the caterpillar gets larger, it changes to a bright green color. The chrysalis has awesome camouflage. It looks just like a small branch on a tree that a stick was broken off of.

Well, that’s about all I have this time. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday and has a Merry Christmas Butterfly!!!

Bug-crazy? Learn more:
Check out this video to Meet the HMNS Entomologists.
Have you noticed – where have all the bugs gone?
Learn how to pin a butterfly.

HOW TO: Pin a Butterfly

Have you ever seen a piece of art or craft that you think to yourself “I could do that!” but of course you never act on it?  Well, some people do act on that impulse and I’m going to show you how to do just that. 

Every now and then I get a phone call from someone who has a deceased butterfly and they want to spread its wings so they can put it in some sort of shadow box for decoration.  This is always a fun phone call because it’s kinda hard to explain the process of spreading a butterfly.  I usually end up inviting them up to the museum to watch me do it, but other times I just have to do my best at explaining it. 

 Papered Butterflies

Now, I do not spread butterflies at work for artsy reasons, but rather for scientific purposes.  We have a very large collection of “papered butterflies” that have not been spread yet.  (When I say “papered” I mean that they are in glassine envelopes awaiting curation, after which they will be placed in the collection – see the photo at right.)  These butterflies were collected by various individuals who never had the chance to process them –  which makes my job lots of fun because I get to do it! 

I have processed butterflies from places all over the world, Australia, India, and Peru to just name a few.  I remember spreading one that was collected in 1922.  You’re probably thinking “How can you spread the wings of a butterfly that is 86 years old?”  Well, that’s where we are going to start this butterfly-spreading lesson! 

1.  You have or have found a butterfly but it’s wings and body are hard and all dried up.  You can’t even open the wings.  This is typical, so no need to worry.  All you need to do is rehydrate the butterfly in a relaxing chamber.  If your butterfly is already flexible (you can slightly squeeze the thorax and the wings move) there is no need to relax it.

 Relaxing Chamber

2.  The relaxing chamber is very easy.  You can use any type of air tight container – I use Tupperware.  Place 3-4 damp paper towels in the bottom of the container.  This creates humidity, which will seep into the butterfly.  You also need to add a cap full of either Listerine or Pine-sol.  These act as mold inhibitors so your butterfly doesn’t get all yucky.  The last thing you need is something to prevent the butterfly from touching the paper towels.  I use wire mesh that I cut to the size of the container and put it on top of the towels.  I usually leave the butterfly in here for 2 days before I check on it. 

3. When you check on it, pick it up carefully with forceps or tweezers and hold onto the thorax.  Gently squeeze the thorax to see if it is flexible and the wings move a bit (This is very difficult to explain, so I’m sorry if it’s hard to understand – if you have any questions please comment below).  It this occurs, you are ready to start, but if not – just leave the butterfly for another day and check again.  Sometimes it takes 5 days or so, so be patient. 

4.  Now, you need a large piece of Styrofoam covered with wax or tracing paper.  While you have the wax or tracing paper out, make sure to cut strips about 3 x 1 inches to be used later. This paper prevents the scales from rubbing off of the wings. 

5. Next, you will need some type of pin to put through the thorax.  We use pins purchased from bioquip specially made for insects, but you could probably use any type of long thin straight pin.  Put the pin straight through the middle of the thorax leaving about 1/4 of the pin on top.  While pinning the butterfly, you may need to open the wings a bit.  Do this with your forceps and try your hardest not to damage the wings.

Opening the wings with forceps.
Put your pin through the thorax.

6.  This next part is different from the norm, but I think it’s so much easier.  You are going to pin your butterfly upside down, so the pin head will be going into the Styrofoam instead of the sharp end.  Spread open your butterflies wings and gently poke the pin head into the Styrofoam.  Be careful not to poke your finger on the sharp end.  Now your butterfly should be completely flat.

7.  You will need more pins to do this next part.  Place the first two pins on both sides of the abdomen, right where it meets the thorax.  This prevents the butterfly from moving around when you try to move the wings.  Next, take a pin and find a vein in one of the forewings.  Gently use the pin to move the wing so that the bottom of the wing is perpendicular with the body.  When you get the wing to the correct position, take one of the strips of paper and put over the wing and use some pins to hold it in place.  Do not poke the pins through the butterfly wing. 

8. Now you are going to move onto the hind wing.  Use one of the pins to move the wing so that the top of it just covers the forewing and use the paper again to hold it in place.  Now you can move onto the other side.  The trickiest part here is getting both sides of the butterfly to be even.  This takes practice, so don’t get frustrated. 

Halfway there!
Both wings should be even.

9.  Just a few more things and you will be finished. If the antennae are still attached to the butterfly, you can pin them into place so that they are symetrical. Remember the pins that you used a the beginning to keep the butterfly from moving?  You want to remove those and make a small teepee over the abdomen with them to prevent the abdomen from curling up. 

10.  Now you just wait!  I would wait about a week before checking things out.  When the week is over all you need to do is remove all the pins and paper, lift up the butterfly, turn it right side up and stick the pointy part of the pin in the styrofoam and VOILA!  your butterfly is ready!  Now you can put it into a shadow box or just keep it in your collection. 

I have a couple of last minute pointers before you go crazy with spreading butterflies:

- Patience is very important! 

- Butterflies are very fragile, so be extra careful. 

- If you break off an antennae or tear a wing, just glue it back on with elmers glue that has dried just a bit so it is sticky.

- if you have any questions please feel free to leave me a comment and I will do what I can to help!

I hope you enjoyed this little lesson and hopefully you will be a pro the very first time, but don’t count on it!  It does take practice, so don’t give up, keep on trying and remember to have patience!