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.”

Giant Atlas Moths fluttering into the Butterfly Center soon

atlas moth secret cloaking device revealed
Creative Commons License photo credit: woodleywonderworks

Well, it’s that time of year again… we have started to get Attacus atlas, aka Atlas moths, YEAH!!!!  This is always an exciting time for me because I get to tell everyone who keeps asking me that they are finally here!  Last week, I received 60 atlas moth cocoons from Malaysia and the Philippines.  Unlike the butterflies we receive on a regular basis that all emerge within a few weeks, the atlas moths should be emerging over a few months, so we should have them for a while. 

The Atlas moth belongs to the family of giant silk moths, Saturniidae. They are considered to be the largest moths in the world in terms of wing surface area.  These impressive moths can only be found naturally in Southeast Asia, where they are very common. Their name comes from either the Titan of Greek mythology or from the striking pattern on their wings, which resembles a map.  If you look at the tips of the forewings they resemble a snakes head, which makes for great predator protection.

The females are significantly larger than the males, especially their abdomen because she has to lay a bunch of eggs, which are already developed and ready to be fertilized.  The males have larger, bushier antennae, in order to detect female pheromones. 

 The females
are larger and have bigger abdomens

 The males are smaller and have longer antennae

 

Each moth starts it’s life as a beautiful, emerald-colored caterpillar. The larvae feed on a wide variety of food plants, and may even wander from one to another.  As it gets bigger it developes a more waxy, light-white-ish green coloration.  It then spins a silken cocoon to protect itself and pupates inside (This is different from butterflies who develop inside a chrysalis, not a cocoon).  The adults, as in other Saturniids, have no mouth parts whatsoever, so they cannot feed. They survive off of fat reserves they build up as caterpillars.

Moth
Polyphemus Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: Andreanna

Moths fly at night, so you may see these large moths resting on trees in the Butterfly Center during the day, paying no attention to the butterflies fluttering all around them.  I try really hard each time a moth emerges to place it in a very obvious place so people can see them.  Many people think they are fake because they sit so still, but now you know they are not!

Some other moths that belong in the Saturniidae family that you can find around here include the cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia), polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), and the luna moth (Actias luna).  These moths aren’t as big as the atlas moth, but they are big when compared to other moths and butterflies in Texas. 

luna
Luna Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: Aunt Owwee


I hope you get a chance to stop off and see our wonderful giants and keep a look out for the native moths, they are a wonder to see too!

Do the butterflies breed? Your butterfly questions, answered

For this blog, I thought I would share with you and answer some of the most common questions we get here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, specifically related to butterflies.  The question that we get asked the most, by far, is:

“How long do the butterflies live?”
Well, typically they live in our center for about two weeks, but there are a few exceptions.  The longwing butterflies, in the genus Heliconius, can live for months.  They not only feed on nectar, but also pollen.  They extract very nutritious amino acids from the pollen, which allows them to live longer.  Another butterfly that seems to live a long time is the rice paper, Idea leuconoe.    

“How many butterflies do you have in here?”
There are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 butterflies flying through the Butterfly Center at a time.  On really, bright sunshine-y days when the butterflies are very happy it seems like there are way more than 2,000 and on gloomy cloudy days the butterflies hide and it seems like there are fewer than 1,500. 

“What is that liquid in the red bowls?”
That is our butterfly feed.  We cannot always guarantee fresh nectar from blooming flowers to the butterflies, so we supplement them with this instead.  It is a mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar with a cap full of amino fuel.  Many people ask me if they can make a similar set up to put in their yard.  Absolutely! But, do be prepared for ants and bees to take advantage of the nectar as well as the butterflies.


“Why do you have fruit and nectar for the butterflies?”
Some butterflies are nectar feeders and others are not.  Most of the butterflies that do not drink nectar are fruit feeders.  We like to give our butterflies a variety of tropical fruits, including kiwi, papaya, mango, cantalope and honeydew.  They especially love super ripe black bananas and on occasion they get starfruit, which we pick from our tree in the butterfly center. 

Some male butterflies, especially swallowtails and sulphurs, will do what we call “puddling.”  They are attracted to salts and amino acids in mud and will actually drink from it, sometimes in very large numbers called a “puddle club.”  It is thought that the males benefit from the salts, increasing their reproductive success – but of course it is not known for sure and scientist are still trying to work out the reason. 

Some butterflies are also attracted to tree sap, carrion, and dung.  Sometimes our iguana, Stretch, will leave some excrement behind and – low and behold - a butterfly will land on it and start drinking.  We have even thought about collecting some iguana poop and putting it in a huge pile for the butterflies – but we eventually decided against that.   

“Do the butterflies breed in here?”
The butterflies are free to mate but due to USDA regulations we are not allowed to provide them with host plants.  Female butterflies will only lay eggs on a specific plant that her caterpillars can eat, so we have to make sure that no host plants are in the butterfly center.  This involved alot of work when we first opened because we have so many species of butterflies and they do not all feed on the same plant. 

The reasoning behind this policy is that the USDA believes that the escape potential of a caterpillar is greater than that of an adult butterfly; if the butterflies were allowed to lay eggs, then there would be caterpillars everywhere, and the chance of someone leaving with one on them would be pretty high. 

Another obvious reason that we do not want caterpillars is that they would eat all our beautiful plants.  Now, just because we do not want caterpillars in the butterfly center doesn’t mean we do not like them.  Caterpillars are so much fun to have in your garden.  If you plant the correct host plant, you can attract native butterflies to your yard.  You can find a list of host plants that you can plant in Houston by clicking here.

“Why won’t that butterfly leave the other one alone?”
The butterflies in this video represent this question (It’s not the best quality, so sorry!).  These butterflies are courting.  Although they look like different butterflies, they are subspecies of the same species, Heliconius erato.  The male is flying above the female trying to entice her to be his girlfriend with his wonderful smell.  Sometimes the female is so attractive that two or three males will be courting her.  This behavior can almost always be viewed in the butterfly center – you just have to look for it. 

Another courting behavior that is encountered a lot is two butterflies chasing each other.  They will flutter around each other in circles, resembling a graceful rehearsed dance.  This normally happens in a nice sunny area, so look for it next time you are here.

Well, I hope you enjoyed my question/answer session.  If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments and I will be happy to answer!

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Where do all the butterflies from the Cockrell Center come from?
Learn more about the Luxurious Longwing butterfly.
Read about Suplhur Butterflies.

Audubon Insectarium

Two weekends ago I went on my annual weird family adventure.  We decided to go to New Orleans this year for an Audubon filled weekend.  There were three adults, five teenagers and a five year old.  Seven of us drove the six hour drive, and I must say, it was very interesting.  I think we stopped 8 times for various things.  Our plan was to go to all the animal places there; the Audubon Insectarium, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and the Audubon Zoo.  One of the main reasons I was so excited to go was the brand new Insectarium.  My friend, Jayme, is the manager and he said he would show us around.  If you are a fan of the show Dirty Jobs you may have seen Jayme on the bug breeder episode.  The show was great and very informative, but Erin and I are still a little jealous and wish we had thought of the idea first.  The Insectarium just recently opened in June and Jayme was ready to show it off.  I felt the same way when our own Entomology Hall opened, so I totally understood his excitment.  My 15 year old niece wasn’t too keen on the idea of a huge hall full of bugs, but everyone else was at least a bit intrigued.

The Insectarium was beautiful, creepy, and entertaining all wrapped up in one big box.  If anyone is making a trip to New Orleans, this is a definite MUST SEE venue.  It is located in the French Quarter across from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  I think the coolest thing about the insectarium was that the huge main hall way was covered with painted bugs and enormous models of various arthropods.  

They have a room that shrinks you down to the size of a small soil dwelling insect.  When you enter the room, a giant centipede greets you.  As you walk through the room, an earthworm (not an arthropod, but an annelid) is waiting for you to hop on it’s back and smile for a picture.  In this room you can also see ants foraging in their tunnels and taking care of their babies (larvae).  At the end, a gigantic trap door spider pops out and can give you fright if it catches you off guard.  This room is one of many that have different themes. 

They also have a section dedicated to termites.  You can pick up a phone and listen to the termites munching on an old house and you can actually see live termites in the wall.  The Louisiana swamp section began with an old bait shop.  An employee dressed up as a fisherman showed us various critters that can be found in the dirt, a great hands on activity for all ages.  My sister’s favorite thing about this part was a wonderful display of fly fishing lures made from actual insect parts.  After the bait shop you step right into a swamp.  The huge tree in the middle of the room is surrounded by different aquatic insects and fish.  You can even pop your head up inside the middle of one of the tanks to immerse yourself into the world of diving beetles. 

A very interesting room that I’m sure most people steer away from was the bug cooking cafe.  When I was there they were making cricket pancakes and tempura grasshoppers.  My five year old niece was all smiles when she got to eat one; at least one of them takes after me a bit!  Another awesome room was the 4-D movie we got to watch.  It was an awards show hosted by a beetle.  One of the awards he presented was to a honey bee for all the work she does to help produce fruits and vegetables. We could actually feel her flying around us. 

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the love bugs we get here in Texas in the spring and fall.  Well, they get them there too.  They even have an informative movie about the love bugs playing inside of an actual Volkswagon Beetle.  

I found a Giant Moth!

I could go on forever about all the stuff they have there, but I will just let you take a trip to New Orelans to see if for yourself.  I spent about 2 hours there, but I spoke with a lady the other day that spent 5 hours there.  I probably could have spent more time had I not been with a large group of people that were hungry and ready to move on to the aquarium.  If you enjoy our Entomology Hall here, you should definitely check out the insect zoos and butterfly houses in other cities.  There are insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to visit the St. Louis Zoo’s Insectarium a few years ago and it was amazing.  Some of the cool things they have there are bullet ants and burying beetles.  They even have a program that is researching the endangered American Burying Beetle

In college, before I had this job, I went to Cincinnati, OH for the Entomological Society of America Conference.  I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to check out the Cincinnati Zoo, which I knew had an insect zoo.  This was the first insect zoo I had ever seen, so I was pumped.  That was the moment when I decided that it would be so cool to work in a place like that.  I got to see beautiful purple beetles, honey pot ants, and giant walking sticks and I just fell in love with the whole scene.

Before you go on vacation, check out this website:  http://butterflywebsite.com/gardens/index.cfm to see if there is a butterfly house or insect zoo in the town you are visiting.  All the insect zoos around the country are different in many ways.  Some are enormous and some are very small, but we all have the same goal in mind.  We want people to love bugs as much as we do and understand how cool and important they are. 

Big BEETLE Bonanza!

Last week I was wondering around the containment room looking for something to do. It’s not like I had nothing to do, but I was just looking for something different that day. I decided to tackle the 24 containers full of dirt and grubs. About a year ago right after we opened Erin got an exciting phone call. A guy had LIVE beetle grubs in a wood/compost pile in his back yard and he didn’t know what to do with them, so he decided to call us. We jumped on this one and told him to bring them our way. Phone calls like that are normal around here, but they are extra special when it involves a large live insect that we get to keep. He brought the grubs in a large trashbag with lots of dirt and wood. It was like opening up a huge Christmas present with lots of little presents inside. We found 24 grubs. We weren’t sure what type of beetle they were, but we knew they could either be the Ox Beetle or the Eastern Hercules Beetle.

Erin and I were fortunate enought to raise a few Dynastes hercules grubs a few years back, but it was only a few, not 24. We decided to give each grub an individual container. We kept the dirt they came in and mixed in some potting soil, ecoearth, and lots of rotten wood. After that we sat back and waited. About once a month we would make sure they were all still alive and add new dirt and wood if needed. We would also check the moisture in the containers every now and then and added water as needed.

So . . . last week I thought I would add all new dirt and wood to all the grub containers. Erin and I had collected some rotten wood the week before just for that purpose. I was a little nervous to dump out all the dirt from each container because there was a possibility one of the grubs had pupated. Beetles have complete metamorphosis in which they have an egg, larva, pupae, and adult stage. The grubs enclose themselves in a cell of dirt and saliva before they go into the pupae stage and the last thing I wanted to do was bust open that enclosure.

This is what happened . . . I got the first container with great anticipation. I read that it takes about 12 months for the grub to grow, pupae, and become an adult. Maybe, just maybe we would have adults. I slowly and carefully dumped out the dirt and to my surprise there was NOTHING. I was very puzzled but Erin soon informed me that she had found a wandering escapee and put it into another large dirt bucket we had. So, I moved onto the second containter and found a grub. I added all new dirt and fresh rotten wood and went to the next one. I think I found 4 grubs and then my luck changed. I dumped out all the dirt and discovered an ADULT! I’m pretty sure Erin thought I was crazy because I screamed and was so estatic. We had a female ox beetle, Strategus aloeus. We really wanted the eastern hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus, but this was still cool. I found a total of 8 adult females but no males. Fortunately, we have a male that we collected last summer, so maybe we will get babies. On the last container that I opened I busted open a pupal cell and found a wiggly pupae. I decided to just leave it in the containter on top of the dirt. I kept checking on it last week and yesterday I found that a female had emerged from it. It always makes us feel like such good parents when we successfully raise baby bugs. All the beetles are on display in the insect zoo so you should definitely come and check them out.

One more quick story that happened last night after I wrote this blog. My husband, Nick, called me outside because he thought our dog had caught a snake or something and he wasn’t about to investigate it himself. I crept out into the grass and saw something moving. After I got a flashlight I discovered that is was in fact an Ox beetle, just what I had written about that day. Fortunately, it was still alive so I released it into my front yard away from my dogs. It must be the time of year for Ox beetles so keep an eye out in your yard for these amazing creatures.

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.