About Lauren W

Lauren is an entomologist in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Behind the Scenes: A Day at the CBC

When I say I am an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, this is what people picture:

Entomologists do not dress like this except for when we dress like this.

Yes, I get to play with butterflies at my job and yes, my job is awesome! It’s also sometimes really smelly, sweaty and dirty.

My morning generally starts out with releasing butterflies, which sounds like something magical. The butterflies are released twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. As you may know, when butterflies emerge from their chrysalises (an act referred to as “eclosion”), they don’t really look like butterflies. Their abdomens are swollen and their wings are shriveled. As they hang from their pupa, the fluid in their abdomen moves into their wings to expand them. Once the wings have fully expanded, they still must hang for about an hour or so until their wings fully dry before they can be released. The butterflies are gently picked up and placed in a pop-up hamper and taken out into the rainforest to take their first flight.

That's no tail, my friend!

This may be a species of newly emerged swallowtail, but that’s no tail, my friend! That is a stream of sweet, sweet meconium.

Most butterflies are absolutely beautiful and in general, they are people’s favorite insect. But, like all animals, butterflies poop. In the emergence cases, an average of 100 or so butterflies emerge a day, and they poop a lot. That’s because they’ve been holding it for a couple of weeks, or months! This first poop is called meconium, just like with human babies. It comes in a vareity of colors — black, green, red, brown, pink and so on. It also gets everywhere.

There is a lot of sanitation involved in taking care of butterflies since they can contract diseases just like most organisms. I clean and disinfect everything that will come in contact with any lifestage of the butterfly on a daily basis. Magic erasers have become my best friend since they can really remove meconium from the chambers. But doodie isn’t my only duty…

The Cockrell Butterfly Center imports about 80 percent of our butterflies from farms all over the world. The majority of our butterflies come from Asia and Central and South America, but also Africa and sometimes Australia (but only sometimes). In general, these butterflies are shipped in air cargo to a break bulk shipper here in the States and then forwarded to us via UPS or FedEx. The chrysalises come loose in the box layered with cotton or special foam packaging to keep them safe. Butterflies can start eclosing within a week depending on the species, so the boxes have to get shipped fast! The shipment is sent out from its originating country Monday and is delivered to the museum Thursday of the same week if there are no delays with U.S. customs.


By the time I receive the box, I have already made a tracking sheet which will follow the shipment until every butterfly has emerged. I write down data such as times, dates and which chamber I will put the finished board in. I then hang the pupae. This is done with string, hot glue, and pins. No, the hot glue does not hurt them. We don’t take kindly to bug abusers ’round here! A tiny amount of glue is added to the string and then the very tip of the abdomen attached.

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A fresh shipment that has been unpacked and separated by species. Its ready to glue up for display!

Every pupa that enters the containment room and every butterfly that is released out into the center is accounted for. Unfortunately, only about 85 percent successfully emerge. The others suffer from disease, parasitization, or emerge deformed. This is a much better rate than in nature though, which is estimated to be closer to 2 percent! Each failed emergence is marked and recorded and placed in a database. We bring in over 50,000 butterflies a year and we know the fate of every single one!


Finished product!

Because we display exotic butterflies, we are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), specifically the APHIS branch (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service). Because of this, we have quite a few rules we must stick to. Why? Well, while butterflies are pollinators, their larvae are actually plant destroyers. This is because the larvae (caterpillars) feed on plants. If a butterfly were able to escape and lay viable eggs, their offspring could potentially wreak havoc on crops and the ecosystem.

These regulations are the reason we have a containment room behind the displayed emergence chambers. This is to confine the butterflies as well as nasty pests called parasitoids. Parasitoids differ from parasites in the fact they eventually kill their host. In our case, we mainly get very small wasps. Depending on the species, these wasps lay their eggs in or on an egg, caterpillar or freshly-formed pupa. The larvae hatch from those eggs and eat their host literally from the inside. The wasp species we get pupate in the butterfly’s chrysalis and eat their way out as adults. There can be hundreds in one chrysalis! Sometimes I can tell if a pupa is parastized, but if I miss it, then have the joy of chasing them around the chambers sucking on a tiny mouth vacuum called an aspirator–if you’re European it’s a pooter. These flying annoyances are then euthanized and labeled for future identification.


Various species of parasitoids reared out at the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

Another huge part of my job is education. Our department presents outreach programs to schools all over Houston and the surrounding areas. The program I present most often is called Amazing Arthropods, focused primarily on big bugs!


Presenting Peanut the curly-hair tarantula to students.


Giant jungle nymph waiting patiently for her next presentation.

The thing I love most about my job is I get to share my passion with people every day. It’s great to see people walking into the museum or a presentation with one attitude and leaving with a better understanding and appreciation for the little overlooked critters that run our world.

Whooo’s that? It’s a butterfly!

An owl butterfly, to be exact. Join us this week at the Cockrell Butterfly Center to celebrate one of our favorite flutterers during An Evening with Owls. Named for the huge owl-like eye spots on the underside of their wings, these big beauties have wingspans that can reach up to seven inches or more! The upper side of their wings are often dull in shades of dusky blue and brown.

Close up of an owl eyespot

Close up of an eye spot on the underside of an owl butterfly’s wing.

Owl butterflies don’t hoot, but they are in the genus Caligo which means darkness in Latin. This refers to the fact that they are crepuscular (most active at early morning and/or dusk). These butterflies feed on rotting fruit and their awkward flapping flight may remind you of a bat.

Though they are typically resting most of the day, you can often find them feeding mid-day on their favorite food--rotting fruit. Mmmmmm, moist.

Though they are typically resting most of the day, you can often find them feeding mid-day on their favorite food: rotting fruit. Mmm-mmm, tasty.

What big eyes you have!

Those awesome eyespots do their job quite well!

Due to their size and slow flight, owl butterflies are easy targets for many predators. Good thing those eye spots on their wings are not just for decoration! The spots’ uncanny resemblance to large eyes deter predators during the insect’s most vulnerable times, such as feeding, mating, resting or emerging from the chrysalis. However, these eye-like ornaments are also thought to act as targets which direct the predator away from their main body, allowing the butterfly time to escape.

Dusk + 1000 Owl Butterflies = Magic

There are 15 species of owl butterfly, four of which are flown at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. You can see two of these species featured this week at An Evening with Owls. The tawny owl (Caligo memnon) is most abundant species present. Typically, they have a wingspan of four to five inches but can reach up to six. The other species displayed this week is the forest giant owl (Caligo eurilochus) which has a slightly larger average wingspan than the tawny owl with a range of five to six inches.

The owls are brought in from butterfly farms in Central America, via FedEx!

The owls are brought in from butterfly farms in Central America, via FedEx!  Each foam tray contains about 200  pupae and are carefully packed in each box.

For the first time ever we have increased our owl collection more than tenfold and will have more than 1,000 of these marvelous creatures feeding, flying, darting and chasing each other around at dusk. Your other favorite butterfly species will still be in attendance, but will be roosting rather than flitting about in the twilight. Keep your fingers crossed and hope that one, or a few, land on you!

Tickets are going fast for An Evening with Owls Friday and Saturday night. Don’t miss this one-time-only event!

Editor’s Note: Owl butterflies make great models, and the CBC an excellent portrait studio for butterfly photography! The images below were shot Tuesday night at around 7:30 p.m., after the owls had begun roosting for the evening along with the other butterflies. Photos were shot using a Nikon D90 camera on ISO 1600 with the snapshot fill flash.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.


Owl butterfly. Jason Schaefer.

You’ll find other roosting butterflies there and camera-ready, like these two species below.


Zebra longwing butterflies roost together on a long hanging vine. Jason Schaefer.


The underside of blue morpho butterflies have spots, but don’t confuse them for the owls! Jason Schaefer.


Hungry for Summer Recipes? Try some bugs!

Why not put something super nutritious, sustainable, and oh-so-tasty on your grilling skewer this summer? Oh, did I mention it’s a little leggy? We are talking about cooking delicious insects! Since my last blog concerning entomophagy a couple of years ago, this unique eating experience has become quite popular. Many companies are popping up all over the country bringing new ways to introduce insects into your diet!


Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs by David George Gordon

Insects are the new sushi.

As manager of our delicious edible insect vending machine in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I am constantly searching for new products to add to our inventory. Besides quite a few new companies, there are also several restaurants where finding a grasshopper in your fine cuisine will not result in a health code violation (see the chapulines on Hugo’s dinner menu). You may think it’s crazy, but remember, 50 years ago sushi was considered disgusting to most Americans. Now, there are almost 4,000 sushi restaurants in the US!


Add some legs to your diet.

When I took over the machine several years ago, we sold mainly novelty products (lollipops, etc.) because that was what was available. Now, we are working with new startup companies to introduce more “everyday use” products. I know, I know, most of you are more likely to stomp on a bug rather than chomp on a bug, but the times, they are a-changing!

One of these companies that makes bug “staples” is Exo. They make protein bars from cricket flour (milled crickets). Their Web site puts it perfectly: “CRICKETS ARE THE NEW KALE. Paleo and environmentally-friendly protein bars.” They are soy, dairy, grain and gluten-free for all of you “clean eaters” out there. I bet you never thought “clean” meant insects, huh?

Soni Granola Yogurt

Sprinkle some of this Hopper Crunch cricket flour granola on yogurt with some fruit to make a bug parfait.

Another company, Hopper Foods,  based in Austin, Texas, has the mission, “to normalize entomophagy (eating insects) by creating delicious, nutritious and healthy products that people will want to eat every day.” Hopper has brought delicious, crunchy, cricket granola and no, you won’t get a leg stuck in your teeth!

Six Foods has created the next best thing to chips, Chirps (ha! Get it?). Yup, chips made from cricket flour along with “wholesome beans, corn, peas, and chia seeds” (from website). In delicious flavors such as BBQ and Cheddar, where could you go wrong?! Oh, and they have the best slogan: Eat what bugs you. All the taste with 3x the protein and 40% less fat. YES!

Bitty Foods makes cookies with yes, again, cricket flour—are you sensing a trend yet? They are delicious, nutritious, and did I mention delicious? The secret to their recipes? They “start with sustainably raised crickets, which are slow roasted to bring out their nutty, toasted flavor.”

Cricket Flours is not only a great place to get flour for your recipes, but they also specialize in protein powders. Also, if you are looking for a new set of recipes, you should buy their e-book to get some ideas for your next dinner party. Look for their single-serve protein packets in our vending machine this summer!


Countries that consume insects and arthropods as a food source.

All the cool kids are doing it!

Like everyone is eating insects, like 2 billion people; kind of everyone. That’s not just very many, that’s A LOT! So if you’ve never eaten a bug, get out and try a bite. Heck, you might like ’em!


Three Bee Salad by David George Gordon

For more bug recipes, check out these resources:

Girl Meets Bug – On this blog, learn how to make Bee-LT Sandwiches, Deep Fried Scorpion, Waxworm Tacos, and more. 

Eat-a-Bug Cookbook – Read here about David George Gordon’s latest edition of his entomophagy cookbook and take away some recipes like Three Bee Salad and Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs. Purchase the book on Amazon.


Sure, today’s Columbus Day, but it’s also National Chocolate-Covered Insects Day!

The country at-large may be celebrating Columbus Day, but around these parts, we salute National Chocolate-Covered Insects Day, too.

Yes, we actually want you to eat bugs 

To help promote National Chocolate Covered Insect Day on Monday, October 14 (yes, it’s a real thing!), I thought a blog dedicated to entomophagy would be a great way to honor this oh-so-special day.

“Entomophagy” originates from the Greek word “entomon” (insect) and “phagein” (to eat). Yes, entomophagy is the consumption of delicious, nutritious insects (and often other buggy friends). Insects are at the bottom of the food chain, and are eaten by many animals, but the term “entomophagy” is directed at the human consumption of insects.  Other animals that feed on insects and insect relatives are commonly known as insectivores.

Did you know the Cockrell Butterfly Center has a vending machine filled with all sorts of edible insect goodies? We have even added some new products, one of which comes from a great company called Chapul.  Many of our products are novelty style, but Chapul protein bars are the real thing! These bars, from personal experience, are quite tasty. My favorite is the Aztec Bar, which is flavored with chocolate, coffee, and a hint of cayenne for some added heat. Oh, and don’t forget the cricket flour which gives them their unique texture and source of protein!

Now, I heard you say “Gross!” at the beginning of this blog. But is it really fair that many people consider some arthropods (a.k.a. bugs) more edible than others? You probably love to eat shrimp, crab, crawfish, and lobster, but those delicacies are arthropods just like scorpions, spiders, ants, grasshoppers, and any other jointed-leg creature you can think of!


Entomophagy in other cultures

Aside from Europe, Canada, and the United States, entomophagy is commonly practiced throughout most cultures around the world. In fact, over 1,400 species of insects are known to be eaten in 80 percent of the world’s nations! Winged termites are used in many recipes in Ghana during the spring rains and wasp crackers are enjoyed by elders in the highlands of Japan.

In Chinese culture, beekeepers are considered virile because they regularly eat larvae from their beehives. How do de-winged dragonflies boiled in coconut milk with ginger and garlic sound?  Mmm-mmmm good! This is a Balinese delicacy. Cicadas, fire-roasted tarantulas, and ants are prevalent in traditional Latin American dishes. One of the most famous culinary insects, the agave worm, is eaten on tortillas and placed in bottles of mezcal liquor in Mexico.

Hmmmm, this tomato sauce is a little extra “herby”

Okay, so I still haven’t convinced you? What if I told you that Americans consume quite a few insects every year without even knowing it? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of the amount of insects they allow in packaged food.  This report is called “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”

Depending on how brave you are, you can view the list and find that 30 fly eggs or two maggots in your spaghetti sauce is acceptable.

Yummm, and who wants dessert? Chocolate can have an average of 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.

HMNS LaB 5555 Halloween Mixer: Spirits & Skeletons

But seriously, WHYYYYYYYY?

I can give statistics all day long, but in the end, I know you’re going to ask, “Why even bother?” The United Nations put out a report earlier this year stating that insect consumption could help resolve world hunger.  Most of our protein sources are inefficient, and with a population of 7 billion people and growing, the world is running out of room and fresh water. Farming insects for food requires little space or water needed to produce large numbers. This could cut down on water consumption and land needed for agriculture.

Not only is insect production better for the environment, but they are better for us as a protein source. Beef is roughly 18 percent protein and 20 percent fat. Cooked grasshopper, meanwhile, contains up to 50 percent protein with just 3 percent fat. Moreover, like fish, insect fatty acids are unsaturated and thus healthier.

Oh, and contrary to most western belief, most edible insects are quite tasty!  Dave Gracer, Advisor for Insects Are Food, gave a great description covering many types of leggy edibles: “Dry-toasted cricket tastes like sunflower seeds; katydid like toasted avocado; palm grub like bacon soup with a chewy, sweet finish. Weaver ant pupae have practically no flavor, while the meat of the giant water bug is, astonishingly, like a salty, fruity, flowery Jolly Rancher.”

Oh, and if you are a wine connoisseur, there are several great blogs and articles about which wines to pair with your creepy cuisine.

Thanks, Lauren!  I am going to cook insects ALL the time!

I am sure by now I have convinced you … well, maybe one of you. But if you are interested in learning more or purchasing your own edibles, get started right here! There are tons of great websites, blogs, and even cookbooks.


Links to Cookbooks, Recipes, Wine Pairing, and Other Info:

Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways to Cook Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes and Their Kin (and the revised version, too!), by David George Gordon
Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy

Insects Are Food Recipes
Iowa State University’s Tasty Insect Recipes
Girl Meets Bug’s Edible Insect Recipes

Wine Pairing:
Eight-Legged Treats and the Wines to Match
What Wine Goes With Cicadas

Keep Learning!
The Yellow Mealworm as a Novel Source of Proteinby A.E. Ghaly and F.N. Alkoaik
The Lepsis is a Terrarium for Growing Edible Insects at Home!
For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural

HMNS LaB 5555 Halloween Mixer: Spirits & Skeletons

And, if you want to celebrate National Chocolate-Covered Insect Day the right way, see the recipe below or stop by the Butterfly Center for pre-made noms in the vending machine!

Chocolate-Covered Crickets

1 cup roasted crickets (see recipe for Dry Roasted Crickets)
1 cup chocolate chips

Melt the chocolate chips according to packaging. Drop in a handful of crickets, stirring them around. Scoop them out with a spoon, and place them on wax paper, keeping them apart from one another. Continue until all the crickets are covered. The chocolate will harden overnight, but if you prefer you can freeze them for about an hour and they will be ready to eat shortly thereafter. Once hardened, the crickets can be stored in a container for future use.

For an extra treat and visual experience, place chocolate covered crickets atop broken bits of white chocolate chunks or dip chocolate covered crickets in powdered chocolate and serve chilled.

Did we mention that we’ll be serving up yummy cooked bugs at Spirits & Skeletons (our happenin’ Halloween party) on October 25? Let the people who know the delicious delicacy best make a tasty, crunchy snack for you.

Bon appetit!