Horticulturalist Zac Stayton bids a fond farewell to HMNS

Editor’s Note: After four and a half years, Zac Stayton, Horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, is leaving HMNS for a new job as a Project Manager for the grower Color Spot. I sat down with him this week to discuss his time at HMNS, his favorite projects and what he’ll be up to next.

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Vincent Covatto: So Zac, we’re very excited for you about your new prospects, but sad that you’ll be leaving. Could you tell us a little about what your job has entailed here at HMNS?

Zac Stayton: Basically, the beautification and upkeep of the Butterfly Center itself, from making sure all the plants are blooming, which ends up feeding the butterflies, to maintaining the tropical fruits, pollinating the chocolate trees and the coffee. Pretty much everything that goes into the conservatory itself, from irrigation and upkeep of the waterfall to electrical and everything in between.

VC: So we’ve essentially been running you ragged for the last five years.

ZS: [laughing] You could almost make it a job for a team of four.

VC: Or one Zac.

ZS: [laughing] Yeah, yeah.

VC: What are some of your favorite things that you’ve worked on in your time here?

ZS: Of course Lois and some of the tropical flowers that you wouldn’t normally get to encounter here in the Houston climate. There are some crazy orchids that we’ve got in there. We’ve got one in particular that’s endangered, and almost went extinct when the Japanese invaded a small island off the coast of Taiwan, so it’s very, very rare. Just getting to see some those plants bloom, I mean I’m one of the few people that ever gets to grow these plants, is really a great experience.

Also being able to grow coffee and chocolate, pineapples and vanilla — which you wouldn’t get to do outside of the glassed-in enclosure there in the conservatory.

VC: I remember this past winter we had had a coffee tasting in the conservatory. Was that sort of your own pet project?

ZS: Yeah, that coffee tree was actually kind of a fluke, we call it a volunteer. We took an old [tree] out when I first started and it dropped one single seed and it ended up growing into this tree that we didn’t even mean to plant there. And so, I guess it was maybe last September, October, I looked at it and it was just covered in berries, and it was like, well we’d better do something with all this coffee, rather than just letting it all go to waste.

So I went through and kind of studied how to do it and there’s not a lot of — like a lot of things in the Butterfly Center… you can’t just google these plants and see what to do. So I had to do a lot of calling around.

Here in Houston there’s plenty of coffee shops that will roast the beans for you, but we had undried beans. And it was like, ok how do we get these to the point where we can roast them. So we really had to break it down step by step and do some trial and error, with the whole process — from cracking the beans and drying them and roasting them and then finally grinding them and finally drinking them. It was pretty eye opening to see what actually goes into your daily cup of coffee.

VC: [laughing] Or four…

ZS: [laughing] Yeah depending on the day. Two for me at least. Minimum.

VC: Well I bet that was your favorite cup — the best coffee you’d ever had.

ZS: Definitely. Definitely, yeah, I mean I think everybody in the Butterfly Center got blisters on their fingers just having to — there’s what’s called parchment coffee and you basically have to take this thin layer of parchment off of each of the several thousand beans that we had. And they have machines for that for that kind of stuff in the tropics, but I couldn’t find one, at least in the area. I think the closest one was in Hawaii or Coast Rica, so we had to do it all by hand. And so you definitely get a new appreciation for coffee.

VC: Do you have a favorite plant, either inside the conservatory itself or something you’re really interested in?

ZS: I have a favorite plant family. I like bromeliads. So everything related to — the closest relative would be pineapples, but they also include Spanish moss [so there’s a big range]. I actually grew these in Hawaii before I came here so that’s kind of been my expertise, if you will, I’ve channeled myself into those a little bit more than some of the other plant species.

VC: So what is your new job?

ZS: [I’ll be working for] Color Spot the largest grower in the U.S. right now, and they have several locations — I thinking six or seven in Texas — but the branch that I’ll be at is in Huntsville. And I’ll be the production manager, making sure the timing goes through. Most the plants there are bedding plants, they’re seasonal.

For example, when Christmas time rolls around it’s going to be my job to make sure that all the poinsettias and mums and things like that are all ready, that they’re nice and red and at a specific time are on the shelves ready for people to buy.

VC: So you’ll be making sure that everything is timed right.

ZS: Exactly.

VC: So you determine when things are planted, when they’re harvested?

ZS: Exactly. There are a couple teams of growers, so I’ll be the Production Manager, from the time the plant gets put in the soil, until the time it gets on a truck headed to the main customers — I make sure it’s all on schedule.

If you’ve ever bought a plant from Walmart or Home Depot, or Lowes or Kroger, any of those big box stores, especially here in Texas, it’s come from Color Spot. Also smaller nurseries around town will buy their plants.

VC: So would you say this job is a continuation of the sort of work you’ve done for the museum or is it more of a fresh start?

ZS: It’s kind of a fresh start. It’s changing gears from tropicals to basically what grows well around here. A big part of it though will be — working here I learned a lot of the butterfly attractants for our area, although I work with tropicals on a daily basis there are a lot of calls asking “well what can I plant in my backyard?” So learned a lot about our native butterflies here and what plants attract them, and what plants you can put in your garden. And that’s a big part of what I’m going to be growing at Color Spot — butterfly attractants, nectar plants — so there is an overlap there.

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VC:  And you have the different pollinators to take into account with that as well?

ZS: Yes, exactly. Everything about pollination and pollinators I learned here firsthand. When I first started I didn’t know much about butterflies — I knew the monarch, the one that everybody knows, and other than that I didn’t know that there were 15 other species of butterflies that are native here, to Houston. That is something I’ve definitely gained from my time here.

VC: Is there anything that you’re really excited about growing or working on at Color Spot?

ZS: There are a lot of new bulbs, tulips and things like that, that we get to do trials with. Before they even hit the market we get to take some of these bulbs that these growers bring from the Netherlands and get to try them out, test them out, in our greenhouses. We get to be on the front line before anyone else [in the area] knows about them — that’s something I’m really excited about.

VC: I’ve been reading through some archival press from when Lois was blooming, and I saw a couple of places where you’d been quoted. I think that’s how some of our Houston audience got to know you — through that experience. Can we count on you to come back down the next time she’s in bloom?

ZS: Oh yeah definitely. I’ll be here of course, I wouldn’t miss it.

VC: Do you think you’ll become pen pals with her?

ZS: [laughing] Oh no, I don’t think so. No more anthropomorphizing Lois, although that was funny and clever when that happened.

The people though, that’s what made Lois what she was. Lois was just a flower, and people would probably gasp hearing me say that, but it was the whole community rallying around Lois that was the coolest part of the whole thing.

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80,000 plus people coming out, plus the people —you know, we had people in Australia saying “get out of the way! We can’t see Lois on the webcam!” So just the fact that it was everybody at the same time, seeing the same thing and it just blew up on social media. And that’s what I though was so cool, everybody so in synch, waiting, just to see what would happen with Lois.

As a horticulturist it was really cool to see just everyone getting around it and thinking it was as cool as I did. Normally, you know I’ll be like “ooo look at this cool plant!” and people couldn’t care less, but to see everyone else sharing that passion — that was the best part about it.

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VC: Is there anything else you’d like to say or share with our readers on the blog?

ZS: It’s been a fantastic four and a half years here, and honestly all of the events that we did, it wouldn’t have been possible without people getting as geeky about plants as me.

From the miracle fruit tasting, and the chocolate and the coffee — to see everybody getting around it, that was the best.

Lois, kind of spurred everybody on to find this new kind of passion in horticulture. There were a lot of parents that came up to me and said “I asked my kid what they want to do and now they all want to be a horticulturist.” And that’s the best thing that could come from it, I think, is a whole new generation of people that find plants as interesting as I do.

 

Finding the flora and fauna: Butterfly Center staff conduct a BioBlitz in Memorial Park

Editor’s Note: The term “BioBlitz” was first coined in 1996 for intense attempts to record all the flora and fauna within a designated area. National Geographic, which has partnered with parks around the country for various BioBlitzes, describes them as “a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible within a designated area.”  These quick and dirty surveys are used both to gather information about the biodiversity of a given area, and since members of the public and other non-experts (students, etc.) are often included as participants, as ways of sparking public interest in local flora and fauna.

The “Eco-Tech” panel of the Memorial Park Conservancy recently recruited the Butterfly Center to conduct a preliminary survey or “mini-BioBlitz” of the insect fauna throughout Memorial Park, with the idea of inviting members of the public to help on future surveys. One of the goals of the panel is to get some baseline data on the biodiversity of all the creatures that live in Memorial Park, and from there, make plans on how best to preserve and manage or enhance this wildlife.

We were asked to survey several different natural habitats in Memorial Park (i.e., not the golf course). On a sunny morning in early July, Butterfly Center staff members, our summer intern, and a couple of volunteers drove out to Memorial Park armed with insect nets and containers.  While some surveys (such as birds or trees) can be done without collecting, there are so many kinds of insects (and so few experts) that at least some specimens have to be collected in order to make identifications.  

We decided to sample 10 transects — 100 feet long by about 8 feet wide — each one in a different area. Our first couple of sites were in open prairie vegetation, so we used sweep nets and aerial nets to collect samples. In case you are not versed in insect collection techniques, a “sweep net” is a canvas net bag on a sturdy metal frame that is swished through the vegetation. Periodically, the contents are emptied into Ziploc bags or other containers. 

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (photo by Zac Stayton)

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (Photo by Zac Stayton)

 

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We found lots of these small millipedes (and a few slugs) in the leaf litter in the forested areas. (Photo by Zac Stayton)

Aerial nets are the more familiar “butterfly nets”: a much lighter, more delicate net bag that is swung through the air (it should NOT be dragged on the ground, used in water, or swiped through bushes!). These nets are more for catching fairly large, individual insects, especially ones that fly, so samples are put directly into a glassine envelope, or vial, or other appropriate container (or, if it is something readily identifiable, simply noted and released). Sweep nets generally collect things like grasshoppers and katydids, walkingsticks, mantids, leaf hoppers, stink bugs, the odd caterpillar, spiders, etc. Aerial nets are useful for larger flying insects such as butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, wasps, bees, some beetles, certain flies, etc. 

In the more forested areas, sweep nets were not really appropriate, so we used the aerial nets and also took litter samples (scraping up leaf litter and bagging it). Litter samples are typically brought back to the lab to process in a so-called Berlese funnel. Many small arthropods who live in the litter of the forest floor, including springtails and cockroaches, ants, small beetles, millipedes, etc., can be collected in this way.

 Another find in the leaf litter:  a “woolly bear” caterpillar.  This is the larval form of the Giant Leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia.  The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored).  (photo by Nancy Greig)


A find in the leaf litter: a “woolly bear” caterpillar. This is the larval form of the giant leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia. The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored). (Photo by Nancy Greig)

There are many other collection techniques, none of which we used in this preliminary survey. Pitfall traps are always fun; they are empty cans or jars set into the ground with their mouths at ground level. Sometimes bait (a little raw chicken or fish, for example) is put in the bottom.

Crawling insects, especially those interested in odorous food, fall into the “pits” and cannot get out. Such traps need to be checked every couple of days — often they will contain different kinds of beetle, maybe a cockroach or two, etc.

Malaise traps are screen tents or baffles that trap small flying insects. The insects get caught in the folds of the screen and since they typically crawl upwards to escape, can be funneled into a container filled with alcohol.

Yellow pans are any wide, shallow container with a yellow (painted or otherwise) bottom.  These are partly filled with water and a bit of liquid detergent. Wasps and pollinating flies, etc., are attracted to the yellow color and cannot escape once they fall into the soapy water. Yellow pans need to be used in open areas in sunny weather and the samples removed every day or two.

Our final survey site was along the banks of Buffalo Bayou, which was much higher than usual so there was not much shore. Here, we mostly used aerial nets. We saw several things in this area that were not seen other places, especially tiger beetles, damselflies, etc. Here, we mostly used aerial nets (or grabbed things with our hands). 

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing, a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

 

The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

By noon, it was blazing hot and we were all soaked in sweat, so we bagged things up and stopped at the Shandy Café (great little place on Memorial Drive) for lunch on our way back to the Museum. 

Although we only collected for about three hours, we have our hands full in identifying everything. We first have to sort things to order, identify what we can, and then we will probably have to send some things off to experts in the various insect groups. I’m sure it will take us several weeks! 

Some of the coolest things we found: 

It’s always fun to open up the sweep net and find walkingsticks or praying mantids, or a colorful leafhopper. We picked up quite a few different grasshoppers and a few katydids.  We noted but did not catch too many butterflies (we can identify most of these by sight, so no need to collect).

I like wasps and bees; we saw several of the large red Polistes wasps, carpenter bees, leaf cutter bees, and a really cool “digger” bee starting her nest tunnel in the sand (see attached video clip). A medium-sized beetle that looked like a wasp was visiting flowers in several places. 

The very fast tiger beetles mostly eluded us down at the bayou’s edge, but we did catch a few damselflies there. The most common one there was the lovely Ebony Jewelwing.

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams.  We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou.  (photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long-legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams. We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou. (Photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)

 

Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis

Click here to watch a video of a female Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis, a solitary species as she digs a nesting tunnel into hard-packed earth as we found on our BioBlitz.

Once we have compiled our results and reported them to the EcoTech Panel, they will then make plans for another survey sometime in the fall. I believe they intend to invite more general participation, so if you are interested in the insects of our area, keep your ears open!

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!

Tired from a long journey, faded monarchs seek homes for the next generation

My friends Bob and Bev photographed this very faded, tattered female monarch flying around the milkweed plants in their backyard near the Museum last week. The butterfly is a migrant from Mexico, looking for places to lay her eggs as a last hurrah before she dies.

Detail of a healthy monarch’s wing

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

The monarch we found with faded, damaged wings

She must be very tired!

Last fall, she flew from somewhere in eastern North America all the way to central Mexico, where she spent the winter mostly in hibernation. A few weeks ago, she and the other overwintering butterflies, sensing the lengthening days and warming temperatures, left the shelter of the sanctuary’s trees and headed back north to complete the journey. They are just now getting to Texas.

This old girl’s eggs will hatch and — if they have enough milkweed — the caterpillars will mature and pupate. Then, when they emerge as adult butterflies, at least some of them will continue the journey north. By July, monarchs will have reached the northern limit of their range. These summer generations don’t live as long, and don’t travel nearly as far.

P1070759If you see worn and faded monarchs at this time of year, they are almost certainly migrants returning from their winter in Mexico. You can help them to fulfill their “purpose” by providing nectar for their last few meals, and more importantly, milkweed for the new generation. These returning migrants will only last a few days now that they’ve gotten here — they are on their last “wings” after nearly nine months of life, and at least 2,000 miles of travel.

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A healthy Monarch Butterfly