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.

A spider in your fruit? Unlikely, and less likely to hurt you.

This year we’ve seen a rash of negative publicity about “deadly” spiders hitchhiking in fruit from Central and South America, causing arachnophobes everywhere to, well, be super paranoid! In fact, spiders have not fared well in the media at all this year. Just check out some of these headlines:

Woman jumps from car after seeing spider, causes crash

Loose tarantula prompts Delta to call off flight

Man sets fire to gas pump trying to kill spider

So what’s the deal? Are spiders rising up against us by invading our fruit, vehicles, and homes? No. People are overreacting and the media is having a field day! We wanted to shed some light on what’s really happening and what you should do if you’re ever faced with a similar situation.

red faced banana

The redfaced banana spider, Cupiennius chiapanensis, from Central America is a harmless spider often misidentified as a potentially deadly spider from the Amazon in South America. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

Spiders hitchhiking in fruit — should we be concerned? Absolutely not; this is nothing new. Spiders and other arthropods have been accidentally hitching a ride in produce since it started being imported into the United States. Bunched fruits such as grapes and bananas make excellent hiding places for small insects and arachnids. Banana plantations, orchards, and vineyards attract plenty of insect visitors, both beneficial pollinators and detrimental pests. All of which make an easy meal for hungry spiders, so these are wonderful places for them to call home.

This can be a great thing for us because the spiders help control the pests, which can greatly reduce the amount of pesticide used on our food. But, obviously, when these fruits are harvested, it can bring them into our supermarkets and even our homes. The good news is that in the unlikely event you find a spider hiding in your fruit basket, it’s probably not a harmful one, according to arachnologist, Rick Vetter, who has been studying and identifying spiders brought into the country this way since 2006.

Most of the spiders that appear in banana shipments from Central and South America are either the pantropical huntsman spider (Heteropoda venatoria) or the red-faced banana spider (Cupiennius chiapanensis). Both are large spiders that can be misidentified as Brazilian wandering spiders, and both are harmless.

There have been several reports this year, mostly from the United Kingdom, of “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” eggs being found in banana shipments. The articles detailing these accounts have so many problems, it’s just mind boggling to me that they’re published and taken as any sort of reliable or accurate information. One article states that a woman purchased a bag of Tesco bananas and found an egg sac. After searching through Google, she saw an image that looked similar to hers, so she determined herself that they must be Brazilian wandering spider eggs. Hmmmm, interesting, wow, Google really can tell you EVERYTHING!

Another article states that a family “fled their home” after finding an egg sac on bananas from Aldi and an “expert,” some guy who runs a wildlife sanctuary, told them that “on the balance of probabilities, it was probably eggs from a Brazilian Wandering Spider.” Wait… what? That sentence doesn’t even make sense, come on, people!


The pantropical huntsman spider, Heteropoda venatoria, is a harmless spider found in many tropical locations around the world including Florida and Hawaii. Photo by: Rick Vetter.

The main problem here is the lack of an actual expert to identify the suspected eggs. Many trained entomologists cannot even correctly identify the actual spider, let alone their egg sack. Anyone who is not an entomologist or arachnologist is definitely not going to get it right!

Another major problem is with the media automatically labeling something as a “deadly Brazilian wandering spider” or “the deadliest spider in the world,” which creates so much hysteria. It makes people think that if they find a spider or eggs in bananas, it must be this kind, it will bite you, and you will die. But let’s look at the facts.

Brazilian wandering spiders are actually a genus of spiders (Phonuetria) found all over Central and South America. Each species in this genus has a different geographical range, size, behavior, and venom toxicity. The species reported to have the most toxic venom, Phonuetria fera, is restricted to the Brazilian Amazon and two similar species, P. nigriventer and P. keyserlingi, are restricted to the Atlantic coast of Brazil. The two latter species are the ones usually involved in envenomations of humans in Brazil, as P. fera is usually far from banana plantations and not likely to come into contact with people or get into banana shipments. Furthermore, most banana shipments these days come from places like Ecuador and Costa Rica, not Brazil. This is not to say that other species in this genus found in Central America don’t occasionally get into shipments, because they can, and have. But these species are usually smaller and have less toxic venom.

The toxicity of the venom is always exaggerated as well. In a study of 422 bites from Phoneutria spiders in Brazil, only 2.3 percent of them had to seek treatment with antivenin, and only one death occurred. Most people had minor symptoms that resolved on their own. This is true when it comes to any spider considered “dangerous” like the black widow, brown recluse, or Brazilian wandering spider. Most spiders only bite in response to a threat they cannot escape from, such as being trapped.


Brazilian wandering spider.

If you succeed in doing this to a spider, the bite is a defensive one, which may not even result in envenomation. Most types of spiders, especially from North and South America, are capable of saving their venom and delivering a “dry bite.” If venom does make it into your system, it is most likely a very small amount that will cause no reaction or a very minor reaction. People who are sensitive may experience unpleasant symptoms and may even need to be treated at a medical facility to control these symptoms, but death is highly unlikely. The groups of people most susceptible to venom are small children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Obviously those in any of these categories should be protected from spider bites, but knowledge and education are the best way, not overreaction and hysteria!

So if you do happen to bring home fruit and find a spider lurking there, don’t do what these people did. Don’t flee your house or try to sue the supermarket. (It’s not really their fault!) Don’t call the media or 911. First, try to contain the spider or eggs by placing the bananas in a sealed plastic bag or box of some kind. It’s important to keep it intact for proper identification, a smushed spider is very hard to identify! If the spider drops to the counter or the ground, try throwing a cup or glass over it and slipping a piece of paper underneath to trap it inside. From there you can preserve it in the freezer, which will kill it, or the refrigerator which will slow it down until you can get it to someone for a proper identification. It’s not a bad idea to give the store at which you purchased the fruit a call, just to let them know you found a spider in their produce and you’re trying to get it identified.

banana spider

Finding a spider in a food product can be jarring, but don’t freak out. It’s most likely harmless. Report the spider to grocery store personnel or call an entomologist to be sure of the species.

Next, find an actual expert to identify the spider. Stay away from pest control companies, they don’t always have an actual entomologist on staff, but they will be happy to give you a wrong answer and then tell you that your house needs to be sprayed for extra precaution. Call a university or museum and ask for an entomologist. If they don’t have one, they will know where to find one.

Deliver the spider and wait for an answer. Most likely the results will come back as a harmless spider of some kind. In some rare cases, it may be a type of Brazilian wandering spider or perhaps a black widow. (This has happened.) As long as you kept a cool head and caught and isolated the spider without picking it up with your hands, you were not bitten by it! Call the store and tell them what type of spider it was. Then, move on with your life.

And for goodness sake, if you see a spider on or near you, don’t jump from a moving car or try to set it on fire in the proximity of highly combustible chemicals. These other things will kill you, the spider will not!


Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 10/19-10/25

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

zahi hawass 2

Lecture – The Mystery of the Pyramids: Recent Discoveries by Zahi Hawass 
Tuesday, Oct. 20 
6:30 p.m.
No other manmade monuments command such curiosity, awe and veneration as the pyramids of Egypt. Recent discoveries have shed new light on these mysterious ancient wonders. From the Great Pyramids at Giza, the emblem of the Fourth Dynasty, to the older but lesser known pyramids of the Third Dynasty, these monuments have captivated people from around the globe. Dr. Zahi Hawass will provide fresh insight into the civilization that developed on the banks of the Nile during the fourth and third millennia BC. He will detail the world that existed around the pyramids, on the lives of the workers who built them, and on the court dignitaries who were granted the privilege of a burial place near that of their king. Dr. Zahi Hawass is Egypt’s leading archaeologist and director of excavations at Giza, Saqqara, Bahariya Oasis and the Valley of the Kings excavation sites. In this special lecture at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, Dr. Hawass will reveal recent, important discoveries at Saqqara. A book signing of Pyramids: Treasures, Mysteries, and New Discoveries in Egypt will follow the lecture.

Lecture – Rock Art and Tribal Art in India by Jean Clottes
Thursday, Oct. 22
6:30 p.m.
India is home to thousands of painted archaeological sites with spectacular images. Dating from 10,000 years ago to historical times, distinctive themes are found in the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and historical periods. While researching this rock art, leading authority on cave art, Dr. Jean Clottes studied tribes who continue to use traditional arts for protection and ceremonial purposes. He and his team collected testimonies on these rapidly vanishing practices and their meanings. Clottes will share how the persistence of age-old traditions in these local tribes have helped interpret the rock art and explain its deeper meanings.

NEW Special Exhibition, Out of the Amazon: Life on the River, Opens Friday, October 23
The Houston Museum of Natural Science has an unparalleled Amazonia collection. Priceless pieces of the collection—ceremonial objects, masks, body costumes, headdresses and more—are showcased in the new special exhibition Out of the Amazon: Life on the River.

Savage Garden
Oct. 5 – 31
Discover the renegades of the botanical world at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. These baddies eat meat, defy death and break all the rules. Learn how they grew to be so nasty and why they act the way they do. It’s a Halloween season creep-show you don’t want to miss! But hurry — the show ends Oct. 31. 


Spider Crimes: the Worst Halloween Decorations on the Shelf, Scientifically Speaking

by Melissa Hudnall

September comes and I am shaken to the core with fear. I know what’s coming. No, I don’t mean winter, I mean another year of dismembered bodies and deformed figures. Can I handle the pain in their hurt eyes? Then it happens; I see the first hint of a hairy leg. My trepidation is high as I round the corner to see…



Kill… mmeeee…

I am infamous among my coworkers for getting just as upset as I am excited to see Halloween decorations going up. I adore Halloween, but I also love spiders, and this is where my conflict lies. Halloween does not love spiders. I have used my own tarantula so you can compare real treat to the tricks sitting on the shelves.

Let’s go over some spider basics so you too can feel my pain.


Pay attention to the pedipalps and chelicerae; you may not see them again. Pedipalps are for mating and holding food, and chelicerae house the venom and end in fangs, so these are important body parts. Going without these four appendages is like missing your arms, jaws and teeth.


First off, spiders have eight legs. Count the green circles. Only those are legs. Everything else, not legs.


So basically, I ate this cookie to remove this abomination from the world.

Secondly, they have two body segments — not one, not three. The legs are also attached to the front segment, not the back! The front is the cephalothorax, meaning “head thorax” and the back is the abdomen. Attaching the legs to the back is the same as having a leg growing out of your stomach.


I’m going to assume that these were not meant to be spiders with three segments, but rather very clever spider-mimicking ants. If you can have ant mimicking spiders, then surely it must work the other way around.


These look like ladybugs hitching rides on top of spiders.


And come on, people. Even dogs have standards. This chew toy is sub-par.

Lastly, have you ever tried your hardest and just barely missed your goal? I feel like this next spider embodies that moment. He has the correct number of legs, segments, pedipalps, chelicerae, and they’re all attached in the right places! However, SPIDERS DO NOT HAVE BONES!


*Drops the mic.*

Editor’s Note: Melissa Hudnall is a Programs Facilitator for the Youth Education department at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.