Dead skin, sweat, and DUST MITES!!!

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe
Creative Commons License photo credit: Banalities

I’m sure most of you have seen the commercial, I believe by Mattress Firm, where two men are replacing a woman’s mattress. They tell her that she should replace her mattress every 8 years because after that long, it doubles in weight from all of the dead skin, sweat, and dust mites. She them repeats, in a disgusted and frightened tone, DUST MITES?? That commercial drives me crazy because like any normal Entomologist I think, dead skin and sweat, eww gross!! I’m certainly not grossed out by the thought of dust mites.  They are, after all, decomposers that feed on things like dead skin cells. That might make you cringe, but they are basically little cleaning machines, like all decomposers. So I was wondering what would make people more upset about dust mites than they are about dead skin and sweat. SoI found out!

First a little bit about dust mites. The house dust mite is an arachnid, like all mites, that belongs to the order Acari. Acari also includes ticks. Mites are a very successful and diverse group of animals with about 42,000 species found all over the world. They can be parasites, predators, herbivores, detritivores, or decomposers. Unfortunately for them, many are considered to be pests on plants, animals, humans, and especially in the home, such as dust mites. House Dust mites (Dermatophagoides spp.) are very tiny, but visble without a microscope. The adults are typically about .4 millimeters in length. They are common in most households and feed off of organic debris, human skin cells and animal dander, which is what dust is mostly made up of, hence the name. For this reason, they are mostly found in places like beds, carpet, and other soft pieces of furniture.  They cause no harm to us and would go largely unnoticed if it weren’t for one thing. They are animals and when animals feed, they have to defecate.

The fecal matter of dust mites is highly allergenic due to some of the enzymes within it. Therein lies the problem. Many people have allergies ranging from annoying to severe and sometimes these allergies can induce asthma. Some of these chemicals are also present on partially digested pieces of dust. Most of these allergies can be treated with over-the-counter anti-histamines, but in more severe cases, a game plan may be needed. The idea, as with any pest, is to reduce harborage, or make it a less pleasant place to be. Wood or other hard floors are always a better choice than carpet because they are easier to clean thoroughly and dust mites cannot thrive in/on them. All soft furniture and bedding should be washed regularly. Ten minutes in a hot dryer is enough to kill all stages of dust mites because they are very sensitive to dessication, so the hot dry conditions in the dryer are lethal. Just like with any other pest, removal of clutter, dirt, and food sources usually does the trick. At least once a week, you should dust, vaccuum, wash all of the bedding and anything else washable. This will lead to a relatively mite-free home. If you do have asthma, there are certain mattresses and types of bedding that are actually mite proof!  If you don’t have allergies to dust mites, you can relax a little. Dust mites have been around for millions of years and are probably on most soft surfaces you come into contact with!  I’ve said before that people should just get used to the idea of tiny organisms crawling around and on us! Most people have microscopic mites living in their hair follicles that feed on dead cells and sebacious, or oil gland secretions. These are known as Demodex folliculorum or face mites. There are thousand of other organisms, but they keep us clean and healthy. Plus, they’re not nearly as gross as dead skin and sweat, eeew!

CW39 did a story on dust mites last night, and they interviewed me! Watch the video below.



Can’t see the video? Click here.

New Furry Friends for the Butterfly Center!

I am used to needing to replace insects on display. There are several factors that have an effect on their longevity and for the most part they do very well, but insects only live so long. I get so preoccupied with them that I forget about the more long-lived species such as the arachnids – like tarantulas and scorpions.

I recently realized that I have had the same 3 tarantulas on display for about 3 years. Female tarantulas can live upwards of 30 years if properly cared for. And as long as they are alive, I keep them on display. I started thinking, duh, why don’t I get some new tarantulas so people will have something different to look at? This is not to say that the ones on display aren’t gorgeous! I curently have a Mexican red-knee, an Indian ornamental and a Goliath birdeater. All three are strikingly beautiful animals! The birdeater will stay because it is the largest spider and people are definitely curious about that. The other two can retire, for now, to the peace and tranquility of the containment room.

So, I have got to go shopping! Ordering tarantulas is so much fun because there are so many to choose from. They come in an unbelievable array of colors; it can be so hard to choose! I wanted to pick those that are better suited for display and not for handling. We do handle tarantulas for our outreach program, Bugs on Wheels, but for that we have Rosie, a 17 year old Chilean rose hair that is such a doll and quite possibly the sweetest, most patient tarantula that ever lived!

Once I perused what was available, I picked the only two that I could get as adults and one spiderling that I can raise. It should be an adult in about a year. Getting a box of live bugs in the mail is like Christmas, it’s so exciting! When I saw these tarantulas for the first time I was overjoyed, they look even better in person. They are very shy, which is why they are not appropriate for handling. They will live in the containment room until I have a chance to put them on display for everyone to see. Let’s meet them!

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Antilles pinktoe spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

First, let’s meet the Antilles pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor). Spiders in the genus Aviculariaare very common in the pet trade. They are native to the rainforests of South America and a few Caribbean islands. These tarantulas are pretty docile but can move very quickly! They actually have a habit of shooting excrement, also called guano, at their pursuers and they can actually be quite accurate. They are all characterized by pink tarsi, giving rise to the name pinktoe. The Antilles pinktoe is native to Martinique and Guadeloupe. They are tree-dwelling and spend their time in funnel shaped webs made in palm fronds or bromeliads. They are absolutely beautiful with a green carapace or head, a red abdomen and green legs, all covered with reddish pink hairs. They are very hairy! I took pictures of my new friends, unfortunately, they don’t really do them justice.  She is a sub-adult, so she needs to shed one more time to be fully grown. She will look great on display.

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Brazilian red and white spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The other large female I purchased is called a Brazilian red and white or Nhandu chromatus, formerly, Lasiodora cristata. This spider is swiftly gaining in popularity. They are very large and sometimes called a white-striped birdeater. They have a grayish white head, white and black striped legs and a bright red abdomen. These are terrestrial tarantulas from Brazil. This species is nervous around people and will bolt if they feel frightened. I briefly held her the other day and she did quite well. I hope to have her feeling at home on display very soon!

The 3rd tarantula I purchased is one of the most popular species of spider and definitely one of the most beautiful. It’s called a Greenbottle Blue Tarantula (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens). Wow, that’s a mouthful! The only ones available were spiderlings about .5-.75 inches long (very tiny). We used to have one of these spiders and they are really magnificent so I thought I’d try raising one. I only hope that it’s a female. They are very hard to sex at this size, but I will find out when it gets a bit larger.

The only drawback to having a male is that it would only live for a couple of years compared to the long-lived female.  When I opened up the box, I thought I had gotten the wrong thing. It looks completely different from the adult! I knew it would, but I was not expecting it to look so drastically different. When full grown, this spider will have metallic blue legs, a bluish green head and a bright red abdomen They are very striking.  They are native to the desert areas of Venezuela. They live in burrows lined with silk to protect them from the harsh climate.  They tend to be skittish and run very fast when disturbed. Maybe since this one is so young, I can get it more acclimated to being handled. I can’t wait to see how beautiful it will become!

Greenbottle Blue Tarantula
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I think these tarantulas will have long and happy lives here, especially since I spoil everything in my care, but in a good way! I hope they will be around several years from now when I’ll be training a new entomologist to care of them. In the mean time I hope you’ll stop by to take a look at them in the Entomology Hall. Hopefully, even if you think you’re arachnophobic, you can gather up the courage to take a close look and see how colorful and beautiful a spider can be! Happy bug watching!

For all the future Entomologists out there…

We recently got an e-mail from a young man named Derek. Derek is 13 years old and came across our video “Meet the Entomologists of the Cockrell Butterfly Center” on YouTube.  He is interested in becoming an Entomologist and must have been intrigued by what he saw. He had some questions for me about my career. I’m always happy to answer such questions and if you have an interest in a career in this field, maybe my answers will help you too!

Here’s what Derek wanted to know:

1. This is a dumb one, but how much do they make yearly?

Eyes of a Holcocephala fusca Robber Fly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Shahan

This is certainly not a dumb question and can be an important issue, especially if you have student loan debt, like me! Yearly salaries vary, depending on what exactly it is you are doing. As an entomologist, you can work at a variety of different jobs. You can work in a museum like myself, or be a pest control operator, work for the government, in a lab, as a professor, the list goes on and on really. Whatever you do, you should not expect to make 6 figures and you may start off with a lower salary than you’d like, but the longer you are in the profession and the better you do, the more valuable you become and the more money you will make! I am very very happy with the money I make and most importantly, I LOVE my job. There is no amount of money that could replace that. Rest assured, if you become an entomologist, you will have a fun and rewarding career and you’ll make plenty of money!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

2. Can you specialize in a specific insect? I am very fond and know a lot about the praying mantis.

This also depends on how far you go in school and what career you choose. A lot of entomologists that go for their PhD. specialize in a certain insect and study them in a lab at their universities. I personally have a lot of freedom in my job. I have hundreds of different insects that I care for here and I can choose to study any one of them in greater detail. I also love praying mantises, they are definitely one of my favorites! I spend a lot of time raising them and studying them. I could at any time choose to do a research paper or even write a book about them if I really wanted to! In other jobs as an entomologist, you may be more limited, so if I were you I would do a lot of research on what type of entomologist you want to be.

3. Did you ever receive a sting or a bite that can kill you? I don’t care if it hurts.

A Centipede on display at HMNS

Well, you know Derek, insects are not as dangerous as many people think, and a lot of it depends on your own body’s sensitivity to certain types of venom. We do have a bee colony here, and  if I were allergic to bee stings, a sting could probably hurt me or put my life in danger if I did not get the right kind of medical attention. Luckily, I’m not allergic to bees, but if I was, it would not discourage me from working with them because I know how to treat them respectfully and avoid being stung. And we take care to make sure our visitors can’t come in contact with them. We really do not have any insects here that are highly venomous, because there really aren’t many out there. Now other arthropods are a different story. We do also have arachnids such as spiders and scorpions and centipedes. All of these animals are venomous, but none that we have are deadly, although a bite from our giant centipedes can land you in the emergency room! I always take certain precautions when working with these animals, just like someone who works with venomous snakes. That being said, I have been bitten, scratched, poked, pinched, and even had venom spit into my eye. None of these were a big deal, I never had to go to the doctor or anything, but they were all learning experiences!

How many insects do you work with or study a day? And for how long?

Capturing Grasshopers on Film in Costa Rica

Well, you could say millions if you add in all of the ants in my various ant colonies! Thank goodness every ant doesn’t need individual attention! I spend a large part of my day with basic care of the insects in the Insect Zoo and Containment Room where I have hundreds of insects. I spend a lot of time just feeding them, making sure they have enough humidity, cleaning their habitats, etc. That stuff is a lot of work, and unfortunately, doesn’t leave a lot of time for study. My day is also taken up with other things like writing e-mails, answering phone calls, leading tours, taking the bugs to schools for our outreach program, and just generally educating people about bugs. So that’s what I do with my time from 8-5 Monday through Friday. Now, like I said before, I can study certain bugs if I’d like to and I do make time for that because every year I get the chance to write a research paper and present it to other entomologists at a conference. This year, I’m working on a paper about the Giant Katydid (Macrolyristes corporalis) which is such an amazing insect. I’ve already written a couple of blogs about it. To me, this career is very unique because I’m not just stuck in a lab.  I am kind of like a teacher, consultant, scientist and caretaker all rolled into one, which makes for a very fun and interesting job! I even get to travel! In 2008, I got to go to Costa Rica to see bugs in the rainforest, it was awesome! I learned all about bugs in college, but I’ve learned far more here from actually getting to work with live insects and observe their life cycles and behaviors. A lot of labs are full of dried specimens of dead bugs, which can be cool too, but I’m very happy to be here!

5. Finally, how would I become one? To be honest, I don’t know many colleges or schools that practice entomology, and you just don’t see ads in the paper for entomologists! Good question! Well, I went to Texas A&M for college and it is the only University in the state of Texas from which you can receive a degree in Entomology. I’m not sure where you live, but in most states, there is at least one university that offers this type of degree. The internet is a great resource for this, just google degree programs in Entomology and that should get you started. Next, you will have to decide how far you want to go, I only have a bachelors in Entomology just because, for now, I can’t afford anymore college, but I plan to get a masters someday soon and eventually a PhD. In college, you will have so many resources available to you that will help you figure out what jobs are available and what you want to do. Like I said, there are so many different things you can do with a degree in Entomology. These jobs can take you anywhere in the country, even several places around the world! You can even do my job almost anywhere. Most states in the U.S. and even countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America have museum with insects zoos and butterfly houses much like ours and they always need good Entomologists!

Well Derek, I hope this helps you! My best advice is to keep doing what your doing and studying insects. You may have people, even family members and friends tell you that Entomology is not a good career choice. Only because most people don’t know much about Entomology, or even bugs in general, but don’t let that discourage you. If you work hard and do well in school, you can do anything you set your mind to and I’m sure you will be a successful and happy Entomologist, just like me! If you have anymore questions, or any other budding entomologists out there for that matter, please feel free to contact us by sending an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

Punkin, my Halloween spider

Today’s guest blogger is Cletus Lee. Mr. Lee is a native of Virginia and received a BS in Geology from Virginia Tech.  He tells us that, after an interesting career in the Oil & Gas industry, followed by another in information sciences, he retired in 2008 and is pursuing nature photography, cycling and other long time hobbies.  He is an amateur arachnologist and resides in Bellaire, TX, just a few blocks from the Nature Discovery Center – his photos of spiders are fascinating and we thought we’d share them – along with Lee’s thoughts on the subjects of his photos – with you.

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Click to view large: Spinybacked Orbweaer
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

It was Punkin’s “grandmother” that started my current interest in spiders.  One morning in May 2007, while opening the blinds in our den, I noticed a spider building a web just outside our den window in a corner between the den and the dining room.  From that point on, each day, I would eagerly open the blinds to greet the sun and my new little friend.

Spinybacked Orbweavers (Gasteracantha cancriformis) have long been one of my favorite spiders because they are colorful and decorate a neat orb web. Smaller than a dime, they can be found in the Houston area in shades of white, yellow and orange.   Their most prominent feature is the abdomen, which sports spike-like spines around its edge and a series of spots that create a smiley face pattern across the back.

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Click to view large: Yellow Orbweaver
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

I continued watching the spider outside my window through the rest of May and into June.  One morning in late June, I was saddened to find the web and spider gone. I was disappointed to have my daily spider-watch ritual come to an end, but I was not disappointed for long.  A few days later, I was working outside near the old web’s location and saw two very small orb webs nearby.  A closer inspection revealed two tiny Spinybacked Orbweavers. As they grew, they molted and built larger webs. One spiderling disappeared and the other gradually moved over to the same corner of the house formerly occupied by her parent. I watched this spider, probably the daughter of the first, for about two months.  Near the end of August, she also disappeared during the night.

Once I knew the routine, I began searching the nearby bushes looking for the next generation.  Early in September, I found another Spinybacked Orbweaver. Unlike her mother and grandmother, she was orange and had a perfect jack-o-lantern face. With Halloween approaching, I decided to name my new spider Punkin.

"Punkin"
Click to view large: Punkin
Creative Commons Licensephoto credit: Cletus Lee

Late in September 2007, Punkin set up housekeeping in the same spot previously occupied by her mother and grandmother.  I was not certain how long spiders lived, but those earlier spiders seemed to last about two months as adults.  October came and went.  So did November and December.  To encourage Punkin to stay, I caught live bugs and tossed them onto the web.  She was one well-fed spider.  During the winter, Punkin received a lot of care and attention and stayed around my den window until late February 2008.

Observing three generations of spiders during the summer and fall of 2007 was an education.  Being able to see nature up close, right outside my window, was a treasured experience which has broadened my horizons and fostered a new respect for spiders.  With a flashlight, I now explore my backyard and the grounds of the neighborhood Nature Center nightly to check on my little friends and make some new ones.