Bugs are Amazing!

Well, it’s officially summer here in Texas and Houston is literally buzzing with insect activity! I don’t know about you, but I have about 18 mosquito bites and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Bugs are everywhere now and this is the best time of year for them.

People always ask me why I’m so interested in bugs and why would I want to work with them for a living. Most people are so concerned with how gross or weird they are to see how amazing they can be. The more I get to know them, the more I want to know – they just blow me away! Hopefully you will feel the same. I wanted to share some amazing insect facts with ya’ll so maybe while you’re out and about this summer, you’ll think a little differently about our little friends!

First thing’s first, Arthropods are the phylum that insects belong to and includes all of their close relatives like arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. There are an estimated 1,170,000 known species on earth. Those are only the ones we know about; there are probably millions more waiting to be discovered!

Of these, about 1,000,000 species are insects, which account for more than half of all known living species on earth…that’s amazing! Scientists believe that there are up to 9,000,000 more species that have yet to be discovered, OMG.

So lets compare that with some other animals shall we? There are 5400 species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 8200 species of reptiles, and somewhere around 6000 species of amphibians.

3 - Hi YA YA!
Creative Commons License photo credit: robstephaustralia

The largest order of insects are the beetles with 350,000 species making them the most abundant animal on earth. In fact, 1 in every 4 animals is a beetle! Coming in second are butterflies and moths, with 170,000 species. The largest insect (heaviest) is a beetle called the Goliath Beetle. They can weigh 4 ounces, which is as much as a quarter pound burger (meat only.) The longest is a walking stick from Southeast Asia measuring 22 inches.

Think insects all have short lifespans? Think again. Cicadas can live 17 years underground before becoming adults, ant and bee queens can live for decades and one type of wood boring beetle emerged as an adult after being in a bookcase for 40 years, yikes!

The loudest insect is an African cicada. We are used to hearing cicadas during the hot summer days. I heard cicadas in Costa Rica that were so loud I thought they were birds at first! The African cicada can produce sounds that have been recorded at 106.7 decibels. In comparison, a jackhammer produces about 100 decibels.

grasshopper chomping on my leg hair
Creative Commons License photo credit: slopjop

Most people know that Monarch butterflies migrate pretty far, but did you know that locusts travel much further? They have them beat by a couple thousand miles. They have been known to travel nearly 3000 miles one way! One species even flew from Africa, across the Atlantic ocean to South America; now that’s amazing! They also win in terms of the largest swarms. The largest swarm was recorded in Africa in 1954. It was so huge it covered an area of 77 square miles. That’s kind of scary.

Insects are pretty amazing fliers. They were the first animals to take to the air, about 200 million years before the first birds. Dragonflies are up there, having been clocked at 36 miles per hour, but the horsefly can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour! A hummingbird can beat its wings about 60-80 times per second,  pretty impressive. A tiny fly called a midge can beat its wings up to 1000 times per SECOND, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to foot racing, we do have a super star, right here in Houston. The American cockroach(big one with wings) can reach speeds of 3.4 miles per hour. Now that doesn’t sound fast, but in human terms, it would be like one of us running 400 miles per hour. The Australian tiger beetle is the fastest clocking in at 5.6 mph, which is the equivalent of 720 mph for a human.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer
Creative Commons License photo credit: e³°°°

All insects are of course very strong, being able to carry or move things many many times their own body weight. A well known beetle, the rhino beetle can carry up to 850 times its own weight. That would be like an average guy, maybe 175 pounds, being able to lift 150,000 pounds. Good luck with that!

So see, insects are pretty darn incredible. It may even make you feel better to know that out of the million species of insects that exist on earth, less than 1 percent are considered to be pests or harmful to humans. The vast majority live in tropical regions like Asia, Africa, and South America, with the highest concentration in rainforests. I could go on and on about the feats of insects, but I’ll save some  for another time. Until then, I hope you all can learn to appreciate the most incredible, beautiful, and diverse life forms on our planet. Happy bug watching!

A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.

News from the Butterfly Center: Vinegaroon gives birth to…grasshoppers??

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 Momma
Vinegaroon with her eggs

We were delighted a couple of weeks ago to find that our new female vinegaroon had produced an egg sac which she was carrying under her abdomen. This was a first for the butterfly center as we have never successfully bred these arachnids.

I wanted to be prepared when the time came for her babies to hatch so I read up on my copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Baby Vinegaroons.”

I’ve been growing very anxious waiting for something to happen, and today, I was totally taken by surprise! As I was cleaning up the insect zoo, I happened to glance over at the vinegaroon display and notice a very small, black, um, thing.

As I got closer, I realized that it was a brand new baby lubber grasshopper! How odd, I definitely was not expecting that. Having one species give birth to another is certainly an unprecedented event and I expect it will be published in some scientific journal.  

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Look how tinyand adorable!

But seriously, imagine my surprise! Unfortunately, the vinegaroon’s egg sac was not viable and therefore, she ate it early this week. Her only comment was “thank god, I was starving!”

The baby lubbers were really a pick-me-up, although they showed up in a crazy place. This seems to be a trend; a female lubber will lay eggs somewhere unbeknownst to me, and they’ll pop up somewhere really weird, usually sharing space with a carnivore.

In this case, the eggs must have been laid in the potted plant decorating the vinegaroon’s display case. Luckily, these guys are tiny and go relatively unnnoticed by the resident.  

Lubber grasshoppers are the largest Orthopterans native to the United States and can be found all over the southeastern part of the country. There are several different species; these are Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers. As adults, they display bright red and yellow coloration, warning any would-be predators that they taste really yucky!

This type of coloration is known as aposematic. The name “lubber” comes from the fact that they are totally clumsy and are really not very good at moving around quickly. It’s a good thing, becuase they’re poisonous! Still, they’re always a welcome surprise around here and they are just so so cute. Welcome to the world little grasshoppers!

As far as our poor vinegaroon, well, she may not have been meant to be a mom, but don’t fret, dear public, Laurie and I are already raising 3 babies we found in Arizona last year. Check them out:

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Awwwwwww!

PHOTO From You: Insect Identification

Hello again insect enthusiasts! Well, we’ve already received another photo from one of our wonderful readers! This week’s photo comes to us from Ben Bailey in College Station. This photo was taken at the Texas A&M horticultural gardens, my alma mater, and a great place observe the variety of bug life Texas has to offer!

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Venusta Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta)
Photo provided by: Ben Bailey 

Spiders certainly are not insects, but they are arthropods, which share several characteristics with insects such as: segmented bodies, jointed appendages, and a hard exoskeleton. Spiders belong to the class Arachnida, along with scorpions, ticks, mites, and some other weird looking things! Arachnids all have 8 legs, 2 main body segments, and a pair of jaw-like, fang-bearing appendages. All arachnids are predators which feed on a wide variety of small prey including insects and most are harmless to humans. This means that they can actually be helpful in your home or garden!

This striking photograph is of one of my favorite spiders, the Venusta Orchard Spider (Leucauge venusta). In Latin, venusta means beautiful, and as you can see, this is a gorgeous spider. The Venusta Orchard Spider is a small orb weaver that likes to hang out in light, open areas near shrubs and trees. They construct a horizontal web about 1 foot wide. They cling below the web, or a nearby twig and wait for an unsuspecting insect to become entangled. These spiders, like most, are very shy and harmless to humans! Consider it a beautiful, natural little ornament for your garden.

Thank you so much Ben, for sending in the great picture, and reading our blog! Keep ‘em coming folks!