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!

I Heart Pollinators!

Magical Farfalla
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

For those of you who didn’t know (guilty!) last week, June 22-28th was officially pollinator week! I will need to mark my calendar in the future because pollinators are animals that we would have a tough time getting along without.

The best known are, of course, bees and butterflies – but hummingbirds, moths, bats, beetles, flies, wasps, and many many more are all pollinators. We owe so much to these animals and they deserve no less than a whole week of celebration! They are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take and, if you’re like me,  none of those are from foods you would like to even imagine living without. If not for pollinators, I would not have been able to make such a fabulous vegetable lasagna last night!

Not only that, but animal pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of 80 percent of all flowering plants that contribute so much to our general happiness and state of mind. Can you imagine a world with few or no flowers? Well, we certainly could not exist in it – these plants are essential to maintaining a healthy and well-balanced ecosystem as well.

Hover
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

Important native pollinators are always in danger of losing habitat and crucial food sources. So, if you would like to help, grab your shovel and gardening gloves – don’t forget the sunscreen! – and get outside. We can all help by doing the easiest things in our own backyards! Here are some quick and easy tips from the National Wildlife Federation. Just click on the blue text for more details!

- Always think native. Exotic plants may look nice, but they don’t belong here and they do more harm than good. Native plants are meant to survive in our environment so they require much less maintenance and will make things cheaper and easier. Check them out - just as I am sometimes surprised at which insects are native to Houston, you may be surprised to see the variety of plants that are native to our semi-tropical environment.

Anna's Hummingbird in Flight
Creative Commons License photo credit: Noël Zia Lee

 - Hang a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are absolutely gorgeous and fun to watch. Feeders are super simple to make and will attract these important pollinators to your garden.

- Build a bee house. Honeybees are not the only ones that pollinate. Houston is home to dozens of bee species, many of which are solitary and non-aggressive. If you provide shelter for them, they’ll want to hang out in your garden.

- Plant a butterfly garden! We are always promoting butterfly gardening, especially during our spring and fall plants sales. It is easy and fun, and if you use the right kinds of plants, the butterflies will come to you! The bonus is that all kinds of beneficial insects enjoy butterfly gardening plants. If you love insects, your garden will love you and you will be rewarded! Be sure to stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center and pick up one of our butterfly gardening brochures. It is full of all the information you need to get started.

-Finally, certify your yard with the National Wildlife Federation. You may already meet all of the requirements. If you follow the simple steps above, you will get there faster than you realize. The National Wildlife Federation is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving native plants and animals. Anything you can do to help, big or small, is fantastic!

hummingbird
Creative Commons License photo credit: Monica R.

Luckily, my home is a wildlife sanctuary with many plants that are attractive to pollinators and my yard is constantly buzzing with activity! My very favorite of these is Hamelia patens, also known as flame bush, fire bush, hummingbird bush, butterfly bush, you name it! It attracts a lot of attention! The fiery red tubular flowers are a wonderful addition to my colorful garden.

I hope you will find these resources helpful, but if you’d like to speak to someone in person, feel free to contact the Cockrell Butterfly Center - or just leave a comment below. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff members are always happy to help however we can! Until next time, happy nature watching!

Poisoning Pesky Pests

mosquito
 © Photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

April showers bring flowers – and mosquitoes!!!  The one good thing about our prolonged dry spell is that we have had almost no mosquitoes for months…but that is about to change.  Truly, mosquitoes are some of the most pestilential insects on this earth – not only is their bite unpleasant, but some species have the capacity to transmit diseases.  People will do almost anything to get rid of them.  And pest control companies prey on this urge, and will sell you just about anything. 

The device the pest companies are pushing these days – the “mosquito misting system” – costs several thousand dollars to install, but it does actually kill mosquitoes.  These systems use a series of nozzles, usually placed around the periphery of the homeowner’s yard, which emit a fine mist at intervals (many have programmable timers).  The mist, which contains water mixed with a pyrethroid insecticide, kills mosquitoes on contact.  Pyrethroids are widely used, generalist insecticides touted as “safe” for humans and pets such as dogs and cats, because they are derived from plants (learn more about these “safe” chemicals by clicking here.)

foxglove
  © Photo credit: Foxypar4

Some pest control companies boast right up front that these misting systems also kill “spiders, ticks, fleas, wasps, gnats, and roaches” as well as mosquitoes.  Of course, they don’t mention that along with these “undesirables,” the mist also destroys butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, praying mantids (and some of us consider spiders to be beneficial), etc., and is toxic to fish and amphibians.  In other words, although the chemicals used in these systems may be relatively safe for humans (but check out this link for some sobering information)  I wouldn’t want my child or dog or cat to be directly exposed to them.  Yes, pyrethroids are derived from plants, but they are generalist poisons that are bad news for many creatures.  And just because something comes from a plant doesn’t mean it is safe – would you want to be sprayed with extracts of oleander, foxglove, or poison ivy???

We frequently receive calls from butterfly gardeners around town who worry when their neighbors install one of these systems that it will impact their gardening efforts.  We don’t have good news for them – yes, it will.  Gardening for butterflies with one of these systems next door (since the mist can drift, and flying insects don’t stay put) is like putting out bird food if you have an outdoor cat.  You are luring butterflies and other beneficials to their death. 

The companies installing these systems will assure you that since you can use the spray just at night, day-flying insects will not be affected.  But think about it:  first, many beneficial insects are active at night, and many larval insects (e.g., butterfly caterpillars) are not able to fly away from areas that are sprayed.  Furthermore, plants or other objects near the spray nozzles build up a residue of the poison that is certainly not good for anything eating them or living in or on them.

mosquito-spray
 Mosquito Misting System

You may be surprised to learn that scientists working on mosquito control do not like these home misting systems any better than I do.  A couple of years ago, while doing research on mosquitoes and careers in entomology for the new insect wing, I talked at length to Dr. Rudy Bueno, head of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division (part of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, www.hcphes.org ).  I was impressed (and frankly surprised) by the conservative nature of their spraying programs.  For Dr. Bueno’s crew, spraying is a last resort, done in specific areas where their field workers have identified large populations of mosquitoes that may vector diseases such as West Nile virus (not all mosquitoes transmit disease), and where they cannot use other treatment methods such as getting rid of the standing water or treating with mosquito dunks.  They only spray when an outbreak cannot be controlled with more benign methods, and – here’s the rub – the sprays they use contain the same chemicals as the home mosquito misting systems.  Dr. Bueno’s concern is that through constant exposure to these chemicals that mosquitoes get through the home systems helps mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the chemicals – making the county’s spraying efforts much less effective, and meaning that more potent and dangerous chemicals may have to be used to control outbreaks.

gutter
 © Photo credit: akeg

I asked Dr. Bueno what he would recommend to the homeowner concerned about mosquitoes.  Their mantra in HCPHES is “reduce the source” – in other words, eliminate as much as possible any place around your home where mosquitoes might breed.  Some mosquitoes can breed in less than a tablespoon of water, or even in wet leaves, and can complete their life cycle in less than a week.  Most homeowners are fairly careless about leaving potential breeding spots on their property.  Clogged gutters, plant saucers, bird baths, dog or cat water bowls, and many other containers that hold water are all potential breeding sites.  So clean out those gutters and change the water regularly in bird baths and drinking bowls, and turn wheelbarrows or pots or buckets upside down so they don’t hold water.  Put mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis, a small native fish species that eats mosquito larvae) into any outdoor ponds.  In areas of standing water that can’t be drained you can use “mosquito dunks” – floating “donuts” that release a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis israelensis,) that infects only mosquitoes.  One of the main places mosquitoes breed in Houston is in clogged storm sewers, so be sure not to put leaves or other debris into these sewers.  Of course, if you live next to a salt marsh or other area with shallow standing water, you may still be plagued by mosquitoes from time to time.  But there is a lot we as homeowners and good citizens can do to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas right in our own neighborhoods.  Click here for more information on mosquito prevention

In my opinion, these home misting systems should be outlawed!  Yet to date they are almost completely unregulated, and people are so eager to rid their surroundings of mosquitoes that they don’t think about the consequences of the widespread use of these poisons.  Please do your research, and some thinking, before you spend any money on mosquito control.  One thing you can do is check out information in the lower level of the Butterfly Center – a computer kiosk rates a variety of potential mosquito control methods.  You’ll learn that in addition to “reducing the source,” using repellent with 33% DEET (more is overkill) and/or wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors in mosquito-infested areas are the best ways to prevent bites.  And in your backyard, a simple fan can keep mosquitoes away during outdoor activities, and in fact is as at least as effective, and much safer, than any of the candles or coils on the market.

I hope one day the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of home mosquito misting systems and other supposedly “benign” poisons that may make our lives more comfortable but that on closer examination have deleterious effects.  It would be nice if pest control companies would voluntarily stop installing these systems, but as long as the public demands (and shells out money for) them, why should they?  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to educate as many people as I can – and I hope you will too.  Butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, frogs, fish, and many other wonderful creatures would join in the chorus, if only they could!   

Your Friend: The Roach

A family out for a bite to eat.

A family out for a bite to eat.

Often dogs are credited as “man’s best friend,” but I beg to differ.  I offer you instead the humble roach. 

The usually and immediate reaction to the word “roach” (or the actual specimen) is disgust and panic.  I will fully admit that I don’t love them in our garage and that they give me the creeps when they skitter across the driveway, but I DO enjoy not being waste high in detritus.

Cockroaches are nature’s decomposers and are essential for returning nutrients to the soil.  They take one man’s trash – namely, yours - and turn it into little ecological treasures.

Additionally, roaches make tasty treats for reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, other insects, and several mammals.  Not surprisingly, humans don’t love them (but have been known to eat them, though not frequently).  This is not because humans don’t like to eat bugs, but rather because of the particular taste of roaches which is similar to ammonia.  If you ever do decide to partake, know that they have three times as much protein as chicken.

Roaches are also good pollinators.  In fact, the first pollinators were beetles, not bees.  They are also the most frequently used speciments in the study of insect behavior, anatomy and physiology.

So in review, if you DON’T like being waste high in debris, but you DO like growing plants and eating, you must love the roach.