“I Have a Question! Where do Your Bugs Come From?”

When I’m maintaining the live exhibits in the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, or giving a tour of our Insect Containment Room, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “Where do the bugs come from?” It’s a very good question! Many people ask if we are able to actually collect them, and I wish that were the case. Travel the world to collect exotic live specimens? Yes, please!

But the truth is we get our animals in boxes delivered by FedEx or UPS. The boxes come from all over the place. Arizona, Thailand, Costa Rica… But most of our exotic shipments come from the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, which collects and breeds butterflies and other insects and arthropods. They provide us with a large butterfly shipment each month and several arthropods throughout the year. Whenever our supply of large exotic insects is dwindling, I place an order for mostly beetles, but also katydids, mantids, and even centipedes or spiders.

We recently received one of these shipments, and I wanted to give you a sneak peek. I love getting these boxes. It feels like Christmas!

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This box transported five beetles, three large katydids, three mantids, two large spiders, and a few hundred butterflies!

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Each animal is packed carefully in individual containers with a moist sponge inside. Materials are placed in the box, such as soft filler and ice packs, to make sure the bugs stay comfortable on their long trip. They leave Malaysia on a Monday and arrive here Friday morning.

deadleaf

The dead leaf mantis is nearly impossible to spot against a background of dead leaves.

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Until it moves!

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This dragon-headed katydid wasted no time finding a hiding spot! Katydids mimic leaves to keep them protected from predators.

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Giant long-legged katydids are the largest species in the world. They are a favorite around here!

orbweaver

The giant golden orb-weaver has the largest and strongest web in the world. Although the web may sometimes accidentally ensnare birds or bats, the spider only feeds on flying insects.

orchid mantis

The orchid mantis has the most spectacular camouflage of all! They hide among orchid flowers waiting to grab unsuspecting pollinators such as bees and flies.

All of these and more can be seen on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology. Some can even be brought to your school for an exciting, hands on Bugs on Wheels presentation! See the HMNS website for further details!

Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.

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I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!

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This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:

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While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.

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This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…

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How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 

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You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.

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Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.

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The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!

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To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.

#ChillsAtHMNS

 

How to Spread and Mount a Butterfly – Part III

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HMNS entomologist Erin Mills walks you through how to mount and display a butterfly in this 4-part video tutorial.

Part III: Setting the Butterfly

Part III continues below:

 Check back next week for our final installment of this video series.

It Takes a Village ….A Milkweed Village

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As the obligate host plants for monarch caterpillars, milkweeds are a staple in any butterfly habitat garden. However, milkweed is not just for monarchs! Many other insects call the genus Asclepias home, giving rise to the concept of a “milkweed village.”

Milkweed plants produce bitter tasting toxins called cardiac glycocides, and insects that eat milkweeds have evolved to use these to their advantage, sequestering the toxins in their bodies to protect themselves from predators. Most, if not all milkweed-eating insects have markings of black and orange or yellow, a type of aposomatic coloration that warns predators of their horrible flavor. If a predator such as a bird, lizard, or spider were to eat one of these insects, it would spit it out. The next such insect would be avoided, as its coloration would remind the predator of its foul flavor.

Most butterfly gardeners have encountered the bright yellow oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, which congregates on the new growth, flowers, and developing seed pods of milkweed plants. Aphids are phloem feeders, meaning that they suck the sap, along with the toxins, out of the plant’s vascular tissue.

Ladybug larva

Ladybug larva

The presence of these aphids on milkweed attracts a number of predatory insects. Ladybug larvae and adults (Hippodamia spp. and others) are important predators of milkweed aphids. Other small beetles such as mealybug destroyers, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri, and scale destroyers, Lindorus lopanthae, eat aphids along with other small sap-feeding insects. These beetles are interesting creatures in that their larval stage looks just like their namesake (i.e., mealybugs and scale, respectively).

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Scale destroyer larvae

The maggot-like larvae of syrphid flies also eat aphids, sucking their bodies dry. Syrphid pupae look like little brown or tan teardrops. If you notice these on your milkweed plants, leave them in place to ensure another generation of these beneficial flies.

Syphid fly pupa

Syrphid fly larva

Tiny parasitic wasps such as braconids lay their eggs in aphids’ bodies. The wasp larvae feed on the inside of the aphid until they pupate, then exit as an adult wasp through a tiny hole in the aphid’s exoskeleton. The leftover brown “shell” is called an aphid mummy. These mummies are a good sign that your aphids are being parasitized. Don’t worry, these wasps don’t harm monarch caterpillars.

aphid mummy

Aphid mummies

With all of these great beneficial insects around, I hardly had to spray our milkweed crop at the museum with any insecticidal soap this year. However, if the aphid population on your milkweeds gets to be overwhelming, the best way to knock them back is to spray them off the plants with a sharp stream of water. Try to avoid damaging or knocking off any beneficial insects in the process.

Other “pests” of milkweed plants include the milkweed leaf beetle, Labidomera clivicollis. These chunky, orange and black beetles and their larvae feed on milkweed leaves.

Milkweed Beetle (Wikipedia)

Milkweed Beetle (Wikipedia)

Large milkweed bugs, Oncopeltus fasciatus, are also common in the southern United States. These oblong-shaped, sap-sucking true bugs are orange and black and mostly feed on the developing seeds, flowers and nectar of milkweed plants. They don’t usually cause much damage.

Now we come to the most familiar milkweed inhabitant – the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. As we all know, monarch caterpillars eat voluminous quantities of milkweed leaves, and display the textbook aposomatic coloration of white, black and yellow stripes. Their chrysalids, or pupae, are a gorgeous jade green with gold lines and spots.

monarch

Here in Houston we sometimes encounter another milkweed visitor – the queen butterfly, Danaus gilippus. Queen caterpillars look very similar to the monarch, but they have three pairs of tentacles instead of the monarch’s two. Their chrysalids are also similar, but are a bit smaller and may sometimes be a pale pink rather than green.

Like everything else, monarchs are part of the food chain, and are preyed upon or parasitized by a number of different organisms. One of their most prevalent parasites is a tachinid fly, a gray, hairy species about the size of a house fly. An adult fly female will lay her eggs on a monarch caterpillar and when they hatch, the maggots burrow inside. The maggots live inside the caterpillar, eating its tissues, until they are ready to pupate. At that point they crawl out of the caterpillar and fall to the ground, where they pupate in the soil The maggots often leave the caterpillar after it has pupated, leaving a trail of slime that dries up and looks like white strings hanging from the chrysalis. These strings are tell-tale signs of a tachinid fly infestation.

Tachinid fly larva emerging from monarch caterpillar.

Tachinid fly larva emerging from monarch caterpillar.

Assassin bugs, Zelus sp., are frequent visitors to milkweed plants. This true bug will stab monarch caterpillars with its rostrum or beak, paralyzing the victim and liquefying its insides, making it easier to consume.

Vespid wasps are another important predator of monarchs. The familiar large red wasps, Polistes carolinus, and the smaller yellow and black European paper wasp, Polistes dominulus, both hunt caterpillars as food for their own hungry larvae. Once a wasp finds a host plant with caterpillars, she will come back regularly to check for more, especially in the summer months when wasps are the most active. This can be upsetting to butterfly gardeners. To protect your caterpillars from these all-too-efficient predators, place a screen such as a pop up or mesh laundry hamper between them and the wasps.

Polistes carolina  Photo by Val Bugh

Polistes carolina Photo by Val Bugh

 

Polistes dominulus

Polistes dominulus

Finally, a parasite of notable concern that specifically affects monarchs (and also queens) has emerged on the scene of butterfly gardening. This protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, commonly known as Oe, begins with a dormant spore, usually deposited by an infected female monarch as she lays her eggs on a milkweed. When the caterpillars hatch and begin to eat, they consume the Oe spores along with the leaf. Once inside a caterpillar’s gut, the spores become active and reproduce several times. When the butterfly emerges from its pupa, it is covered in dormant Oe. spores, giving rise to the next generation of infected monarchs. Mildly infected butterflies may show no sign of infection but as Oe levels build up, they eventually cause problems such as weakness, deformity, and even death.

OE Life Cycle (Monarchparasites.org)

OE Life Cycle (Monarchparasites.org)

The annual migration to Mexico each fall helps to weed out infected butterflies, which are usually too weak to make the long trip and die along the way. However, some monarchs don’t migrate and may stay in the Houston area all winter long. In the south, butterfly gardeners primarily grow tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, which unlike the native milkweeds does not die back to the root in the fall. Oe spores can remain viable on the leaves of this perennial species for some time, infecting the next generation of caterpillars that eats them. As this situation repeats, it can cause populations of severely infested monarchs. We therefore encourage butterfly gardeners to cut back their tropical milkweed every spring after the first generation of monarchs arrive and eat the milkweed down, and then again in the fall before or during the migration, so that the butterflies will be encouraged to migrate and not overwinter here.

Spiny soldier bug nymph eating a monarch caterpillar. (Photo by Dan McBride)

Spiny soldier bug nymph eating a monarch caterpillar. (Photo by Dan McBride)

With all of these challenges, it’s no wonder that only five to ten percent of monarch eggs make it to adulthood. Keep in mind however, that monarchs are an important part of the food chain and without their survival and natural demise, our native ecosystem would not be as diverse as it is. In any case, human interactions with the environment have caused the most damage to monarch populations – huge amounts of monarch habitat has been lost due to the expansion of agricultural land and use of Roundup Ready crops. Planting butterfly-friendly gardens, especially if they include milkweed, can help mitigate this loss of habitat.

You can do your part by attending our fall plant sale at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Stock up on the nectar plants that monarchs need to fuel their migration as well as host plants for native butterflies.

The sale will be held on Saturday, October 11th from 9:00 a.m. until noon (or until plants are gone), and will take place on the 7th level of the museum parking garage. Remember, the early bird gets the larva, so to speak, and don’t forget your wagon!