STEM & GEMS: Insects and plants fascinate “bug nerd” Lauren Williamson

lauren photo in CBCEditor’s Note: As part of our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) program we conduct interviews with women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. This week, we’re featuring Lauren Williamson, Entomologist in the Cockrell Butterfly Center

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science?
Williamson: Ever since I can remember! I was always catching bugs, playing with animals, and looking at flowers, plants, etc.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Williamson: I had a biology teacher in junior high that told me about entomology and told me that I should look into that field for a career since I had such an interest in insects.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Williamson: An insect collection, of course!

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Williamson: My title is “entomologist”, aka “bug nerd.” My job revolves around importing exotic butterflies to display in our Butterfly Center. Not only do I need to know a lot about insects, but I also need to know about government regulations, computer applications, and accounting. We also do a lot of outreach programs, so it’s a necessity to be comfortable presenting to large groups.

To get a degree in entomology you have to take extensive coursework in biology, chemistry, physiology, and math.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Williamson: I play with butterflies all day — need I say more? Not to say that my job doesn’t involve a lot of hard work, because it does, but the fun parts of my job make it all worth it!

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Williamson: I love to play with my animals (three dogs: Merle, Hank, and Molly; and a bird: Carlos), go on insect collecting trips, camping, crafts, going to museums and seeing movies with my husband.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Williamson:
Make sure you study, study, study! Ask a lot of questions and learn all of the material as much as possible. Every year adds more information to the knowledge base you already have, so it only gets harder.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Williamson: This is a great way to experience some of the wonderful career paths you can take with a firm knowledge of science, engineering, technology, and math. These subjects are the foundation of our everyday lives, whether you realize it or not! There will always be a demand for employees in these ever-growing and changing fields so it is important to get in an interest in them as soon as possible.

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Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Color me Carmine: Cochineal bugs in our food and drink

At the liquor store the other day I noticed a bottle of shocking pink tequila, called “Pasión.” It would make a great Valentine’s Day gift (“Candy’s dandy, but liquor’s quicker,” as the saying goes) and is certainly eye-catching. More interesting, I learned that the pink color came from cochineal bugs – as stated right up front on the label!

Most people don’t know about cochineal bugs or the widespread use of colorant that’s extracted from them, but cochineal, or carmine, has been valued for centuries as a red dye. One of the few natural and water-soluble dyes that resists degradation with time, cochineal is the most light-stable, heat-stable and oxidation-resistant of all the natural colorants and is even more stable than some synthetic dyes. Moreover, depending on the process used, it yields a range of vibrant colors, from light oranges and pinks to deep crimson.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal, close up

Unfortunately, when you inform people that their raspberry yogurt, maraschino cherries, Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccino, brand of lipstick, or hundreds of other items are colored with this natural extract, most are revolted instead of intrigued. In fact, outraged vegans have pressured Starbucks to look for another, non-insect-derived product to use in the frappuccino concoction (just do a web search for “cochineal and Starbucks”).

So what IS a cochineal bug, exactly?  It is a small, chubby scale insect that feeds on prickly pear cactus, with the scientific name of Dasylopius coccus. There are many species of scale insect. Most are very small (i.e., less than ¼ inch long, some smaller), sedentary insects that suck plant sap with tiny, piercing mouth parts. They belong to the same order of insect that includes aphids, cicadas, and leaf hoppers: the Homoptera.

However, you might not even recognize some scale species as insects. Adult females have no legs or wings and are basically bags of guts and eggs that seem glued to the stems or leaves of their host plant (the smaller, winged males are seldom seen). Some scales have hard, shell-like coverings, and indeed look like tiny shells. Mostly considered plant pests, a few have economic value. For example, shellac is another natural product derived from a different scale insect.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal as they appear feeding on prickly pear cactus

Cochineal bugs are covered with a waxy or powdery white coating, and often cluster on the surface of the prickly pear pads, looking like tiny cotton balls stuck to the plant. But if you squish these cottony balls, your fingers will be covered with copious amounts of a thick, dark red fluid. This intense color has been used to dye fabric for many centuries, and more recently, has become an important colorant in foods and drinks.

Cochineal bugs are native to Central and South America, where their host plants, the cacti, also originated. Both Incas and Aztecs used cochineal as a dye, which was so highly prized that bags of the dried bugs were used as currency or as tribute. The Spaniards took cochineal back to Spain, and during colonial times, cochineal was Mexico’s second-most valuable export after silver. Cochineal was much superior to the red dye used in Europe at that time, and became hugely popular. It was used to dye the cloaks of Roman Catholic cardinals and the “redcoats” used by the British army.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal-dyed yarn

In the mid 1800s, with the advent of chemical dyes, which were cheaper to produce, the demand for cochineal in the fabric industry waned and the industry all but collapsed. But in the late 1900s, the push to use natural products rather than chemical ones in foods have made cochineal and carmine, its purified form, increasingly important as food colorants.  Today cochineal is again produced on a commercial scale.

To quickly summarize the production process: cochineal bugs are allowed to grow on prickly pear pads for about three months. They are then scraped off the pads and thoroughly dried (often sun-dried) for several days. The resulting seed-like pellets are ground and mixed with water to produce cochineal, or are further refined to produce carmine or carminic acid. It takes about 70,000 bugs to make one pound of cochineal extract.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Dried, harvested cochineal

Today most cochineal comes from Peru, the Canary Islands, and Mexico. Check out this YouTube video to see traditional cochineal farming in the Canary Islands. You might also be interested in this great video from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science about cochineal in foods.

If you’d like to learn more, just do an online search for “cochineal bugs” (by the way, they have occasionally been misnamed “cochineal beetles” – but they are NOT beetles). For those of you who prefer old-fashioned reading, Amy Greenfield has written an entire book about the fascinating history of cochineal titled A Perfect Red.

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cochineal harvesting in colonial Peru

I have to roll my eyes a little (at least internally) at those people who act horrified when they learn that the red color of their energy drink, or popsicles, or other foods comes from or is enhanced by these insects. In fact, we eat insects all the time. There are government-approved amounts of insects allowed in almost all foodstuffs (also other, ickier stuff such as rat feces, animal hair, and dirt). That chocolate bar, slice of bread, bowl of cornflakes, serving of pasta, dollop of ketchup – all are likely to have bits of insects in them.

I encourage you to visit the exhibit on this theme in our entomology hall, where you can also purchase some unadulterated insect treats from our vending machine. Did you know that the average American eats – unknowingly – one to two pounds of insects per year? But not to worry, insects contain lots of protein and are good for you!

A very few people – vastly fewer than have peanut or wheat allergies – may have an allergic reaction to cochineal extract (one source says the allergy is due to impurities introduced in the production process rather than to the carminic acid). These people should certainly read labels and avoid products that contain cochineal or carmine.  The coloring ingredient may be identified on labels as cochineal extract, carmine, crimson lake, natural red 4, C.I. 75470, E120, or even “natural coloring.”

Other people do not want to eat cochineal because of ethical or religious concerns (insects are not considered kosher). However, if you are truly concerned about eating or using products containing cochineal, you will have to read the fine print on a lot of products.  Here is a short list of items that may contain cochineal-derived colorant:

  • Frozen meat and fish (e.g., artificial crab meat)
  • Soft drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and powdered drink mixes
  • Yogurts, ice cream and dairy-based drinks
  • Candy, syrups, popsicles, fillings and chewing gum
  • Canned fruits including cherries and jams
  • Dehydrated and canned soups
  • Ketchup
  • Some wines and liqueurs (sadly, according to Wikipedia, as of 2006 carmine is no longer used to give the Italian aperitif Campari its distinctive deep red color)
  • Lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, nail polish, and other cosmetic items
  • Pills, ointments and syrups used in the pharmaceutical industry

Personally, not suffering from a rare allergy or having any ideological qualms, I would far rather ingest a time-honored, natural dye than artificial food colorings made from coal tar, many of which have been proved to be carcinogenic and/or cause behavioral problems (for which reasons an increasing number have been banned from use in foods).

Bugs in your booze? You'd better believe it!

Cheers to that!

I have never seen cochineal insects in Houston, but have found them on prickly pears growing in and around Austin – so they certainly occur in Texas. If you know where some prickly pears are growing, check them out!

The next time somebody bugs you to cook, cook bugs! We recommend these Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Did you know that insects are eaten in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries? They are a good source of vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fats and have a very small environmental footprint when compared to other types of livestock.

Think that’s gross?  You are probably ingesting insect parts everyday — you just don’t know it. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has something that it calls The Food Defect Action Levels, and this document specifies the acceptable amount of bug bits in your groceries. For real. For example, you can totally have “10 or more whole or equivalent insects and 35 fruit fly eggs per eight ounces of golden raisins.” Yum, extra protein!

Having an exoskeleton makes bugs crunchy on the outside but chewy in the middle, like a 100 Grand Bar. You, on the other hand, are chewy on the outside and crunchy in the middle, like a Take-5. The crunch in the exoskeleton comes from chitin, a long polymer chain that makes up the “shells” of many arthropods — including crabs, lobsters and insects. Interestingly, chitin never shows up in animals with an internal skeleton, which recognizes the chitin as a foreign substance and eliminates it. Allergy sufferers take note: If you are allergic to shellfish, you are also probably allergic to insects. Blame the chitin.

A chiton, which is not to be confused with chitin or a chiton (a type of Greek dress), is a type of marine mollusk in the class Polyplacophora. We have several preserved specimens here at the Museum, and they are awesome. This one once went on a trip to Whiskey Bridge with a group of school kids and was referred to by name as “Mr. Ugly.”

Chocolate Chirp CookiesThe third form of chiton (the Greek clothing style) is less likely to be crunchy and more likely to be stylish in everyday use, but appears to have more than one etymological meaning. The Greek “Khitōn” could be used to describe this simple cloth garment or a type of protective armor, which makes total sense when you think about the chitinous exoskeleton of a bug as its protective armor.

Are you totally hooked? Can’t wait to try some chitinous culinary cuisine? You can wait for more blog posts which will feature critters in your own kitchen, you can check out the books below by other famous entomophagists, or you can come visit us on October 26th for Spirits & Skeletons or Oct. 27th for Tricks, Treats & T.Rex — which will both feature a bug chef!

 

From the Test Kitchen of Julia Chitin: Beginner-Appropriate Chocolate Chirp Cookies

Ingredients:
•    Chocolate chip cookie dough of your choice
•    Crickettes (available in the Cockrell Butterfly Center)

Chocolate Chirp CookiesProcedure:
1.    Make sure no one is watching. See Recipe Notes below.
2.    Preheat your oven to the correct temperature as listed on your cookie dough instructions.
3.    Place cookie dough on a baking sheet as you normally would.
4.    Place a single crickette on top of each ball of cookie dough. Don’t be put off if some drumsticks or wings fall off.
5.    Bake as recommended and let cool.
6.    Serve up to your friends and family and enjoy the subtle flavors and audible crunch.

Chocolate Chirp CookiesRecipe Notes:
This recipe is the equivalent of ordering fancy take out and then putting it in your own dishes before the in-laws arrive. Minimal effort for maximum gross out results.

I used to make the cookie dough from scratch using a family recipe, adding in the bugs and mixing well. What I discovered is that the bugs get covered in the dough and aren’t visible. (AND when you are eating cookies with bugs in them, no one actually cares about Nana’s secret recipe.) Save yourself the time — and Nana the heartbreak — and use prepackaged dough.

The crickettes, which generally taste like what they are cooked with or in, will have a slightly nutty flavor and are therefore excellent for replacing nuts in recipes for those with nut allergies.

NOTE: If you have a shellfish allergy, you might also be allergic to insects as well!