Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

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Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…

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Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, will be ready to dine on mice! These snakes are native to Indonesia, Australia, and New Guinea. Pythons are non-venomous snakes that subdue their prey by constricting. Their food consists mostly of small mammals and the occasional reptile. They lay in wait, curled around a tree branch, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This praying mantis, one of the largest species, comes from Southeast Asia. Mantises are ambush predators and have several features that ensure their success in catching prey. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (legs specialized for grabbing) and held still by several tough spines. The mantis uses chewing mandibles to eat its victim alive. Mantises have excellent vision at close range and can see as far as 20 meters. Their eyes are large and located on the sides of their head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. They can keep their eyes on potential prey by inconspicuously moving their heads up to 180 degrees. Nothing can escape their field of vision. Most mantises feed on smaller insects, but some giant species can take down small reptiles, amphibians, and even rodents!

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Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one pair per body segment. Centipedes are venomous and can be dangerous, so they are not to be confused with the congenial millipede, which poses no threat to humans and has four legs per body segment. This centipede, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and similar species are found in Mexico and the southwestern United States. The coloration, known as aposematic or warning coloration, serves as a message to other animals: “Touch me, and you’ll get more than you bargained for!” A bite from one of these can cause intense pain that lasts for hours or days and can cause a severe reaction in someone who is allergic. These hunters take down smaller arthropods, small reptiles and amphibians, small rodents, and have even been known to hunt tarantulas!

Wolf Spider (Hogna carolinensis): This is the largest species of wolf spider found in the United States! Most wolf spiders are large and can sometimes be confused with tarantulas. The name wolf spider refers to their hunting behavior. Instead of building a web, they wait to ambush their prey and at other times, they chase it for a short distance. Wolf spiders inject venom into their prey to immobilize it. They then use digestive enzymes to liquefy the insides and then slurp it up through a tube that leads to the stomach. Wolf spiders have no interest in biting people, but will if provoked. The severity of their bite has been compared to that of a bee sting.

Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (Theraphosa blondi): This is the big mama of all tarantulas and regarded as the largest spider in the world. They can reach a weight of 5.3 ounces (more than a quarter pounder) and have a leg-span of 12 inches (about the size of a dinner plate). The name birdeater is a misnomer as they do not eat birds, although they could. They are native to marshy swamplands in South America, and like other large spiders, they feed on mostly insects. However, because of their size, they often go for small reptiles, amphibians, and rodents. If threatened, these tarantulas can produce an eerie hissing noise by rubbing together setae on their legs. If that doesn’t creep you out enough to stay away, watch out for the urticating hairs they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get in your eyes! Birdie is our resident birdeater and she’s a thrill to watch as she shoves as many crickets into her mouth as possible!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

Why no tropical milkweed at the Cockrell Butterfly Center plant sale this year?

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Aslepias curassavica

We are sorry to disappoint monarch enthusiasts, but the Cockrell Butterfly Center has decided not to sell tropical milkweed (aka Mexican milkweed, Asclepias curassavica) any more. Instead, we will have a limited quantity of native milkweeds for sale. Recently, biologists studying monarchs have discovered that tropical milkweed may be a factor in the spread of a parasitic infection that attacks monarchs. The infection is called Oe (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha) and is transmitted by spores that fall from an infected female’s body onto the hostplant when she lays her eggs. The hatchling caterpillars eat the spores along with the leaves, and become infected themselves. After a generation or two or three, the infection level becomes so high that the butterfly dies (sometimes in the caterpillar stage, sometimes in the pupal stage, and sometimes as the adult).

This could happen with any milkweed – the problem with the tropical species is that it does not senesce (die back) in Houston’s mild winters but is perennial, growing throughout the year. In contrast, native species die back to the ground in the winter, and when they regrow in the spring they are spore free – so the infection cycle is broken.

Also, researchers have found that some monarchs in the southern part of the USA don’t bother to migrate if they have milkweed available. These year-round residents have been found to have very high levels of Oe infection, because they are mostly using the tropical milkweed species generation after generation. While this probably doesn’t greatly impact the migration as a whole, we don’t want to contribute to the local spread of the disease.

If you do already have tropical milkweed, one solution is to cut it back severely a couple of times a year. Even better is to remove the tropical variety and switch to native milkweed species. Unfortunately, so far these are not widely available in the nursery trade and are not as easy to grow as the tropical variety!

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Aslepias viridis

We are all learning and struggling to do our best for the butterflies. This year we will have a limited quantity of two native species at our spring plant sale: Green Milkweed (Asclepias viridis) and Antelope Horns Milkweed (Asclepias asperula).

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Our next plant sale will be Saturday, March 28, 2015 from 9 a.m. to noon, or until we sell out. It will be located in its usual spot on the 7th level of the Museum parking garage. We hope you will try growing native milkweeds, and please let us know how it goes for you!

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.