Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

The Butterfly Center beat: Everything you ever wanted to know about raising Atlas moths

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The Atlas moth (Attacus atlas) is a large moth belonging to the Saturniidae family. Saturniids, familiarly called giant silk moths, include some of the largest species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies). Two local species that may be familiar to readers are the polyphemus and luna moths.

Atlas moths are considered the largest moths in the world in terms of total wing surface area. Their wingspans are also among the largest, often reaching over 10 inches. They are strikingly beautiful, with tawny wings punctuated with translucent “windows” bordered by black. Their most distinguishing feature (other than their size) is an extension of their forewings that resembles a snake’s head, thought to be a means of scaring off potential predators.

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

The forewing of an Atlas moth resembles a snake’s head. ©Erikki Makkonen

These spectacular moths make superb additions to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. During the day, they spend most of their time motionless, clinging to the side of a tree or other surface. Visitors can thus get up close to intimately study these creatures, and can clearly observe their fat, furry bodies, fuzzy antennae, and teddy bear like expressions.

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Close-up of the fuzzy face and feathery antennae of a female Atlas moth (males have larger antennae). © John Horstman

Once night falls, the male Atlas moths take flight in search of a female. The search has a sense of urgency, as adult Atlas moths typically live only about one week. This is because the adults do not have fully formed mouth parts and therefore cannot eat; they are sustained only by the fat reserves they built up as a caterpillar. The moths will quickly mate, lay eggs, and die soon after.

One day at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, a male and female emerged from their cocoons around the same time. We took the opportunity to breed and raise this species of moth. The newly emerged male and female were placed in a flight cage in the greenhouses on the top level of the museum parking garage. They paired the very first night they were together. During mating, the moths remained coupled for several hours. Then, over the next three days, the female laid approximately 150 crimson eggs, placing them indiscriminately along the walls and edges of the flight cage.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the sides of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

A mating pair of Atlas moths clinging to the side of a flight cage. The larger of the two is the female.

Atlas moth larvae are generalists, meaning they will feed on a wide variety of host plants (but not all plants). Hoping to determine which of several possibilities would be the best food for our caterpillars, we searched the literature for recorded host plants.

We chose four that we had available, including Camphor Tree (Cinnamomum camphora), Vitex (Vitex trifolia purpurea), Mahogany Tree (Swietenia mahoganii) and Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas). Gathering the eggs, we divided them among four plastic containers lined with moist paper towels and ventilated with tiny holes poked in the lid, each containing a different kind of leaves.

The eggs took 10 days to hatch. The hatchling larvae were covered in pale protuberances and had black heads. After eating their eggshell, the tiny caterpillars began eating the provided foliage. Once the caterpillars were feeding reliably, they were moved to netted cages containing potted plants, so the leaves would be constantly fresh.

The caterpillars hatched on a Friday in September. To track their weekly growth and development, we took a photograph of them each Friday thereafter. It quickly became obvious that the caterpillars on Camphor were thriving: they grew bigger and faster than their siblings on the other plants (the pictures shown below are of larvae fed on Camphor). In each photograph, larvae were placed next to a standard sized Popsicle stick, fondly known as “Size Reference Ralph,” to track their relative growth.

The caterpillars took six weeks from hatching to pupation. They ate voraciously, becoming soft and fleshy to the touch, and were a pale blue-green color. Their backs were covered in a Mohawk of tubercles with a thick, waxy, flaky coating. After six weeks, the caterpillars were almost as long as Size Reference Ralph and were quite pudgy.

The sequential pictures show the dramatic changes in the larvae, followed by the start of silk spinning, and finally a complete cocoon. Once they finished their cocoons, the larvae pupated inside. We then gently moved the dried cocoons to the emergence chamber inside the entomology hall of the Butterfly Center.

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. ( Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Egg to cocoon in Atlas Moths. Pictures were taken one week apart next to Size Reference Ralph. (Pictures courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Then we waited. Atlas moths may eclose from their cocoon in as little as three weeks, but can sometimes take several months. To escape from their silken enclosures, they must excrete a substance that dissolves a hole in the silk, allowing them to crawl out. They then cling to their cocoons while their wings expand and dry.

The first Atlas moth of our batch of cocoons emerged on Dec. 17, almost 3 months after hatching from the egg. It was a large female, with a wingspan of just over 10 inches. As you can see, Size Reference Ralph was dwarfed by her!

Our first Atlas Moth to emerge on Dec. 17th 2013. (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson)

Our first Atlas moth to emerge on Dec. 17, 2013 (picture courtesy of Lauren Williamson).

Know a girl who’s interested in math and science? Come to GEMS (Girls Exploring Math & Science) on Sat., Feb. 8 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Museum will be filled with hands-on science and math for everyone to experience. Local professionals will be at the Museum to answer questions about their careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The event is free with paid admission to the Museum. Click here for $7 admission to all permanent exhibit halls on Sat., Feb. 8.

 

 

STEM & GEMS, Part II: The science of raising butterflies is Celeste Poorte’s specialty

Celeste PoorteEditor’s Note: In anticipation of our upcoming GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event on Feb. 8, we interviewed several women who have pursued careers in science, technology, engineering, or math. Last week, we interviewed Air Liquide’s Victoria Rockwell. This week we’re featuring Celeste Poorte, Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

HMNS: How old were you when you first became interested in science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: As far back as I remember, I was always interested in the natural world. Once I got to high school, my interest in science really became solidified.

HMNS: Was there a specific person or event that inspired you when you were younger?
Poorte: 
Spending a lot time outside as a young child exposed me to interesting plant and animal life. In 9th grade I had a wonderful biology teacher that really inspired me to pursue biology.

HMNS: What was your favorite science project when you were in school?
Poorte: 
In 9th grade we did a project where we observed the micro-organisms found in a collection of pond of water and recorded our results and identified the species. That was my favorite because it was incredible to see how many living creatures there were in a tiny speck of water.

HMNS: What is your current job? How does this relate to science, technology, engineering, or math?
Poorte: 
I am the Butterfly Rearing Coordinator at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This relates to science because I use my knowledge of butterflies and their life cycles in order to raise them.

HMNS: What’s the best part of your job?
Poorte: 
The best part of my job is that I don’t have to spend my time at a computer all day. I get to spend a lot of time outside in the greenhouses working directly with the butterflies and caterpillars.

HMNS: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Poorte: 
In my spare time I like to spend time with friends, read books, and take my dog to the dog park.

HMNS: What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Poorte: 
Go to college. Aim high. Pick a subject that you are passionate about for your major and stick with it. Get as much extra experience outside the classroom as you can, like internships. Meet and talk to as many people in your field of interest as you can while you are still in school. This will definitely help you find a job once you get your degree.

HMNS: Why do you think it’s important for girls to have access to an event like GEMS?
Poorte:
An event like GEMS is a great way to expose girls to jobs that they might not otherwise even know existed. It’s a great way to get the information out and for them to meet real-life women who actually have STEM careers. When I was in middle school, I attended a GEMS-like event and it was a great experience for me.

Family time & me time: Have the best of both at HMNS this holiday season

It’s the holiday season – full of food, festivities and family. Sure, you look forward to this month year-round, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get sick of it. Conversations start to get stale, your mother (or worse – mother-in-law) won’t let you stop stuffing your face, and you begin to worry that none of your pants will fit anymore.

This is enough to make some shout, “Bah humbug!” at every passerby, but it needn’t be so! All you need is some way to divert your family’s attention away from your new piercing, lack of promotion, the boyfriend or girlfriend that they loathe, or whatever childhood embarrassment they still insist on using to regale holiday guests (or worse yet, reenact).

What better way than an outing to the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Not only is this the perfect excuse to get out of the house, but with all of our exhibition halls, there are plenty of places to ditch your family — if only for a short while.

THE MORIAN HALL OF PALEONTOLOGY

The stunning views of fossilized dinosaurs, giant sloths, woolly mammoths and more will buy you just enough time to slip over to the John P. and Katherine McGovern Jurassic Bark Gallery (in a separate room towards the back, on the left). Here you will find sanctuary amongst the remains of a petrified forest – clearly terrified of your family too.

You might also head up to the Morian Overlook. Just as your family’s entering the hall, slip back out, and take the elevator up to the second floor. Be careful they don’t see you, because from here, you can take in the whole hall from above.

THE HALL OF ANCIENT EGYPT

There’s a lot to see in this hall. Rush to the back as you enter while the fam plods along. Here you’ll find the mummies and sarcophagi. And we have great, dim mood lighting – which means you could totally lay out on one of the benches, and people will just think you’re another exhibit! Chill here for a while until your family catches up.

THE COCKRELL BUTTERFLY CENTER

A Rainforest, butterflies, an iguana – let your clan to take it all in while you scope out your next spot.

As you enter the Rain Forest Conservatory, head all the way to the bottom level – into the cave. You can remain unseen from above and chill with all the cool butterflies that are trying to be as exclusive as you.

If you enter the Hall of Entmology from here you’ll be right by the “Land of BEEyond.” Please understand that this area is meant for children, so let them play in peace if they get there first – but after all, you’re a kid at heart, right? Why not chill here? You might even get to meet the queen bee.
THE MINERAL HALL AND SMITH GEM VAULT

This hall is lit perfectly to enhance the natural beauty of the minerals and gems on display — and also perfect lighting for a quick escape from your tribe. Walk briskly, and stick close to the wall on the left. As you round the corner, you’ll come up on the Smith Gem Vault, which, if you’re wearing dark colors, makes you nearly invisible. The only light in this room is focused on the perfectly carved diamonds and other jewels on display. It seriously looks like they’re emitting light themselves.

Hang out here for a while, and if you do it right, you can slip back into the mineral hall as the fam goes in the gem vault. You just bought yourself another 20 minutes of freedom!

Other options for some solace in the Museum:

Wortham Giant Screen Theatre: They won’t be able talk to you in here!
Burke Baker Planetarium: With the added feature of looking up, idle chit-chat is discouraged
The Museum Store: Nothing takes the edge off quite like a bit of retail therapy