Butterflies and Shutterbugs: Another Fabulous Pixel Party at HMNS

Before-hours at the Museum on June 26, we hosted one of our exclusive Pixel Parties — where we open select exhibits just for photographers (both amateur and professional). For summer of 2016, we gave photographers exclusive access to our Cockrell Butterfly Center .

Below is a small sample of the fantastic photos submitted to our Flickr group:


Photo by Sulla55

Photo by Sulla55

Photo by Sulla55

Photo by Alan in Houston

Photo by Alan in Houston

Photo by Debi Beauregard

Photo by Debi Beauregard

Photo by jerry1540

Photo by jerry1540

Photo by Arie

Photo by Arie

Photo by Arie

Photo by Arie

Photo by James Woody

Photo by James Woody

Photo by Sulla55

Photo by Sulla55

Making Geometric Images with a Smart Phone and a Teleidoscope

In 1817, Scottish inventor and optical scientist Sir David Brewster invented a tube with opposing mirrors running through it and beads of colored glass in one end. He called it the “kaleidoscope,” a word whose Greek roots mean “beautiful shape viewer,” which most of us have peered through and hooted in awe at around kindergarten age. It’s a simple design that capitalizes on a trick of light to incredible effects. Three mirrors arranged in a triangle reflect the light entering one end of the scope down the tube and across to each other. By the time it reaches your eye, it has reflected so many times it creates the effect of a precise geometric pattern that infinitely changes.


Sir David Brewster.

Back in the nineteenth century, when optics were a new thing, this wasn’t just awe-inspiring for children; even adults were impressed. But Sir Brewster neglected to patent his kaleidoscope, and others copied the new technology and began manufacturing it as a child’s toy, likely costing him millions in potential income and in reputation. Good thing he had other inventions to lean on.

Sir Brewster is responsible for inventing the first portable 3D viewing device, which he called the “lenticular stereoscope.” He built the first binocular camera, the lighthouse illuminator, the polyzonal lens, and two types of polarimeters, a scientific instrument used to measure the angle of rotation caused by passing light through an optically active substance. This last device is used in the chemical industry to test the properties of new substances.


John Lyon Burnside, III.

In 1972, the kaleidoscope’s potential was pushed a step further. John Lyon Burnside, III and Harry Hay patented a version of the geometry-creating tube that scrapped the bits of colored glass and replaced it with a spherical lens, allowing the viewer to point the viewing tube at any object in nature to see it reduplicated across the mirrors in the same way. They dubbed it the “teleidoscope.”


At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we sell both kaleidoscopes and teleidoscopes in the Museum Store. As a lover of photography, nature and geometric patterns, I experimented with this teleidoscope and my iPhone and captured some amazing images in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and other locations around the museum. Some things work better than others, but for the most part, everything looks incredible through one of these bad boys.

Here’s how you do it, in photo steps. (You can get this awesome notebook at the Museum Store, as well.)


Grab a cool thing to take a photo of (or just go outside), and bring your teleidoscope and your smart phone or digital camera.


Hold the viewing end of the teleidoscope against the lens of your smart phone or digital camera. Make sure it’s tight and that there’s no light leaking around the edges. It takes some practice, but you’ll learn quickly.


Align your shot and snap it when you see a pattern you like. The edges will appear darker than the center. This is yet another property of light as it bounces around inside the scope.

And here are some of the images I made, cropped down to a square, eliminating the dark edges. What do you think?


Roof of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.


Mandrake the Corpse Flower.




Green fluorite and white barite.


Pink phalaenopsis orchid.


Orchid mantis.


Owl butterfly.


Rice paper butterfly.


Sandstone concretion.


Spondylus shell.




Giant squid model.




Zebra longwing butterfly.

Everything looks better through a teleidoscope! So buy one or make your own, and post your images on our social media. Your images look even better with Instagram filters! Don’t forget to tag us with #hmns and @hmns. We’d love to see what you come up with.


Earlier photo through Instagram’s Juno filter, with a few other adjustments I’ll keep secret. 😉

Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!


Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!


This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!


Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.


Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.


It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.


These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?


Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.


The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.


The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.


Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.


Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!

Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 


Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

zebra pollen face

You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.


This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 


These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!