Bug Geeks

Report from the yearly gathering of bug geeks…

I recently got back from the annual “Bugs in Bondage” conference held in southern Arizona.  The actual name is the more politically correct “Invertebrates in Education and Conservation,” recently updated from the original “Invertebrates in Captivity” – thus the humorous nickname.  But for those of us who have attended for many years (this was the conference’s 15th consecutive year), the nickname will always come first to mind. 

This is a great conference.  Who goes?  It’s a fairly small group, about 125-150 people, including representatives from most of the US facilities that display live insects and/or butterflies, as well as those who supply insects and butterflies to our facilities.  Several international attendees often participate as well – especially from Canada and Mexico but also from as far away as Scotland, Costa Rica, Singapore, and Malaysia. 

Hosted by the Sonoran Arthropod Studies Institute (SASI), it’s a week of workshops, collecting field trips, formal and informal presentations and roundtable discussions – with a strong social aspect as well.  The “Insect Trivia” contest is one of my favorite rituals; the photography contest is always fun, too; and of course, nothing can beat the final banquet.  Outside the meeting room, several vendors set up their wares – whether live arthropods, insect books, toys, and jewelry or collecting equipment.  As an example, BioQuip has a large display and also helps to sponsor the conference.

It may seem crazy to meet in southern Arizona in the middle of the summer, but the time (late July/early August) was chosen for a reason.  Although it’s hot and sunny during the day, this is “monsoon season” in the Sonoran desert, a time when – most days – clouds build up late in the afternoon, followed by dramatic lightning storms that are accompanied by brief but torrential rains. 

Shortly after nightfall, it is usually clear again (the stars are great there in the desert skies).  Because of all the rain at this season, the desert is teeming with plant and insect life.  It’s a great time to find cactus longhorn beetles, giant centipedes, vinegaroons, sunburst diving beetles, jewel beetles, and much more.  Some participants go blacklighting almost every night, choosing a spot off the beaten path and setting up a white sheet with UV and mercury vapor lamps to draw in flying insects.  I’ve seen sheets completely covered with moths, including some large and spectacular ones, along with tons of beetles, adult ant lions and owl flies, and much more.  

This year, a former colleague and I led a workshop on “plant identification for entomologists.”  One of my favorite workshops in the past was one on “cooking with bugs” – we made a number of dishes using different insects and then served them at the icebreaker that night!  The talks I most enjoyed this year included one on leaf cutter ants, another on a monitoring program for the endangered burying beetle, and one on how to keep and display bumblebees

The other attendees are fun, unique people brimming with knowledge and experience – along with some “newbies” who are there to learn the ropes.  We all come away from the conference full of new ideas for displays, new arthropod possibilities, and a sense of community.  It’s not often you can be in a room of over 100 people where every one is a major insect enthusiast (aka bug geek)! 

Are you a bug geek? Learn more:
What butterfly are you most likely to see in the wild?
Could you raise a tiny baby mantis?
Discover the Black Swallowtail.

Insect (relative) Insight: Centipedes and Millipedes

This month, I’d like to shed some light on two of our favorite insect relatives – both of which are often misidentified, misunderstood, and all together mixed up. The time has come to clear up some misconceptions about these very long, many-legged creatures. Laurie and I are often suprised at how many people don’t know the difference between a centipede and a millipede, and we feel it is very important.

Centipedes and Millipedes are Arthropods which which belong to a group called myriapods, meaning “many legs.” They can be found in all different types of environments on nearly every continent on the globe. Both have bodies consisting of a head, which bears chewing mouthparts, and a long trunk made up of several segments. That is where the similarities end.

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Sonoran Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

The word Centipede litterally means “one hundred feet”. In reality, they can have anywhere between 30 and 346 legs with one pair of legs per body segment.

A Centipede’s legs originate from the side of their flattened body, which helps them move quite swiftly. They are nocturnal predators that spend their days hiding under rocks or logs. During the night they emerge to hunt for their prey, which consists of mostly small insects and other bugs, however, some larger centipedes may be able to take down frogs, lizards, or even mice!

Centipedes have a pair of poison fangs directly beneath the head which they use to inject venom and paralyze their prey. They rarely bite humans, but will do so to protect themselves if handled. Most centipedes are of little concern because they are very small with mild venom.

In Texas, however, we do have the giant sonoran centipede, Scolopendra herosThis centipede can reach 6 inches in length and has sizeable jaws that pack quite a punch. The venom can cause  enough pain and swelling to land you in the hospital and can be very dangerous to small children or individuals that are sensitive to insect toxins. The best idea is never to handle a centipede of any size. Here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we have 3 giant centipedes: Sonny, Steve, and Sam, who are all on display. They’re fun to watch and take care of and I’ve been working with them for a very long time so I know how to handle them and have never been bitten (knock on wood.)

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Giant African Millipede

Millipedes on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. These gentle creatures have a rounded body much like a worm. The word “millipede” means “one thousand legs.” They don’t really have that many, but for each segment on a millipede’s body, there are two pairs of legs. These guys can have anywhere from 80 to 400 legs! Millipedes are harmless detritivores which move very slowly. They live in the soil and feed on decaying organic matter and sometimes the roots and stems of small seedlings.

Their main defense is to roll themselves into a tight ball covering their more vulnerable parts. Some species can also emit a foul-smelling defensive liquid which is not usually harmful to humans.

Our native millipedes are very small, but some, such as the Giant African Millipede, can reach 12 inches in length and live up to 7 years. We have about 7 Giant African Millipedes, 4 of our largest are on diplay. Millie, goes to schools with us for our Bugs on Wheels program. The children have called her everything from a snake, to a worm, to a snail, to a caterpillar, and of course, a centipede.

Well, I hope you’ll find this helpful next time you see one our funny long-bodied friends, and come and see our giants on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology.