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. 

Meet the live animals that’ll be starring in this week’s Friday Feeding Frenzy

Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes!

Every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be hosting the Friday Feeding Frenzy, where we will be feeding live animals for your viewing pleasure at 9:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 11:30 a.m.. The cost is included with admission to the Butterfly Center.

toadally memeWe have several arthropods and even some reptiles and amphibians that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up for this Friday (note: it changes weekly).

GREEN TREE PYTHON 
Morelia viridis

Our green tree pythons, Boo and Hiss, 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. When potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tail as an anchor to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

 

GIANT ASIAN MANTIS
Hierodula membranacea

Feeding Frenzy 4This 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.

Due to their amazing camouflage, praying mantises can resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, but it keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence.

An insect that wanders too close is quickly snagged by raptorial front legs (read: 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 heads, allowing the insect to see all around them. 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.

 

GIANT CENTIPEDE
Scolopendra heros

Feeding Frenzy 8Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs — 1 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, also known as the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue prey. Once caught, the prey is bitten repeatedly by two fangs, which inject venom to immobilize and kill. Then the meal is devoured!

Giant centipedes of this and other 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

Feeding Frenzy 6This 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. They don’t build a web designed to ensnare prey, but actively seek out their prey. Sometimes 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 liquify 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

Feeding Frenzy 7This is the big momma 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 that are kicked off of the abdomen into air. If these hairs come into contact with the skin, you get really itchy. And you don’t even want to know what happens if it gets 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.

 

GULF COAST TOAD
Incilius valliceps

Feeding Frenzy 3You see those toads everywhere around here — unfortunately, often they are smushed by cars in the street.

Well, these guys aren’t getting run over. They get a five-star aquarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet provide by the Butterfly Center! Toads are opportunistic predators and will eat any small animal they can fit into their mouths, so they should be fun to watch.

 

AFRICAN BULLFROG
Pyxicephalus adspersus

Feeding Frenzy 5Last but not least, meet Tofu! Tofu is staying with us while his owner, a friend of the Butterfly Center, is in Australia. We promised to take good care of him and feed him well, for all of you to see.

African bullfrogs are huge and the males can reach 10 inches. Like other frogs and toads, they are voracious predators and will eat anything they can fit in their mouths, including small rodents and birds.

African bullfrogs can spontaneously change genders in a single-sex environment — how’s that for a neat trick? Remember how, in Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs were all female, so they weren’t supposed to be able to breed? And remember what happened after frog DNA was added to the dinosaur DNA? Just like African bullfrogs, the Jurassic Park dinosaurs were able to switch their genders and breed, because as they say, “Life will find a way.” Silly humans!

We’re all pretty enamored with Tofu around here, so we can’t wait for you to meet him.

Well, there you have it folks, the Friday Feeding Frenzy line-up! Not only will you get up close and personal with these live animals, but you will also learn some cool facts and be able to ask questions.

While you’re in the Butterfly Center, don’t forget to check out 25 more amazing insects and other arthropods on display, and more than 1,000 free-flying butterflies. See you Friday!

Spread your wings: Adopt a Butterfly at HMNS on May 10

The beauty of butterflies is undeniable. Whether you’re gazing at the brilliant hues of a Blue Morpho, taking in the incredible delicacy of Rice Paper butterflies as they flit about, or staring at an Owl Butterfly as its wings stare right back at you, these incredible creatures captivate the viewer.

6094403314_648e6790d4_b (1)And who looking upon them hasn’t wanted to have their very own butterfly garden? Luckily for you, what’s ours is yours. Everything at HMNS is here for you to make your own, and now, we don’t just want you to own the Cockrell Butterfly Center, but you can actually own a butterfly when you adopt one on May 10!

Just in time for Mother’s Day, you can adopt and release a butterfly right here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center! From 9-11 a.m. on May 10 for only $15 ($10 for members), you’ll be given a butterfly to release in the Butterfly Center and a personalized adoption certificate to take home. The perfect way to celebrate Mother’s Day, you can become a proud “parent” in your own right to one of nature’s most delicate and beautiful creatures.

Monarchs want YOU to plant milkweed: Butterfly-friendly plants for sale at HMNS

The butterflies need your help! With urbanization, and a host of other factors, monarch butterflies are at risk of not finding places to lay their eggs. So why not help while improving the butterfly traffic through your garden with a butterfly-seducing plant from our biannual plant sale?

Milkweed plants in the genus Asclepias are extremely important for butterflies, especially monarchs. While the blooms provide copious amounts of nectar for many different butterflies, the foliage is an essential part of the monarch butterfly’s life cycle. Milkweeds are the only plant monarch caterpillars will eat. In other words, they can’t live without it!

Native milkweed plants grow along roadsides and in open fields. The butterflies find them by honing in on their volatile chemicals and finally locate the exact plant by “tasting” nearby plants with special receptors called chemoreceptors on their feet. Once a gravid female (one who has mated and is ready to lay eggs) finds a good milkweed plant, she will lay eggs on it — and the miraculous process of metamorphosis has begun!

There are about 100 species of Asclepias in the United States, and over 30 in Texas — but monarchs seem to prefer some of them over others. According to a study by Linda S. Rayor, described in The Monarch Butterfly: Biology and Conservation, when given a choice, monarchs prefer to lay eggs on other species of milkweed over the native species Asclepias tuberosa.

Butterfly - Tropical Milkweed

Besides being a host plant for Monarch larvae, Tropical Milkweed (A. curassavica) is a great nectar source for many butterfly species!

Why? Different Asclepias species contain different cardenolide concentrations (cardenolides are the chemicals in the milkweed leaves that taste bitter). As they eat, the caterpillars store these toxic chemicals in their bodies and thus become distasteful to their predators. A. tuberosa has been found to contain low amounts of cardenolides compared to most other species of milkweed. Although it is unclear how monarchs “know” this, they do not usually use A. tuberosa as a host plant.

Several other native milkweed species, however, are great host plants for the monarch. Asclepias asperula (Antelope Horns), A. viridis (Green Milkweed), A. incarnata (Swamp Milkweed) and A. oenotheroides (Zizotes Milkweed) are some of the more commonly found milkweed plants in our area that monarchs use as host plants.

Unfortunately, most of the native milkweeds are hard to find in plant nurseries. One reason is that their seeds require moist stratification to germinate, and even with this pretreatment, germination can be splotchy. Furthermore, young plants of A. asperula, viridis and oenotheroides take several seasons to establish their thick taproots, and can be hard to transplant.

On the bright side, most of the native milkweeds, except for A. incarnata, are drought tolerant and can handle being mowed. Swamp milkweed obviously likes moist soil. All milkweeds grow best in full sun.

Butterfly - Green Milkweed

Asclepias viridis, Green Milkweed

Most gardeners are familiar with tropical milkweed, or Asclepias curassavica. This plant is commonly available in local plant nurseries and attracts butterflies like a magnet! Its bright orange and gold flowers are irresistible to many butterflies, and the high levels of cardenolides in its foliage make it especially sought out by female monarchs looking for a place to lay their eggs. Although it originates in more tropical climes, it is relatively cold hardy and will usually come back from the base of the plant after a freeze. It is also easy to propagate from seed, and in fact will sometimes seed out (make more of itself) in a garden.

So tropical milkweed seems like the ideal plant. However, one issue with this species is that it is not native to our area and does not exhibit the same characteristics of our native milkweeds, all of which die back to the ground in winter. This perennial habit seems advantageous, but it can be a problem for a couple of reasons. Because it has leaves year-round, it may encourage monarchs to overwinter locally instead of migrating to Mexico. It can serve as a host for a disease that affects monarchs, called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or simply O.e. This disease is caused by a protozoan parasite and is spread in the dormant stage of its lifecycle as a tiny spore.

These spores are typically on the abdomen of an infected monarch butterfly and can be spread to her eggs or onto the milkweed plants themselves when a female lays eggs. Then, when the caterpillars hatch out of the eggs, they consume the spores that lie on their empty egg shells or on the leaves around the egg and become infected.

Over a few generations, the parasite load can build up to high enough levels that it impacts the butterfly’s survival. Depending on the severity of the infection, the disease can make the caterpillars look a bit grayish and their stripes not as distinct. When the caterpillars pupate, their chrysalis may look brownish or spotted. The butterfly inside may emerge but have problems, such as an enlarged, gray abdomen and weak, faded wings.

Sometimes they emerge and look healthy, but secretly harbor O.e. spores on their abdomens. Other times they don’t emerge from the chrysalis at all, or get stuck while trying to come out.

So what is my point? I thought we were talking about milkweed plants! ;-) The reason this is important is because O.e. spores persist on the leaves of the tropical milkweed plants, waiting for an unsuspecting caterpillar to munch them up. To break this cycle, we recommend cutting your tropical milkweed plants back after a monarch generation has stripped their leaves, especially in the spring and fall. A simple pruning of the plant’s stems about six inches from the ground will get rid of any remaining spores and will sprout new growth in no time.

Some other closely related plants that monarchs will use as a host are Gomphocarpus physocarpus or “family jewels” milkweed, and a species of Funastrum or twinevine. Gomphocarpus is a lot like A. curassavica in that it doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter so it also needs to be cut back periodically to keep it from spreading O.e.

Butterfly - Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum cynanchoidies flower

Funastrum or twinevine is an interesting climbing plant native to south Texas and Mexico. The plant is not very impressive looking until the summer, when it puts on beautiful balls of milkweed-like flowers that are great nectar sources for many kinds of butterfly. Another good thing about it is that when monarch caterpillars have stripped all your milkweed plants of their leaves and are still hungry, they will eat the leaves of Funastrum.

With their habitat dwindling due to urbanization, the use of Round Up ready crops, shrinking right-of-ways due to intensive agricultural practices and other factors, monarch butterflies need all the help they can get. The take-home message today is PLANT MORE MILKWEED! (please)

For milkweed and other awesome butterfly host and nectar plants, come visit us at our biannual Spring Plant Sale on Saturday, April 5th from 9 a.m. until we sell out! We are located on the 7th level of the Museum parking garage. Parking is free if you spend $30 or more!

Come early, the plants go fast!