Pinchers, stingers and claws, oh my.

Scorpion in Question
Creative Commons License photo credit: furryscaly

“How do you count scorpions?” Well, carefully is the best answer. The same can be said for any animals with either pinchers, claws, or really sharp teeth. That pretty much covers the majority of our animal collection here (except for the amphibians).

The next question that pops to mind is: why would you count scorpions? Like many institutions that maintain animal collections, an inventory is essential and often required by law. Check out this article from the Seattle Times on the London Zoo, when they were taking inventory of their collection.

While our collection is much smaller, we still have to keep proper notes and update our inventory list. It just seems a bit tedious when you are trying to count roaches. Prolific, fast-moving roaches. See how many you count in the picture below and then imagine what happens when you scare them.


Roaches! by gifninja

Aerial shots of our Roach Dome – a simulated
home environment exhibit in the Butterfly Center,
where we house numerous cockroaches for display.

A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.

Eeeeeeeeeeewww, Roaches!!!!

In my line of work, I’ve come to know insects pretty well. I recognize the importance of each and every kind of insect and I love to teach the public about them. Insects help us infinitely more than they could ever harm us! The one poor soul that gets the most grief is a wonderful little organism known simply as the cockroach. Men squirm, women scream, and even some children turn up their nose at the mere thought of a cockroach! I spend a lot of my time here campaigning for these little guys and I’m here to clear up some misconceptions, and hopefully change some perceptions about these awesome insects!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

Let’s start with the basics; cockroaches are insects with 6 legs, 3 body parts, 1 pair of antennae, and sometimes, 2 pairs of wings. They belong to the order Blattodea. These insects are most closely related to termites and praying mantids which have been known as “specialized cockroaches.”

Did you know that there are about 4000 different species of cockroach worldwide? We’re used to seeing the brown ones, but they can be green, white, or even dark blue. Some can even have elaborate patterns with colors like red and orange. They live in almost every climate; however, they are mostly concentrated in tropical climates. Most roaches live in forests, making homes of trees, rotten logs and leaf litter. They spend their lives as scavengers and decomposers. They rid the world of decaying organic matter and replace it with nutrients that feed the soil and plants. They are one of our most important decomposers, and our existence depends on them! Sometimes, however, they can get a little too close to home.

Bush Cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Cyron a beautiful bush cockroach!

Out of the 4,000 different species of cockroach, about 4 or 5 have decided to invade our homes from time to time. Can you blame them? Natural habitat is declining faster than ever and we offer them great accomodations, complete with a free all-you-can-eat buffet! That huge, gigantic thing scurrying accross your floor is called the American Cockroach – and it’s probably the biggest bug in Texas. It’s commonly referred to as a water bug, palmetto bug, or tree roach, but the only scientifically correct name it has is Periplaneta americana.  They prefer to hang out in dark, warm, moist environments and that’s why you will usually only see them at night while they forage for food.

If you keep your house clean, well organized, and in good repair, you may see one of these roaches in your house from time to time. Do not panic, it probably wandered in from outside and it’s very unlikely that you have a heavy infestation. Now, if you keep your house dirty, cluttered, and falling apart, well, you are welcoming every roach in a mile radius.

Another familiar species of cockroach is the German Cockroach Blatella germanica. These roaches are very small, light brown, and have 2 longitudinal stripes just below the head. Unlike the American cockroach, German cockroaches are highly adapted to living only in human dwellings, completely dependent on the filth humans leave behind. So, if you see one of these roaches in your house, it is very possible that you do have a very serious infestation. Here are some common myths about roaches and the real truth behind them.

Roaches are dirty.

False! Roaches are obsessive compulsive about cleanliness! They spend most of their time resting, and the rest of their time cleaning themselves, much like a cat. Roaches are actually some of the cleanest animals around.

Roaches spread disease

Trufalse. This is a little less clear cut. Roaches themselves do not have diseases, but can transmit germs with their hairy legs and sticky feet. For example, if you leave residue from raw meat on your counter, it is possible a cockroach may walk through it and track it around, but if your counter is clean and disinfected, that roach will stay clean! There have actually been studies where a cockroach and a human finger touched the same dirty kitchen floor. They were each swabbed and the swab was smeared into a petri dish to be cultured. at the end of the study, the human finger produced several times the amount of bacteria the cockroach did.

Roaches can hurt you

False! Roaches are equipped with no more than a set of jaws for chewing. They are capable of biting, which would not hurt at all – but that’s really not their style; they’re more into running away. They have no stinging appendages or anything like that. They are harmless.

Roaches can live for two weeks with no head.

Ok, this one is actually true. The reason for this is that a roach has several brains throughout its body, not just one in its head. They are really just ganglia or bunches of nerve cells. The one in the cockroach’s head only controls its antennae and mouthparts. Remove the head, and it will still be able to control its legs which are equipped with millions of sensory receptors, allowing it to find its way quite well. Eventually, though, the insect will be overcome by dehydration and die.

I saw an albino cockroach!

False! It’s likely that the cockroach you saw is one that has just shed its skin. A freshly molted cockroach is white with black eyes, and very soft and vulnerable. After a few hours, its new skin will start to harden and grow darker, until it is the original color.

Cockroaches can give my child asthma

True. Unfortunately, a heavy infestation of cockroaches can cause asthma in allergen-sensitive individuals, especially children. If you have hundreds of cockroaches in your walls, the feces will build up and become airborne. This is all the more reason to keep your house clean!

Well, there you have it folks, the skinny on cockroaches. I hope that some of you may look at cockroaches in a new light and next time you see one – give it break! It’s not their fault they have a bad rap. If you still feel nauseous thinking of them, just make sure your house is sparkling clean. If we clean up after ourselves, the roaches don’t have to do it for us. Skip the poison, it’s bad for the environment and kills all of those wonderful bugs everyone loves to see. Until next time, happy bug watching!