Babes and Chicks: Museum Style

While I was out having a “babe” of my own, look what the Education department had…

A chick!

Now, the collective “awww”…

This little chick is an end result of a Dissection Lab called “The Yolk’s On You.” Yes, dissection, but the class was about eggs – not chicks. In addition to dissecting both hard boiled and raw chicken eggs (unfertilized), students were able to observe fertilized chicken eggs in an incubator. One of the demonstrations the teacher did was to place raw eggs in vinegar a few days before class. If you haven’t tried this at home, you ought to, it’s really neat.

It is even more interesting to take an egg once soaked in vinegar and place it in corn syrup. I won’t tell you what happens, since hands-on science is way more fun! From an educational standpoint, it is a good activity to illustrate diffusion and osmosis.

Of course, I wouldn’t recommend eating any of the eggs soaked in vinegar or corn syrup, but if you dissect the hard boiled kind with a kitchen knife, you can always make sandwiches! Bon appetit!

Where Have All the Bugs Gone?

It’s that time of year again. The days have gotten shorter and the temperature is slowly dropping. You may have been too busy to notice, but sometime between the shopping and cooking you probably have thought to yourself: I haven’t had to swat away any mosquitoes, or I haven’t been dive-bombed by clumsy June bugs. Where have all the bugs gone? Did they die? Are they hibernating? Well, the answer isn’t quite that simple. Over the last millions of years, insects have learned to employ all sorts of strategies to ride out the winter. While we are putting on thick socks and sweaters, the bugs are right there with us. They are everywhere, right under our noses, literally!

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

If you’re an insect, you basically have two choices; you can stay or you can leave. An overwhelming amount of insects choose to stay put and deal with the frigid temperatures. One of the best ways to deal with the cold is to suspend your growth and remain as an egg, larva (or nymph), or a pupa. The adults of these insects do die off in the winter, but they are very busy until then. In the late summer and early spring, praying mantidsall around are laying their egg cases in preparation for the winter. They will lay hundreds of eggs, glued together, attached to a stick or leaf, and cover them with a thick layer of foam. After constructing her last egg case, the mother of many will pass away. Through the winter, the egg case will remain safe until it feels the warmth of spring. Then hundreds of tiny mantids will hatch and start the life-cycle over again.

If you are like the June bug, you will spend the winter as a fat grub, lazily feeding on roots all winter deep underground, where it is much warmer. When spring arrives, they form a pupa and emerge as adults in early summer, giving rise to the name June bug. Similarly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs will remain under the water’s surface where temperatures stay warm enough to sustain them. This is often under a thick layer of ice! There are plenty of mosquito larvae down there to feed them through the long months. Right now in Texas, swallowtail butterflies are forming a chrysalis. The life stage that usually lasts about 2 weeks, will last for 3 months or more. Many of our visitors have a hard time thinking of a chrysalis as a living thing. It doesn’t resemble anything alive at all. When they see them wiggle in response to touch, they are always amazed. The thing that they don’t realize is that aside from not being able to see, they know exactly what’s going on. They can feel the days getting shorter, and the temperature dropping. They won’t make a move to emerge until spring comes!

If an insect is stuck as an adult, the most vulnerable life stage, it gets a little trickier! As long as they can keep their body temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they will make it. In Texas, this is not a problem, but in the north, they sometimes have to use drastic measures. These insects often find shelter in hollowed out trees, in leaf litter, and under rocks or dead logs.

If this cannot keep the freezing temperatures away they can do something pretty interesting. They can lower the water content in their bodies and replace it with a substance called glycerol. This chemical has several practical uses, but most importantly it lowers the freezing point in their bodies, acting as antifreeze! This is what can make an insect that appears frozen and dead to magically come back to life when thawed. That’s pretty impressive! This, along with going into a hibernation-like state called diapause keeps them alive. One insect that uses this method is the mourning cloak butterfly. This beautiful butterfly is the first to come out of hiding and appear in the spring.

Now if you’re a social insect, you pretty much have it made. Honeybees can store several pounds of honey for food. They don’t even need to leave the hive which is kept warm by the body heat of all the bees. Ant colonies spend all year building up a food supply and stay very deep below the ground. Even some insects that are not social will seek out others to pile on top of for warmth, like ladybugs.

bugs 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jef Poskanzer

Butterfly in HDR
Creative Commons License photo credit: chefranden

There are some insects that have opted to take a yearly vacation to sunny Mexico, which would definitely be my choice! The monarch, perhaps the most well known insect in North America makes this amazing journey every year. It’s a mind boggling to think that millions of butterflies fly up to 3000 miles to a few sites that they have never been to or seen before, how do they know how to get there? It is a mystery that keeps us all enchanted by the amazing insect. If you’d like to learn more about the monarch butterfly and their journey, visit the monarch watch website.

Since we live in an area with very mild winters, there are some bugs that we still see all year, including a lot of butterflies. There are a few local monarchs that don’t feel the need to migrate south. Every year we get several calls from people who have spotted a monarch and want to know what will happen to it or if they should help it. The answer we give them is to just let it be, the temperature will probably not drop low enough to kill it and if it does freeze, the butterfly will find shelter. They know how to deal with the cold! So you may enjoy this little break from the bugs buzzing all around us. As for myself, I can’t wait until the spring when all of the bugs are back, happily doing their jobs to keep the world turning! Plus I hate cold weather!

Go buggy! Learn more about insects:
The Sphinx Moth: It’s a Work of Art
Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt: learn how to pin a butterfly
Do butterflies breed? Your butterfly questions answered

Big BEETLE Bonanza!

Last week I was wondering around the containment room looking for something to do. It’s not like I had nothing to do, but I was just looking for something different that day. I decided to tackle the 24 containers full of dirt and grubs. About a year ago right after we opened Erin got an exciting phone call. A guy had LIVE beetle grubs in a wood/compost pile in his back yard and he didn’t know what to do with them, so he decided to call us. We jumped on this one and told him to bring them our way. Phone calls like that are normal around here, but they are extra special when it involves a large live insect that we get to keep. He brought the grubs in a large trashbag with lots of dirt and wood. It was like opening up a huge Christmas present with lots of little presents inside. We found 24 grubs. We weren’t sure what type of beetle they were, but we knew they could either be the Ox Beetle or the Eastern Hercules Beetle.

Erin and I were fortunate enought to raise a few Dynastes hercules grubs a few years back, but it was only a few, not 24. We decided to give each grub an individual container. We kept the dirt they came in and mixed in some potting soil, ecoearth, and lots of rotten wood. After that we sat back and waited. About once a month we would make sure they were all still alive and add new dirt and wood if needed. We would also check the moisture in the containers every now and then and added water as needed.

So . . . last week I thought I would add all new dirt and wood to all the grub containers. Erin and I had collected some rotten wood the week before just for that purpose. I was a little nervous to dump out all the dirt from each container because there was a possibility one of the grubs had pupated. Beetles have complete metamorphosis in which they have an egg, larva, pupae, and adult stage. The grubs enclose themselves in a cell of dirt and saliva before they go into the pupae stage and the last thing I wanted to do was bust open that enclosure.

This is what happened . . . I got the first container with great anticipation. I read that it takes about 12 months for the grub to grow, pupae, and become an adult. Maybe, just maybe we would have adults. I slowly and carefully dumped out the dirt and to my surprise there was NOTHING. I was very puzzled but Erin soon informed me that she had found a wandering escapee and put it into another large dirt bucket we had. So, I moved onto the second containter and found a grub. I added all new dirt and fresh rotten wood and went to the next one. I think I found 4 grubs and then my luck changed. I dumped out all the dirt and discovered an ADULT! I’m pretty sure Erin thought I was crazy because I screamed and was so estatic. We had a female ox beetle, Strategus aloeus. We really wanted the eastern hercules beetle, Dynastes tityus, but this was still cool. I found a total of 8 adult females but no males. Fortunately, we have a male that we collected last summer, so maybe we will get babies. On the last container that I opened I busted open a pupal cell and found a wiggly pupae. I decided to just leave it in the containter on top of the dirt. I kept checking on it last week and yesterday I found that a female had emerged from it. It always makes us feel like such good parents when we successfully raise baby bugs. All the beetles are on display in the insect zoo so you should definitely come and check them out.

One more quick story that happened last night after I wrote this blog. My husband, Nick, called me outside because he thought our dog had caught a snake or something and he wasn’t about to investigate it himself. I crept out into the grass and saw something moving. After I got a flashlight I discovered that is was in fact an Ox beetle, just what I had written about that day. Fortunately, it was still alive so I released it into my front yard away from my dogs. It must be the time of year for Ox beetles so keep an eye out in your yard for these amazing creatures.

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