A Staple for Butterfly Exhibits: The Rice Paper

One of the most distinctive and easily recognizable insects in the Cockrell Butterfly Center is the rice paper butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as the paper kite and the large tree nymph. All these common names allude to the rice paper’s characteristic slow, graceful, and sometimes floppy flight. These butterflies make great, showy additions to butterfly exhibits and are therefore a widespread staple, found in most live butterfly displays. Rice papers are native to the forested regions of Southeast Asia.

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Rice papers make great additions to butterfly exhibits.

Rice papers are related to the well-known monarch, both belonging to the subfamily Danainae and known to be distasteful to most avian predators by sequestering chemicals in their bodies from their larval food plants. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed to become unpalatable. Similarly, rice paper caterpillars feed on the milkweed relative, Parsonsia, to become distasteful. The monarch’s striking black-on-white and yellow coloring serves as a warning to potential predators. Rice paper larvae have a similar flashy coloration: black and white stripes with red spots.

Contrasting colors on the caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

Contrasting colors on rice paper caterpillars warn predators to stay away.

The rice paper life cycle begins with the female butterflies laying eggs on their host plant, Parsonsia. The eggs are small and cream-colored, usually laid on the underside of leaves. The eggs take about five days to hatch into tiny black-and-white striped caterpillars. The caterpillars first feed on their eggshell before directing their appetite to the Parsonsia leaves. The newly hatched larvae are too small to chew all the way through the thick leaves, so they create a circular trench as they eat the leaf epidermis. As they are eating they will extend their bodies and regurgitate yellowish foam distal to the chewed area. They continue this behavior until they have completely surrounded themselves in a ring of foam. This foam has been found to act as an effective ant repellent; ants will not cross the barrier. As the caterpillar grows, it “molts” five times in stages called instars. First through third instar caterpillars will exhibit this foaming behavior. Fourth and fifth instar caterpillars do not use regurgitated foam to repel ants.

Stages of caterpillar development.

Stages of caterpillar development. The top-right image shows a caterpillar inside its ring of ant-repelling foam.

It takes the caterpillars about two weeks of munching on leaves to reach pupation size. At this point, the caterpillars will find a safe spot to hang and form a “J” shape. They will then molt to reveal chrysalids that take about two days to completely dry. The chrysalids are a beautiful, shiny, metallic gold with black spots and swirls. Approximately 10 days later, the chrysalids pop open to reveal a brand new butterfly. The wet butterfly allows its crumpled wings to unfurl. A couple of hours later, the butterfly uses its newly dry wings to take flight and awe and educate museum visitors. 

Hungry for Summer Recipes? Try some bugs!

Why not put something super nutritious, sustainable, and oh-so-tasty on your grilling skewer this summer? Oh, did I mention it’s a little leggy? We are talking about cooking delicious insects! Since my last blog concerning entomophagy a couple of years ago, this unique eating experience has become quite popular. Many companies are popping up all over the country bringing new ways to introduce insects into your diet!

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Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs by David George Gordon

Insects are the new sushi.

As manager of our delicious edible insect vending machine in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I am constantly searching for new products to add to our inventory. Besides quite a few new companies, there are also several restaurants where finding a grasshopper in your fine cuisine will not result in a health code violation (see the chapulines on Hugo’s dinner menu). You may think it’s crazy, but remember, 50 years ago sushi was considered disgusting to most Americans. Now, there are almost 4,000 sushi restaurants in the US!

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Add some legs to your diet.

When I took over the machine several years ago, we sold mainly novelty products (lollipops, etc.) because that was what was available. Now, we are working with new startup companies to introduce more “everyday use” products. I know, I know, most of you are more likely to stomp on a bug rather than chomp on a bug, but the times, they are a-changing!

One of these companies that makes bug “staples” is Exo. They make protein bars from cricket flour (milled crickets). Their Web site puts it perfectly: “CRICKETS ARE THE NEW KALE. Paleo and environmentally-friendly protein bars.” They are soy, dairy, grain and gluten-free for all of you “clean eaters” out there. I bet you never thought “clean” meant insects, huh?

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Sprinkle some of this Hopper Crunch cricket flour granola on yogurt with some fruit to make a bug parfait.

Another company, Hopper Foods,  based in Austin, Texas, has the mission, “to normalize entomophagy (eating insects) by creating delicious, nutritious and healthy products that people will want to eat every day.” Hopper has brought delicious, crunchy, cricket granola and no, you won’t get a leg stuck in your teeth!

Six Foods has created the next best thing to chips, Chirps (ha! Get it?). Yup, chips made from cricket flour along with “wholesome beans, corn, peas, and chia seeds” (from website). In delicious flavors such as BBQ and Cheddar, where could you go wrong?! Oh, and they have the best slogan: Eat what bugs you. All the taste with 3x the protein and 40% less fat. YES!

Bitty Foods makes cookies with yes, again, cricket flour—are you sensing a trend yet? They are delicious, nutritious, and did I mention delicious? The secret to their recipes? They “start with sustainably raised crickets, which are slow roasted to bring out their nutty, toasted flavor.”

Cricket Flours is not only a great place to get flour for your recipes, but they also specialize in protein powders. Also, if you are looking for a new set of recipes, you should buy their e-book to get some ideas for your next dinner party. Look for their single-serve protein packets in our vending machine this summer!

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Countries that consume insects and arthropods as a food source.

All the cool kids are doing it!

Like everyone is eating insects, like 2 billion people; kind of everyone. That’s not just very many, that’s A LOT! So if you’ve never eaten a bug, get out and try a bite. Heck, you might like ’em!

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Three Bee Salad by David George Gordon

For more bug recipes, check out these resources:

Girl Meets Bug – On this blog, learn how to make Bee-LT Sandwiches, Deep Fried Scorpion, Waxworm Tacos, and more. 

Eat-a-Bug Cookbook – Read here about David George Gordon’s latest edition of his entomophagy cookbook and take away some recipes like Three Bee Salad and Grasshopper Sheesh! Kabobs. Purchase the book on Amazon.

 

Stay cool in the rainforest: summer events unfold at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Summer is here and the kids are out of school, so what better time to escape the heat and join us here at HMNS for some cool and educational arthropod experiences! The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be welcoming back a popular summertime program and introducing a couple of new ones which will be sure to excite the bug lover in everyone! Every week this summer, we will be giving you a chance to get up close and personal with some of our famous residents on three different days. Here’s a little about what we’ll be up to…

Small Talk: Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

Small creatures, big information! Every Tuesday, in the Children’s Area on the main level of the CBC, we will be introducing you to a different resident of the Brown Hall of Entomology. Our entomologists will bring out our biggest and most exotic creatures as well as some familiar (or not-too-familiar) Houston natives. Giant katydids, Atlas moths, and odd arachnids are just some of the creatures you will meet. Each talk will fill your head with all kinds of cool information and facts about our feature creatures. Afterward, we will answer any questions you may have. Up-close viewing and sometimes touching will be permitted, and definitely feel free to bring the camera!

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Wing It!: Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.

At the CBC, you can watch brand-new butterflies emerging from their chrysalises, pumping blood into their newly formed wings, and preparing for their first flight. After this, enter the rainforest filled with lush tropical plants and hundreds of butterflies fluttering through their naturalistic habitat. But, how do they get there? Every Wednesday morning, join our entomologists outside of the Chrysalis Corner in the Brown Hall of Entomology. We will talk about a typical butterfly release and answer questions. Then, you can walk into the rainforest and watch as brand new butterflies take their first flight in their new home. Touching of the delicate butterflies will not be permitted, but please feel free to take as many pictures as you want.

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Friday Feeding Frenzy: 9:30, 10, 10:30, and 11:30 a.m.

The main event! Get ready to see huge, ferocious, carnivorous insects and other animals feast on their prey in front of your very own eyes! This Friday and every Friday throughout the summer, the Cockrell Butterfly Center will be feeding a live animal for your viewing pleasure. We have several arthropods and even some reptiles that we will showcase. Here is a little about the line-up…

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Green Tree Pythons (Morelia viridis): Our green tree pythons, Kaa and Nagini, 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, and when potential prey approaches, they strike from an “S” position, using their tails to anchor themselves to the branch. Once their prey is snagged, it’s lights out!

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Giant Asian Mantis (Hierodula membranacea): This 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. Their amazing camouflage allows them to resemble either living or dead parts of plants, flowers, tree bark, stones, or sticks. Not only does this help conceal them from predators, it also keeps potential prey oblivious to their presence. An insect that wanders too close is snatched by raptorial front legs (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 head, allowing the insect to see all around itself. 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!

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Giant Centipede (Scolopendra heros): Centipedes are predatory, long-bodied arthropods with many pairs of legs – one 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, AKA the giant red-headed centipede, can run very quickly to pursue and catch its prey, which it immobilizes with repeated bites from two venomous fangs. Once dead, the prey is devoured. Giant centipedes of this and 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): This 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. Instead of building a web, 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 liquefy 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): This is the big mama 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 they kick off their abdomens into the air. If these hairs come into contact with your skin, you get really itchy, and you don’t even want to know what happens if they get 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!

So if creepy crawlies are your thing, visit the CBC this summer, and witness the goings-on of our staff and our tiny, fascinating residents.

Ants in your Plants: Mutualism benefits both myrmecophyte and insect

What is an “ant plant”? Because we are striving to portray a “real” tropical rainforest, we have several and plants at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, but what makes them so special? Technically called myrmecophytes (from the Greek myrmeco – “ant”, and phyte – “plant”), these plants have a very special relationship with ants, one that is beneficial to both parties. Such mutually beneficial partnerships are known as symbioses or mutualisms, and they are fascinating to evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and lay people alike. So-called “ant plants” typically provide shelter, and sometimes food as well, for ants, and the ants taking advantage of these resources in turn defend the plant against herbivores or other threatening animals, and sometimes even against competing plants. In some cases the ants may provide their host plant with nutrients.

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Ants take shelter inside the passages within the swollen stem of this  Hyndophytum formicarum.

Examples of ant plants abound, particularly in the tropics. They occur in many different families of plants, and involve many different species of ant. Some plant-ant combinations are specific – i.e., the plant has co-evolved with a specific species of ant. In such cases this ant is usually found nowhere else: it has an obligate mutualism with its plant host.  Often the plant has difficulty surviving on its own as well.

More common are facultative mutualisms, where plants provide a resource (usually food) that a variety of ant species may visit. Simply by virtue of their presence on the plant, these ants discourage (or attack) herbivores or other organisms that might harm the plant.

Hundreds of plants bear extrafloral nectaries. These nectar-secreting glands on structures outside of the flower (usually on leaves or the petioles of leaves) are typically most active on new growth, which most needs defense against hungry herbivores. Ants gather at the nectaries to collect the sugary fluid they exude, and kill or chase off insects that try to eat the leaf.

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Ants taking nutrition from extrafloral nectaries on an Inga leaf.

Less common, but still with plenty of examples especially in tropical areas, are plants that provide shelter for ants. These domatia may be hollow stems, swollen petioles, or other hollow spaces on the plant that ants can use as living space.

A few neotropical shrubs in the large genus Piper (black pepper family) have evolved large, envelope-like petioles that house a species of Pheidole ant. Tiny pearl bodies (lipid-containing food bodies) are produced on the inside surface of these domatia – at least when the ants are present. These tiny ants are not aggressive and would not seem to be very effective defenders of their host; however, they have been observed removing insect eggs and small larvae. The real benefit to the host plant appears to be the extra nitrogen that the plants absorb from waste (feces, dead bodies, and other debris) left by the ants inside the petioles.

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Ants taking shelter within the domatia of a Miconia petiole.

Two shrubs in the coffee family, Hydnophytum and Myrmecodia, have very large and complicated domatia. The stems of these epiphytes from the mangrove forests of tropical Southeast Asia and Australia are lumpy and swollen, and almost look diseased. These bizarre-looking structures are riddled on the inside with hollow chambers, much like a Swiss cheese.  If you cut one of the tubers in half, you will find that some of the chambers have smooth surfaces, while others have darker, rough surfaces. The inhabiting ants use the smooth chambers for living space and the rough chambers for dumping their trash. Biologists have observed that the rough-walled chambers are able to absorb nitrogen and other nutrients from the decomposing wastes deposited in them by the ants, while the smooth-walled chambers are not absorbent. Since it is always a challenge for plants without roots in the ground to get enough nutrients high up in the treetops, this is a great adaptation to enhance these epiphytes’ survival. And, not only do the ants provide the plant with extra nutrition – their presence serves to deter things that might eat it.

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Enlarged and swollen stipules on an ant acacia offer shelter for a colony of Pseudomyrmex, an ant species found nowhere else but this plant.

The ant-plant mutualisms that really capture our imagination are those obligate mutualisms where the plant provides both food and shelter for the ants, and the ants are particularly fierce defenders of their plant host.  One of the most famous ant-plants is the bull-thorn acacia from the dry forests of Central America. Acacia is a very large genus of plants in the legume family, especially abundant in dry tropical areas of the world. All Acacia species are characterized by having their paired stipules (little flaps of tissue at the base of each leaf, found throughout the legume family) modified into spines or thorns. In the Acacia species associated with ants, these thorns have become very large and swollen, resembling a pair of bull’s horns. A specific species of stinging ants in the genus Pseudomyrmex has evolved as an obligate mutualist of these acacias.  Worker ants make a small hole at the tip of one of the horns, hollowing out an interior, and the colony lives inside these chambers. These ants are found nowhere else.

The bull-thorn acacia also provides its ant inhabitants with food. Like many legumes, acacias have extrafloral nectaries. In this case, they take the form of little slits along the main rachis of the compound leaf. Ant-acacias don’t just feed their ants sugar, however; they also produce small, protein-rich food bodies for the ants on the tips of the new leaflets. The ants thus have all their needs for shelter and food provided by their host plant. In return, the ants vigorously defend their home against anything that threatens it – leaf-feeding insects or other animals – swarming out of the thorns and stinging the intruder. Because these ants also bite and sting any plant that touches or grows too close to their home, they reduce competition to their host from other plants as well, and because tropical dry forests often burn, the vegetation-free circles around the ant-acacia may be particularly important as a fire brake.  Evidence for how much bull-thorn acacias rely on their fierce little ant defenders can be discerned by tasting the leaves. While most Acacia species are full of bitter compounds, ant-acacias have little need to maintain these chemical defenses, and no longer produce them. Their leaves are not bitter. But if the ant-acacia should lose its ant colony, it is liable to be hit hard by hungry herbivores.

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A species of Azteca ants takes shelter inside the hollow stems of Cecropia plants like this one.

The famous British naturalist Thomas Belt first described this amazing symbiosis, which he observed during his sojourn in Nicaragua in the mid 1800s. Today the food bodies borne at the tips of the new leaflets are called “Beltian bodies” in his honor.

A similar scenario, also from from the Neotropics, is seen in the relationship between several species of Cecropia (a fast-growing, early successional tree) and a species of Azteca ants. Cecropia has hollow stems – with special thin skinned “dimples” in the stem opposite each leaf.  A queen Azteca who finds a young Cecropia not yet colonized bores her way through this thin spot (called a prostoma).  The eggs she lays inside the stem hatch into worker ants, who tunnel through the membranes that divide the stem at each node, and open up more of the prostomata, giving them access to the outside. As the tree grows, the colony moves upwards, eventually making the whole tree a long, hollow shelter for the colony. Cecropia trees also provide food bodies for the ants; these “Mullerian bodies” (named for another 18th century European biologist, Fritz Muller) are produced on special spongy structures at the base of each leaf petiole. The occupying ants also bring small homopterans (aphid relatives) inside the stems of the Cecropia, where they feed on the plant’s sap in a protected environment.  The ants milk these small insects for their sugary exudate (called honeydew) just like farmers milk cows. Azteca ants do not sting, but they can bite, and the workers swarm out in huge numbers to attack any animal that touches their plant.

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Cutting into a hollow stem shows just how extensive the ant colony runs inside this plant.

A relationship very similar to the New World Cecropia-Azteca mutualism is found in the Old World tree Macaranga, also an early successional species, but in the spurge family, a completely different plant family from Cecropia. The ants inhabiting these plants are members of the ant genus Crematogaster (unrelated to Azteca). This is a great example of what is called convergence in evolutionary terms, whereby similar situations in different locations give rise to the same adaptive solutions among unrelated organisms.

Ants are amazing little creatures, and their complicated social behaviors, which often seem to mimic ours, make them particularly good partners for plants in the fight for survival.

Look for the bull-thorn Acacia (sans ants, unfortunately) next time you visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We recently received a specimen of Hydnophytum and of Mymecodia from a generous donor. These will eventually be placed in the rainforest. Our Cecropia tree, alas, got too big and died a few years ago. We hope one day to replace it!