Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Oct. 8!

This time of year, gardening can make you feel as hot as Priscilla Queen of the Desert

With water restrictions and heat advisories, who wants to get into that mess? The drought and high temperatures have also caused butterflies to suffer, leaving their numbers well below normal for the season. In addition to the gardens we plant to supplement their diet, butterflies rely on native plants throughout their lifecycle. The lack of rain has caused the wildflowers either to have a very short blooming period, or not bloom at all. That means a decrease in nectar for butterflies. Native host plants as well are suffering in the dry heat, leaving caterpillars short of food as well. Triple digit temperatures cause female butterflies to not lay eggs and in general cause the overall populations to languish.

But, there is good news.

Soon the triple digits should be a thing of the past and we can all get outside and start tending our gardens again instead of watching through the window as they shrivel. The butterflies will be back as well and we need to be ready for them.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
Cockrell Butterfly Center Fall Plant Sale Saturday, October 8

If your garden needs perking up, head over to the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 8th, from 9 to 11am, on the 7th level of the parking garage at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. We will have a wide variety of host and nectar plants to attract butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to your garden.

HMNS Fall Plant Sale
The Cockrell Butterfly Center is the perfect place to see gorgeous,exotic butterflies – but you can help
preserve these fragile wonders by creating a butterfly habitat for local species
in your own backyard.

Check out the list of available plants for more information.

Here are some tips for attending the plant sale:

1. Get there early. This year our sale is only from 9 to 11 am.
2. Bring a wagon to cart around your goodies.
3. We take cash, check and credit cards.

Photo From You: Insect Identification

Egyptian star cluster / Pentas lanceolata / 草山丹花(クササンタンカ)
Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

If you’re an avid, or even amateur butterfly gardener, you are probably familiar with pentas.

Pentas, also known as star clusters, are one of our favorite nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. They have medium-dark green foliage with clusters of small 5-petal flowers that come in a variety of colors. I love them because they are very heat and drought tolerant! I try not to forget about watering my poor plants, but with 3 dogs, 2 turtles and a husband all needing my attention, they sometimes go by the wayside.

I was very surprised and pleased when, despite my neglect, my pentas grew tall and flowered often, providing yummy nectar for all of my butterfly, bee and fly visitors! If you’re familiar with this versatile plant, you may have seen our mystery bug for the month.


Picture from
Crosby, Texas

This picture (immediate right) was taken in Crosby, Texas. I immediately recognized it as a Tersa Sphinx caterpillar. Naturally, we have a lot of pentas here at the Butterfly Center and we have run into this caterpillar more than once!

I can tell it’s a sphinx moth caterpillar, also known as a hornworm, by the pointed protuberance  on its last segment. It stands out from other hornworms because it has a pair of eyespots on each abdominal segment, including one very large pair of eye spots on it’s first abdominal segment, similar to those on a spicebush swallowtail.

shade
Creative Commons License photo credit: lecates
The greenform,
showing eye-spots and horn

When the caterpillar feels threatened, it can retract it’s thorax into it’s abdomen, putting those eyespots in the face of a would-be predator in hopes to intimidate them.  They can be green, brown, or gray. After happily snacking on the leaves of pentas, firebush, buttonplant, or other similar woody plants, these caterpillars pupate close to the surface of the soil.

Adult moths fly starting at sunset and can often be mistaken for hummingbirds due to their large size and flight capabilities. Hawkmoths can hover next to flowers just like hummingbirds! These moths can be found all along the Gulf Coast and throughout most of the Eastern US. They reach far down through Mexico and into South America. They are not considered to be major pests and when we’ve found caterpillars there really hasn’t been major damage to our plants. They are just another cute caterpillar to observe and they’re very safe to touch and handle!

If you’re stumped by a creature in your garden, feel free to send in a photo. Or better yet, bring it in for us to see! We’re always happy to help with identification!

We have heard from a few folks that are over-run with caterpillars, grasshoppers, or other creepy crawlies. If this is happening to you, don’t kill them, donate them! We can sometimes use them for educational programs or display purposes! If you are interested in any of this, please send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

I Heart Pollinators!

Magical Farfalla
Creative Commons License photo credit: WTL photos

For those of you who didn’t know (guilty!) last week, June 22-28th was officially pollinator week! I will need to mark my calendar in the future because pollinators are animals that we would have a tough time getting along without.

The best known are, of course, bees and butterflies – but hummingbirds, moths, bats, beetles, flies, wasps, and many many more are all pollinators. We owe so much to these animals and they deserve no less than a whole week of celebration! They are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we take and, if you’re like me,  none of those are from foods you would like to even imagine living without. If not for pollinators, I would not have been able to make such a fabulous vegetable lasagna last night!

Not only that, but animal pollinators are responsible for the reproduction of 80 percent of all flowering plants that contribute so much to our general happiness and state of mind. Can you imagine a world with few or no flowers? Well, we certainly could not exist in it – these plants are essential to maintaining a healthy and well-balanced ecosystem as well.

Hover
Creative Commons License photo credit: aussiegall

Important native pollinators are always in danger of losing habitat and crucial food sources. So, if you would like to help, grab your shovel and gardening gloves – don’t forget the sunscreen! – and get outside. We can all help by doing the easiest things in our own backyards! Here are some quick and easy tips from the National Wildlife Federation. Just click on the blue text for more details!

- Always think native. Exotic plants may look nice, but they don’t belong here and they do more harm than good. Native plants are meant to survive in our environment so they require much less maintenance and will make things cheaper and easier. Check them out – just as I am sometimes surprised at which insects are native to Houston, you may be surprised to see the variety of plants that are native to our semi-tropical environment.

Anna's Hummingbird in Flight
Creative Commons License photo credit: Noël Zia Lee

 – Hang a hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds are absolutely gorgeous and fun to watch. Feeders are super simple to make and will attract these important pollinators to your garden.

- Build a bee house. Honeybees are not the only ones that pollinate. Houston is home to dozens of bee species, many of which are solitary and non-aggressive. If you provide shelter for them, they’ll want to hang out in your garden.

- Plant a butterfly garden! We are always promoting butterfly gardening, especially during our spring and fall plants sales. It is easy and fun, and if you use the right kinds of plants, the butterflies will come to you! The bonus is that all kinds of beneficial insects enjoy butterfly gardening plants. If you love insects, your garden will love you and you will be rewarded! Be sure to stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center and pick up one of our butterfly gardening brochures. It is full of all the information you need to get started.

-Finally, certify your yard with the National Wildlife Federation. You may already meet all of the requirements. If you follow the simple steps above, you will get there faster than you realize. The National Wildlife Federation is a wonderful organization dedicated to preserving native plants and animals. Anything you can do to help, big or small, is fantastic!

hummingbird
Creative Commons License photo credit: Monica R.

Luckily, my home is a wildlife sanctuary with many plants that are attractive to pollinators and my yard is constantly buzzing with activity! My very favorite of these is Hamelia patens, also known as flame bush, fire bush, hummingbird bush, butterfly bush, you name it! It attracts a lot of attention! The fiery red tubular flowers are a wonderful addition to my colorful garden.

I hope you will find these resources helpful, but if you’d like to speak to someone in person, feel free to contact the Cockrell Butterfly Center – or just leave a comment below. Our knowledgeable and friendly staff members are always happy to help however we can! Until next time, happy nature watching!

Hummingbirds of the Night

A few nights ago I saw what I thought was a hummingbird – out way past its bedtime – whirring around the fragrant, long-tubed blooms of the Rangoon creeper in my back yard.  As I watched, several more of these curfew-breakers appeared, working the flowers all up and down the fence.  I soon realized that these were not in fact hummingbirds, but were their nocturnal analogs:  hawk moths or sphinx moths.

Pandorus Sphinx Moth
Creative Commons License photo credit: August Norman
 Pandorus sphinx

Talk about convergence!  If they hadn’t been flying at night – and there are some day-flying sphinx moths, by the way – I would have been hard put to tell they weren’t ruby-throated hummers (the most common hummingbird species in our area).  The sphinx moth in question (probably the five-spotted hawkmoth, Manduca quinquemaculata) is about the same size and shape as a ruby-throat, with a bullet-shaped, streamlined body, and has exactly the same behavior.  The powerful wings of both hummers and sphinx moths beat so swiftly (up to 50 or so beats per second) that they are just a blur in flight.  Both can hover up, down, back and forth, helicopter-like.  Instead of a hummingbird’s long bill, sphinx moths have a long tongue or proboscis, kept rolled up when not in use and extended when reaching for nectar at the base of a long-tubed flower. 

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Rangoon creeper - flowers are first white, turning red the next morning

Both hummers and sphinx moths are important pollinators, and certain plants have evolved flowers that are specifically “designed” to attract these powerful fliers with their long beaks or tongues.  Such flowers typically have abundant nectar at the base of elongated floral tubes (the bottom part of the petals grows together to form a hollow tube).  But while hummingbird flowers are usually brightly colored (especially red) and often do not have any scent (since hummingbirds can’t smell), moth-pollinated flowers are typically white or pale-colored, and often emit a strong, sweet scent as the sun goes down.   

The family of sphinx moths, the Sphingidae, is a large one, with about 1200 species world-wide (most are tropical).  There are about 60 species of sphinx moths in North America, several of which occur locally.  Some of the most common species in our area are the Five-spotted sphinx, the Carolina sphinx, the Rustic sphinx, the Pink-spotted hawkmoth, White-lined sphinx, Tersa sphinx, Vine sphinx, and Pandorus sphinx

Another spectacular species, which occasionally ranges up from the tropics into our area, is the Giant sphinx.  This very large moth (over six inches across) is notable as the pollinator of the rare ghost orchid of Florida’s swamps, Dendrophylax lindenii.  Made famous in the book “The Orchid Thief” on which the movie “Adaptation” was based, this orchid has an extremely long, thin floral tube and depends on the giant sphinx moth to transfer pollen from one bloom to another in order to reproduce.  Take a look at the specimen of the giant sphinx from our collection.  Uncoiled, its tongue is almost nine inches long, almost twice as long as its body! 

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

Giant sphinx moth with proboscis extended

This moth is the New World equivalent of the renowned “Darwin’s moth.”  As the story goes, when in Madagascar, Charles Darwin saw the orchid Angraecum sesquipidale (rather similar to the ghost orchid).  He postulated that there must be a moth with a tongue of equal length to the orchid’s 11 inch nectar spur that would serve as its pollinator.  Sure enough, 41 years later (long after Darwin’s death), such a moth was discovered and its common name acknowledges his prescience.

tomato hornworm
Creative Commons License  photo credit: naturegirl 78
Tomato hornworm
(Manduca quinquemaculata)

Sphinx moth caterpillars are called “hornworms” because most of them have a distinctive horn that sticks up at the end of their abdomen.  If you are a gardener you may have encountered large, green hornworms devouring the foliage of your tomato plants; these turn into the five-spotted hawkmoth I saw visiting my Rangoon creeper.  Another hornworm frequently seen in the garden (if you grow pentas or star-flower) is the caterpillar of the Tersa sphinx, Xylophanes tersa.  This caterpillar turns from green to brown as it grows, and has a pair of dramatic eyespots on its thorax.  People sometimes confuse it with the caterpillar of the spicebush swallowtail. While hornworms can eat a lot of foliage, I confess that in my garden they are welcome to it – I like the adult moths too much to consider destroying their destructive “baby” stage…  Besides, I think the caterpillars themselves are rather handsome! 

If you find a hornworm and want to rear it, be sure to provide it with a couple of inches of loose soil when it gets large enough to pupate.  Most sphinx moths pupate in the soil, and do not spin cocoons around the brown pupa.  Some sphinx pupae have the tongue pulled away from the body, resembling the handle on a pitcher or Greek vase!  Don’t disturb the caterpillar/pupa for several days after it burrows down or you may disrupt the pupation process. 

Whether or not you get into the caterpillars, it is always a thrill to see an adult sphinx moth in action.  To attract these nocturnal hummingbirds to your garden, consider planting some of the following.  As an added benefit, you’ll enjoy the wonderful fragrance on evenings when these plants are in flower.

Mirabilis
Creative Commons License  photo credit: sigusr0
Four O’clock (note long tube)

Angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia candida)

Jimsonweed or Datura (Daturaspp.)

Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)

Rangoon creeper (Quisqualis indica)

Moon flower (Ipomea alba)

Four O’clocks (Mirabilis spp.)

Evening primrose (Oenothera spp.)

Petunias (Petunia spp.)