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.

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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.

Behind-the-Scenes: Insect Photo Safari

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
The forrest floor, kind of!

I realize that sometimes I tend to be long-winded, especially when it comes to my favorite subject: bugs! I could go on all day about behavior, life cycles, morphology, etc… but most of the time, there are no words to describe the things that we get to see here! I’ve decided, for this blog, to give my keyboard a break and show you guys some of my favorite photos from behind the scenes. So, for those of you that are more visually stimulated, here is a small glimpse of some of the beautiful, colorful, expressive, and amazing faces that we get to see everyday, enjoy!

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     Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Sitting pretty on a roll of tape

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A captive audience
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yes??
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face-to-face with fangs
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acrobatic grasshopper
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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
 So fuzzy and cute
like a teddy bear, with a stinger!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
containment room stand-off
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making an egg case
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You’re not supposed to see me!

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My favorite!

Well, there you have it! I would love to hear back about which picture is your favorite! If you’ve enjoyed looking at these photos, you should check out the HMNS Flickr page! We would love for you to add your own memories from the halls or exhibits of HMNS. Just go to http://flickr.com/groups/hmns/, join the group, and start adding your photos to the pool – we pick one a month to feature here, as well.

Also, should you ever find an unknown insect take a photo of it and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org to have it possibly featured here on the blog.

Want to learn more about insects?
Watch a Giant Asian Mantis eat a cricket.
Learn how to keep a Katydid.
Do you know the differences between centipedes and millipedes?

Katydid!…Did she?

Olive – a Giant Long-Legged Katydid from Malaysia – was with us for only a few days, however, she left us with a precious gift; her eggs! Now, will those eggs hatch? We’re keeping our fingers crossed over here that we’ll soon be seeing some cute little katydid babies! This insect has quickly become my favorite among our exotic insects here at the Butterfly Center since it’s arrival just a couple of years ago. 

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Bob and Me

Our first was Bob – he arrived in January of 2006. We had never ordered anything like him before, so I was excited to see what he would look like. Well, it was a probably the biggest bug I had ever seen! At first I was hesitant to try to touch him, but I held my hand out and he just climbed right up there, waving his extremely long antennae all around! I was shocked that an insect of his size (roughly 6 inches in length) would have such a friendly demeanor.

I started to handle him more and more, and eventually we included him in our Bugs on Wheels program. The kids absolutely flipped out when they saw him and were so excited to touch him! I was lucky enough to find him a mate, Momma, who produced 103 eggs! Raising these impressive insects was a very interesting experience.  Out of 103 eggs, 99 hatched, which was amazing! The nymphs (immature individuals) were very fragile and faced many challenges with molting (shedding of the exoskeleton). Out of 99 babies, 13 katydids made it to adulthood. Considering the factors affecting their growth, I felt pretty awesome about that. They were featured in the Frogs: A Chorus of Colors exhibit and 3 of them are still with me! They are officially retired old fogeys, but still alive. They are going on 2 years, which is remarkable for an insect!

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Katydid Eggs

Since all we had was a few retirees sitting around, we needed some young ones for Bugs On Wheels and display in the Insect Zoo. That’s when we got Olive. She arrived along with 3 males: Milo, Otis, and Steve, but died 3 days after her arrival. So, it was a wonderful surprise when I discovered 33 eggs a couple of weeks ago! I am taking care of them and hoping that they will hatch soon, keep your fingers crossed. We want to always have this amazing animal around to share with people!

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Katydid!

Now if, you’re wondering…What is a katydid? Katydids, also known as long-horned grasshopper or bush crickets,  belong to the order Orthoptera which also includes grasshoppers and crickets. These insects are all characterized by long muscular hind legs, 2 pairs of wings, and the ability to produce noise. 

Katydids look much like a grasshopper, but are more closely related to crickets because of the way they make all that noise. Katydids and crickets rub one wing against the other while grasshoppers rub one leg against one wing. All katydid are mimics, most have leathery green forewings to help them resemble green leaves, but some mimic dangerous arthropods such as spiders or ants.

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Notice the long antennae

Katydids are sometime called Long-horned grasshoppers because of their long antennae, which can be twice the length of their body. These long antennae help the katydid at night by acting as touch receptors, allowing them to feel, as well as smell, the environment around them.

They are nocturnal animals, remaining motionless during the day to avoid their predators. They’re very often attracted to lights at night, so you may have seen one on your front porch.

These insects have what is called simple metamorphosis which is different from that of a butterfly. The baby insect hatches and looks just like the adult, only tiny. This baby is called a nymph, instead of a larva. After several molts, the insect reaches it’s full size and if wings are present, they will be fully developed. The female lays eggs, one at a time, in several different substrates, including soil, plants stems, or tree bark. They are usually cleverly disguised as seeds to throw off potential predators. 

Katydid on a rose

Creative Commons License photo credit: wolfpix
 A common Texas Katydid

There are over 6,000 described species of katydid that live all over the world, with half of them live in the Amazon rainforest. Katydids are very common in Texas and are usually a couple of inches long. Our Malaysian Katydids are arguably the largest Orthopteran species in the world!

It is such an amazing insect, you should come and see Otis sometime on display in the Entomology Hall. Milo is the one we have now for Bugs on Wheels. He, like the others, is so wonderfully calm as hundreds of children pet him several times a week. This is truly a spectacular creature!

So, if you find some time, say a little prayer for Olive’s eggs!