Photo From You:Insect Identification

Photo submitted by Alex

Last week we got an interesting photo from a man named Alex in Guanajuato, Mexico. At first glance it looks like a stem with green thorns and some really weird, spiky, alien-looking bugs. The “green thorns” are actually insects that often get dismissed as, well, green thorns! These little guys are called treehoppers and they are everywhere, constantly being overlooked because of their excellent camouflage. They belong to the order Homoptera, which is notorious for containing almost all of the worst plant pests, including everyone’s favorite, the aphid! This order also includes interesting, non-pest insects like the cicada and the masters of disguise, treehoppers and leafhoppers. Most entomologists today lump the order Homoptera with Hemiptera, or true bugs such as stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs, and assassin bugs. I, however, think they’re different enough to have their own group.

So, as I said, most treehoppers are not considered pests except for a small handful, including this little guy, the Keeled Treehopper (Antiathe expansa). They are known to attack plants in the family Solanaceae – especially tomatoes, eggplants and chile peppers. Alex found these guys all over his chile plant! In large enough numbers, they can seriously injure and even kill these plants. The problem is that, unlike more efficient insects like butterflies, beetles and flies, the young nymphs and adults eat the exact same thing. They use a sharp beak to penetrate the tissues of plants and suck the sap. All homopterans feed this way and that’s why so many of them cause damage to plants. All of this sap eating causes these insects to excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew which ants go crazy for! The ants will “milk” the honeydew from the homopteran and in return for the yummy snack, protect them from other predators. For example, ants who farm aphids for honeydew will keep the hungry ladybugs at bay to protect their precious nectar. For this reason, ants are very often associated with homopterans.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Dvorak319
treehopper being farmed by ants

So, what are the little spiky, weird orange guys? You guessed it, the nymphs! Very often, treehopper nymphs will look very different from the adults, but as time goes by, with every molt, they will lose their spines and start to resemble the green thorn-like adults. Treehoppers come in a wide array of fascinating and even downright bizarre shapes and appearances. Those found in the tropics are a bit larger and sport vibrant colors and odd protuberances unlike any other insects. Next time you are out and about, look a little more closely, and you’re sure to spot them!

Remember, if you find an odd looking bug and would like to know what it is, snap a picture and send it to us at blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!

Because One Roach Post Just Isn’t Enough

texas sized cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit: sirtrentalot

In my previous post about roaches, I let you know that roaches are helpful to man even if you don’t want to snuggle with them. Now I would like to give you a few fun facts to let you know why they are kinda awesome. In no particular order:

  • Roaches are 340 million years old. That means that they were around even before the dinosaurs.
  • Roaches have amazing little bodies.  The antennae of a cockroach have more than 130 segments each and act as sensory organs for measuring temperature, motion and scent.  Each of their eyes has more than 2,000 compound lenses in addition to a simple eye spot.  Their ears are located in their knee joints.  Their blood is pigment-less and they have no veins or arteries.  Their blood simply flows through their body cavity.
  • Roaches can live several weeks without a head (if proper measures are taken to keep them from bleeding out) because they have two separate and distinct brains.  The first brain is in their head and is the “major” brain.  It deals with complex issues.  The second brain is in the tail and is a simple and “minor” brain.  This brain mostly deals with “RUN!” The nerves of roaches are also 10x faster than ordinary nerves.  This, in conjunction with their minor brain, keeps them several centimeters in front of your foot.
  • Speaking of brains… Roaches are slightly less smart than an octopus.  If you have ever met an octopus, that is saying quite a bit.
  • All of the 5 families of roaches have 4 things in common. 1) They have thick leathery forewings, 2) grasshopper like mouth parts designed for chewing, 3) simple life cycles (no caterpillar or cocoon, 4) and they all make ootheca – hard shelled capsules in which females deposit their eggs.
  • Roaches are in all 50 states and found on every land mass that falls 30 degrees north or south of the Equator.
  • Approximately 40 new species of roach are discovered each year.  The current number of roach species know hovers around 3,500.  Out of those 3,500, about 1.5% are considered domestic pests. For comparison, there are about 4,700 know species of mammals. 
  • There are 5 species of cockroach in the United States – the American, German, Smoky Brown, Oriental, and Brown Banned.  None of these is native to North America.
  • What’s in a name? Cockroach comes from the Greek blattae meaning “domestic pests.” The Romans changed things up slightly when they translated it to mean “pests that flee from light.”  But in fairness, the term included mice and other critters too. Also of note, until WWII, the German cockroach was called the French cockroach.  Hmm.
  • Aggressive behavior in male cockroaches, and I am not making this up, include “stilt walking,” body jerking, biting and kicking (much like the teenager of today).
  • Roaches can stand an obscene amount of radiation.  In humans, 300 rads can cause cellular level change.  400 to 1,000 rads over a 2- to 3-week period is lethal.  Experiments conducted in the 1960s showed adult, German cockroaches could survive a 6,400 rad dose. 
  • And finally, roaches don’t like cucumbers or tomatoes for some reason.  Check that out next time you are at your favorite buffet.
Roach
Creative Commons License photo credit: telethon



Your Friend: The Roach

A family out for a bite to eat.

A family out for a bite to eat.

Often dogs are credited as “man’s best friend,” but I beg to differ.  I offer you instead the humble roach. 

The usually and immediate reaction to the word “roach” (or the actual specimen) is disgust and panic.  I will fully admit that I don’t love them in our garage and that they give me the creeps when they skitter across the driveway, but I DO enjoy not being waste high in detritus.

Cockroaches are nature’s decomposers and are essential for returning nutrients to the soil.  They take one man’s trash – namely, yours – and turn it into little ecological treasures.

Additionally, roaches make tasty treats for reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, other insects, and several mammals.  Not surprisingly, humans don’t love them (but have been known to eat them, though not frequently).  This is not because humans don’t like to eat bugs, but rather because of the particular taste of roaches which is similar to ammonia.  If you ever do decide to partake, know that they have three times as much protein as chicken.

Roaches are also good pollinators.  In fact, the first pollinators were beetles, not bees.  They are also the most frequently used speciments in the study of insect behavior, anatomy and physiology.

So in review, if you DON’T like being waste high in debris, but you DO like growing plants and eating, you must love the roach.

Luxurious Longwings

Zebra Longwing
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

Do you ever wonder what goes on inside the butterfly rearing greenhouseslocated on the rooftop of the museum’s parking garage? Today, I’m going to give you a peek at one of the precious little butterflies we raise there – the Zebra longwing, Heliconius charitonius.

Located within the screened insectaries inside the greenhouse are male and female pairs of Heliconius longwing butterflies. Within the confines of each Insectary, the longwing butterflies are provided a smorgasbord of goodies.

Their main food source is nectar, which is provided to them by way of fresh blooming red and pink Pentas; “New Gold” Lantana; pink Jatropha; blue Duranata; red, purple, and blue Porter Weed; and a blooming vine of Psiguria. These plants provide a food source (nectar and pollen) to the mating pairs. Our volunteers also place two bowls of artificial nectar daily as a supplement to the plants. [We supplement the food with artificial nectar made out of sugar and water because these little butterflies are housed in an artificial environment, so we want to be sure that they don't ever run out of food (nectar from flowers).]

Passion Flower (aka Clock Flower)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hamed Saber

We have pipes within the enclosure on which baskets of the Zebra longwings host plant – The Passionflower – hang. Each week the Passionflower host plants are removed from the Insectary and placed into the pupation area. Within 3-5 days, tiny caterpillars hatch from eggs the female longwings have laid at the end tips of the passionflower vine. These tiny, soft, supple leaves are the tiny caterpillars’ first food source.

Within 17 to 21 days (depending on the time of the year), the caterpillar is ready to pupate. After the caterpillar pupates, the pupae are removed from the screen pupation cages in which they are housed and taken to our entomologists for gluing. They are then displayed in our Butterfly Center until the butterflies emerge. The entomologist then removes them from the emergence case and releases them to flutter around the rainforest.

There are hundred of school children and adults that tour the greenhouses every year and they are always excited to walk into the Insectaries and be surrounded by butterflies. Then, we take them to the pupation area to see the caterpillars in their different stages of growth. Finally, they see the pupation cages where the larger caterpillars are pupating. They hold the pupae, touch the butterflies and look at their scales under a magnifying glass. Visitors are always amazed to see the butterfly life cycle up close, and we are so glad we can give them the opportunity to do so.

Want to learn more about butterflies and host plants?
Attract Black Swallowtails to your garden.
Find out what to feed your Monarch butterflies.
Flutter after Giant Swallowtails.