Tales from Tanzania: That’s no mint on your pillow

Some hotels leave mints on pillows. But in the African Serengeti, you get assassin bugs.

Assassin bug on a pillow

Not a mint.

Dave and I had been actively searching for invertebrates on our trip to no avail. The guides thought we were weird (crazy) from all of our questions about insects (as well as snakes and lizards). No one goes to Tanzania for the little things — they’re only interested in the big stuff.

So imagine our delight when we came “home” one night and discovered this AWESOME assassin bug on our pillows.

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David, with our non-mint, and our pillow.

Assassin bugs are awesome because they have specially adapted mouths, perfect for sucking “the goodie” out of other insects. They pierce through the exoskeleton of their prey and inject saliva into the body. The saliva liquefies the innards of the prey, which can then be sucked right out (like a smoothie!).

An assassin bug with its prey.

Not only are assassin bugs insect-smoothie-enthusiasts, but they’re great at defending themselves. They can spit their saliva into the eyes of those things that might try to eat it (birds) or accidentally disturb it (humans), causing temporary blindness.

Now tell me that’s not awesome.

The life cycle of an assassin bug

DISCLAIMER: We may have totally lied to everyone on the trip — and by, “We may have lied,” I mean, “We totally lied.” Knowing what the assassin bug can do, we decided to tell our fellow travelers that we found it outside our room rather than on the pillow. Why cause a panic? (But don’t tell the others.)

Kwa heri!

Sure, today’s Columbus Day, but it’s also National Chocolate-Covered Insects Day!

The country at-large may be celebrating Columbus Day, but around these parts, we salute National Chocolate-Covered Insects Day, too.

Yes, we actually want you to eat bugs 

To help promote National Chocolate Covered Insect Day on Monday, October 14 (yes, it’s a real thing!), I thought a blog dedicated to entomophagy would be a great way to honor this oh-so-special day.

“Entomophagy” originates from the Greek word “entomon” (insect) and “phagein” (to eat). Yes, entomophagy is the consumption of delicious, nutritious insects (and often other buggy friends). Insects are at the bottom of the food chain, and are eaten by many animals, but the term “entomophagy” is directed at the human consumption of insects.  Other animals that feed on insects and insect relatives are commonly known as insectivores.

Did you know the Cockrell Butterfly Center has a vending machine filled with all sorts of edible insect goodies? We have even added some new products, one of which comes from a great company called Chapul.  Many of our products are novelty style, but Chapul protein bars are the real thing! These bars, from personal experience, are quite tasty. My favorite is the Aztec Bar, which is flavored with chocolate, coffee, and a hint of cayenne for some added heat. Oh, and don’t forget the cricket flour which gives them their unique texture and source of protein!

Now, I heard you say “Gross!” at the beginning of this blog. But is it really fair that many people consider some arthropods (a.k.a. bugs) more edible than others? You probably love to eat shrimp, crab, crawfish, and lobster, but those delicacies are arthropods just like scorpions, spiders, ants, grasshoppers, and any other jointed-leg creature you can think of!

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Entomophagy in other cultures

Aside from Europe, Canada, and the United States, entomophagy is commonly practiced throughout most cultures around the world. In fact, over 1,400 species of insects are known to be eaten in 80 percent of the world’s nations! Winged termites are used in many recipes in Ghana during the spring rains and wasp crackers are enjoyed by elders in the highlands of Japan.

In Chinese culture, beekeepers are considered virile because they regularly eat larvae from their beehives. How do de-winged dragonflies boiled in coconut milk with ginger and garlic sound?  Mmm-mmmm good! This is a Balinese delicacy. Cicadas, fire-roasted tarantulas, and ants are prevalent in traditional Latin American dishes. One of the most famous culinary insects, the agave worm, is eaten on tortillas and placed in bottles of mezcal liquor in Mexico.

Hmmmm, this tomato sauce is a little extra “herby”

Okay, so I still haven’t convinced you? What if I told you that Americans consume quite a few insects every year without even knowing it? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a list of the amount of insects they allow in packaged food.  This report is called “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”

Depending on how brave you are, you can view the list and find that 30 fly eggs or two maggots in your spaghetti sauce is acceptable.

Yummm, and who wants dessert? Chocolate can have an average of 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.

HMNS LaB 5555 Halloween Mixer: Spirits & Skeletons

But seriously, WHYYYYYYYY?

I can give statistics all day long, but in the end, I know you’re going to ask, “Why even bother?” The United Nations put out a report earlier this year stating that insect consumption could help resolve world hunger.  Most of our protein sources are inefficient, and with a population of 7 billion people and growing, the world is running out of room and fresh water. Farming insects for food requires little space or water needed to produce large numbers. This could cut down on water consumption and land needed for agriculture.

Not only is insect production better for the environment, but they are better for us as a protein source. Beef is roughly 18 percent protein and 20 percent fat. Cooked grasshopper, meanwhile, contains up to 50 percent protein with just 3 percent fat. Moreover, like fish, insect fatty acids are unsaturated and thus healthier.

Oh, and contrary to most western belief, most edible insects are quite tasty!  Dave Gracer, Advisor for Insects Are Food, gave a great description covering many types of leggy edibles: “Dry-toasted cricket tastes like sunflower seeds; katydid like toasted avocado; palm grub like bacon soup with a chewy, sweet finish. Weaver ant pupae have practically no flavor, while the meat of the giant water bug is, astonishingly, like a salty, fruity, flowery Jolly Rancher.”

Oh, and if you are a wine connoisseur, there are several great blogs and articles about which wines to pair with your creepy cuisine.

Thanks, Lauren!  I am going to cook insects ALL the time!

I am sure by now I have convinced you … well, maybe one of you. But if you are interested in learning more or purchasing your own edibles, get started right here! There are tons of great websites, blogs, and even cookbooks.

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Links to Cookbooks, Recipes, Wine Pairing, and Other Info:

Cookbooks:
Eat-a-Bug Cookbook: 33 Ways to Cook Grasshoppers, Ants, Water Bugs, Spiders, Centipedes and Their Kin (and the revised version, too!), by David George Gordon
Creepy Crawly Cuisine: The Gourmet Guide to Edible Insects, by Julieta Ramos-Elorduy

Recipes:
Insects Are Food Recipes
Iowa State University’s Tasty Insect Recipes
Girl Meets Bug’s Edible Insect Recipes

Wine Pairing:
Eight-Legged Treats and the Wines to Match
What Wine Goes With Cicadas

Keep Learning!
The Yellow Mealworm as a Novel Source of Proteinby A.E. Ghaly and F.N. Alkoaik
The Lepsis is a Terrarium for Growing Edible Insects at Home!
For Most People, Eating Bugs Is Only Natural

HMNS LaB 5555 Halloween Mixer: Spirits & Skeletons

And, if you want to celebrate National Chocolate-Covered Insect Day the right way, see the recipe below or stop by the Butterfly Center for pre-made noms in the vending machine!

Chocolate-Covered Crickets

Ingredients:
1 cup roasted crickets (see recipe for Dry Roasted Crickets)
1 cup chocolate chips

Directions:
Melt the chocolate chips according to packaging. Drop in a handful of crickets, stirring them around. Scoop them out with a spoon, and place them on wax paper, keeping them apart from one another. Continue until all the crickets are covered. The chocolate will harden overnight, but if you prefer you can freeze them for about an hour and they will be ready to eat shortly thereafter. Once hardened, the crickets can be stored in a container for future use.

Tips: 
For an extra treat and visual experience, place chocolate covered crickets atop broken bits of white chocolate chunks or dip chocolate covered crickets in powdered chocolate and serve chilled.

Did we mention that we’ll be serving up yummy cooked bugs at Spirits & Skeletons (our happenin’ Halloween party) on October 25? Let the people who know the delicious delicacy best make a tasty, crunchy snack for you.

Bon appetit!

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Bountiful butterflies plus more on moths: Why you should appreciate both this summer

Houston is brimming is with butterflies this season! Moths, too.

After a dismal showing during last year’s prolonged drought with almost no butterflies at all, this year local butterflies have bounced back with a vengeance! Or maybe “vengeance” isn’t a word usually associated with butterflies. In any case, there are lots of them.

gulf frit1A Gulf Fritillary

I have never seen so many butterflies in my backyard garden – both as babies (caterpillars) and adults. Pipevine swallowtails are particularly abundant right now, and I had dozens of monarchs a few weeks ago. I’ve seen black swallowtails and giant swallowtails, gulf fritillaries, and a few sulphurs as well. I just acquired three small sassafras trees, and they came complete with a couple of my favorite caterpillars: the spicebush swallowtail, which are the inspiration for the giant caterpillar sculpture at the Cockrell Butterfly Center entrance. And I’m not the only one who is seeing an abundance of butterflies; many Houston gardeners have made similar observations.

spicebush cat2A Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

In addition to these garden species, I’ve noticed big numbers of some of the forest-inhabiting butterflies such as hackberry and tawny emperors, question marks, and red admirals. These butterflies typically visit sap flows or rotten fruit, and their caterpillars eat hackberry or elm leaves (or nettles, in the case of red admirals), so to see them you need to take a walk in the wood. I take my dogs walking at “Wortham Island,” a former oxbow bend of White Oak Bayou that is now an off-the-beaten-path wooded area in northwest Houston, and have seen clouds of emperors, lots of question marks, and a red admiral or two. Snout butterflies, another species more common in wooded areas, have appeared in my yard for the first time, sipping water off the sidewalk.

emperors feeding
Tawny emperors feeding

And a new butterfly species may be on the horizon! As we reported in the latest Museum News, a zebra swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus), until now unknown in Houston, was spotted laying eggs on paw paw plants at a local nursery. Hoping that this sighting might not be a complete accident, I’ve planted a couple of paw paws in my yard, and am keeping my eyes open and fingers crossed. Zebra swallowtails are fairly common in the Big Thicket area, less than 100 miles northeast of us. I’ve always said that if people from Cleveland, Texas to Houston would just plant paw paws, we could probably bring this gorgeous butterfly to our area!

Eurytides marcellusZebra swallowtails may be migrating to Houston

On the down side, I have not seen any orange-barred sulphurs for a couple of years, and the polydamas swallowtails, which seemed to be overtaking the pipevine swallowtails, have also been less visible.I’m guessing that the cold winter of 2010-11 may have knocked back the populations of these tropical species, and they haven’t made it back in large numbers yet.

So why is this year so good for butterflies? I can only guess that the weather conditions have been just right this spring and early summer. We’ve had enough rain and lots of warm, sunny weather in between. Certainly all the interest in planting for butterflies can’t hurt. The only reason there are so many pipevine swallowtails and monarchs in my yard is because I’ve had dozens of their caterpillars eating all the Brazilian pipevine and Mexican milkweed I’ve planted. Providing host plants is vital. Of course, where I’m seeing the butterflies now is at the pentas and Mexican bauhinia that are blooming profusely these days, so nectar plants are important too!

pipevine cats1
A Pipevine caterpillar

On a different note – but still keeping with the lepidopteran theme – there is a wonderful new Peterson Field Guide available on moths of northeastern North America. Unfortunately it is NORTHeastern – but many of the species portrayed in the excellent illustrations do occur in our region. I highly recommend adding this book to your library. Moths may have more subtle coloration than butterflies, but many are quite spectacular mimics of lichen, bird droppings, leaves, or other insects. And although a few are pests of forest trees or in the garden, most are harmless and are important sources of food for bats (as adults) and songbirds (as caterpillars).

I was interested to read in the moth book introduction that there is a citizen science program on moth-watching in Great Britain. So little is known about our moth fauna here in the USA; it would be great if something similar could be launched here. Did you know that there are about 15 to 20 times as many moths as butterflies? In North America, there are about 11,500 moth species to 725 butterfly species. Perhaps with the availability of books like this one, people will start to pay more attention to these poorly known and poorly understood creatures. All it takes is leaving your porchlight on and observing (and trying to identify) the nocturnal creatures that are attracted to it. But be aware that some of the most colorful moths fly during the day.

Another useful thing to do where moths are concerned is to rear the caterpillars you find. Just because they don’t turn into beautiful butterflies does not mean they are not interesting in their own right! Do keep a record of the host plant the caterpillars eat.

Long live the Lepidoptera!

Tagging Monarchs at HMNS

Today Soni (CBC horticulturist) came down to my office and said “You should see all the monarchs in the outdoor butterfly garden. They must be part of the fall migration. Why don’t we tag them?”’

Surely by now most people are aware of the amazing migration undertaken each year by the fall generation of monarch butterflies. As the temperatures cool and the days shorten, monarchs emerging from their chrysalids are cued to head south. Somehow they “know” that their survival depends on it. Before winter sets in, millions of individuals – basically the entire eastern population – start to fly southwest, towards the remote mountain sites in central Mexico where they will spend the winter hanging on the branches of fir and pine trees.

Soni and net
Soni netting butterflies

The spring and summer generations behave very differently. After emerging from its chrysalis, one of the first things a new butterfly typically does is look for a mate (“nature abhors a virgin” as my friend Phil DeVries would say). Mated females search for milkweed plants on which to deposit their eggs; males look for more females! These fair-weather generations probably live for a month or so as adults. The autumn generation, however, does not mate, but saves its energy for the long journey ahead. As fall approaches, butterflies stock up on nectar, packing on fat for the flight and for several months of hibernation.

At the northern edge of the population (southern Ontario/northern Great Lakes area), the migration starts in late August, with butterflies flying on average about 50 miles a day and picking up more migrants as they travel south. By early to mid October, monarchs are streaming through Texas. Virtually the entire eastern population passes through our state – but most of the migrating butterflies pass to the west of us, through Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, then over to Del Rio and into Mexico. Since fewer butterflies typically pass this way, the coastal migration route is not as well known. All the more reason for us to get out there and tag!

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How to tag a monarch

Monarch researchers began tagging monarchs back in the early 70s, even before anyone knew where the migrating monarchs were ending up (the roost locations were discovered in 1975). Tagging data collected over the years has enabled us to map the distribution of the population, and to understand that a single generation makes the long trip south and then heads north again after spending the winter, largely dormant, in Mexico. This is hard for some people to understand, especially given that most butterflies only live for a few weeks. The migrating/hibernating monarchs may live as long as eight or nine months.

tag instructions
Tagging instructions from Monarch Watch

The monarchs’ arrival at the overwintering grounds typically coincides with Dia de los Muertos (November 1, Day of the Dead), an important fall festival in Mexico. Some locals apparently see the orange and black visitors as the spirits of their dear departed relatives, returning to celebrate the day. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem; throughout history humans have used butterflies as symbols of the soul and/or reincarnation. Did you know that the word “pysche” in ancient Greek meant both “butterfly” and “soul”?

But back to the present, and Houston. It was a beautiful afternoon so we all trooped outside, armed with nets, pens, data sheets, and numbered tags purchased in advance from Monarch Watch, a non-profit organization based at the University of Kansas that coordinates monitoring efforts. Soni also took a roll of scotch tape and some microscope slides. She is checking the butterflies for OE (short for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a sporozoan parasite. If present, the parasite spores can be seen under a compound microscope (they are much smaller than butterfly scales). If there are enough of them in a caterpillar’s body, these parasites can spell death for the butterfly. Luckily, parasite loads are typically low in migrating individuals – perhaps butterflies weakened by the parasites simply can’t make the long journey.

OEtest
Taking scale sample for OE test

Lots of monarchs were coming around the corner of the Butterfly Center, dipping down to our outdoor butterfly garden and stopping to sip nectar from the blooms (they especially seemed to like wheat celosia and purple porter weed). Then they’d head off towards the Sam Houston statue and on in the direction of Rice University (southwest of us!). We caught 11 butterflies in the garden (and missed many more), tagged them (noting whether male or female), took a scale sample, and released them. Off they flew!

We’ll send in our data to Monarch Watch, and of course we hope that someone will find one or more of our tagged butterflies on the roost in Mexico. It is highly unlikely – given the millions of monarchs at the roost – but tagged butterflies (usually dead ones) do get found and reported. If one of ours is found, Monarch Watch will contact us – and they/we will know that butterflies do migrate to Mexico from our area.

tag team
Tag team

Local butterfly gardeners know that a number of monarchs stay in Houston over the winter. We often don’t have killing freezes here, and the recent craze in butterfly gardening means that there is lots of Mexican Milkweed aka Butterfly Weed around.  This plant, Asclepias curassavica, is a perennial from Central America; unlike our native milkweeds, it does not die back in the winter months. Also, predatory wasps, which take many caterpillars during the summer, are mostly gone – so if it doesn’t get too cold, Houston is a good place for monarchs to spend the winter. However, these butterflies are taking the risk of dying should we have a strong cold snap as we did last year.

Here are two great websites with information about these amazing butterflies and about how to get involved monitoring their migration: Monarch Watch at www.monarchwatch.org and Journey North at www.learner.org/jnorth/.