“I Have a Question! Where do Your Bugs Come From?”

When I’m maintaining the live exhibits in the Brown Hall of Entomology in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, or giving a tour of our Insect Containment Room, one of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “Where do the bugs come from?” It’s a very good question! Many people ask if we are able to actually collect them, and I wish that were the case. Travel the world to collect exotic live specimens? Yes, please!

But the truth is we get our animals in boxes delivered by FedEx or UPS. The boxes come from all over the place. Arizona, Thailand, Costa Rica… But most of our exotic shipments come from the Penang Butterfly Farm in Malaysia, which collects and breeds butterflies and other insects and arthropods. They provide us with a large butterfly shipment each month and several arthropods throughout the year. Whenever our supply of large exotic insects is dwindling, I place an order for mostly beetles, but also katydids, mantids, and even centipedes or spiders.

We recently received one of these shipments, and I wanted to give you a sneak peek. I love getting these boxes. It feels like Christmas!

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This box transported five beetles, three large katydids, three mantids, two large spiders, and a few hundred butterflies!

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Each animal is packed carefully in individual containers with a moist sponge inside. Materials are placed in the box, such as soft filler and ice packs, to make sure the bugs stay comfortable on their long trip. They leave Malaysia on a Monday and arrive here Friday morning.

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The dead leaf mantis is nearly impossible to spot against a background of dead leaves.

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Until it moves!

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This dragon-headed katydid wasted no time finding a hiding spot! Katydids mimic leaves to keep them protected from predators.

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Giant long-legged katydids are the largest species in the world. They are a favorite around here!

orbweaver

The giant golden orb-weaver has the largest and strongest web in the world. Although the web may sometimes accidentally ensnare birds or bats, the spider only feeds on flying insects.

orchid mantis

The orchid mantis has the most spectacular camouflage of all! They hide among orchid flowers waiting to grab unsuspecting pollinators such as bees and flies.

All of these and more can be seen on display in the Brown Hall of Entomology. Some can even be brought to your school for an exciting, hands on Bugs on Wheels presentation! See the HMNS website for further details!

Come to HMNS After Dark for a Sweet Surprise!

You may use artificial sweeteners in your tea or coffee, maybe even sprinkle some on your food, but there’s nothing quite like the miracle fruit to make sour foods more palatable. Just gnaw on one of these berries for a minute, let the juice coat your tongue, and for up to an hour, everything from plain yogurt to lemons to Sour Patch Kids taste just as sugary as Lucky Charms!

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Meet the berries of the miracle fruit plant (Synsepalum dulcificum). After eating just one, everything else tastes a little bit sweeter for up to an hour.

Here’s how it works: the berries of the Synsepalum dulcificum plant, which we cultivate in the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, contain a protein named miraculin after the effect they have on your taste buds. The protein confuses the sensitivity of the sweet and sour-tasting areas of your tongue, tricking your mouth into thinking certain foods are filled with sugar. That’s right… If you munch a miracle berry, you can eat a whole pile of lemons without making a face! But be careful. Your tongue might be fooled, but your stomach will know the difference.

Because we’ve just harvested a crop of these miracle berries from our own miracle fruit plant, we’re offering an opportunity for you to try this magical plant out for yourself. Come to HMNS After Dark next Wednesday, March 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. and visit the booth outside the CBC to try a berry and experiment with its effects. We’ll give away both berries and snacks to sample along with them completely free to guests enjoying our new after-hours schedule!

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This is the seed pod of a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), from which we make cocoa butter and chocolate. Inside this pod are fats, oils, and cocoa beans.

While you’re snacking, pop into the CBC to visit our incredible butterfly collection and see how other kinds of tropical fruit grow. You may now know it, but we grow papaya, pineapple, bananas, cocoa and coffee right here in the museum, along with several other kinds of exotic edibles! It’s another way you can learn about the interaction between pollinating insects and the plants that need their help to produce fruit. Check out these photos of fruit-producing specimens, taken right in our own rainforest!

FruitCoffee

Coffee beans (Coffea arabica), not to be confused with cocoa, grow individually. Once the fruit is removed, the bean is roasted and then ground to make America’s favorite hot beverage.

FruitPapaya

Papaya trees (Carica papaya) bear their fruit in a row along the main stem. Except for the yellow one at the bottom, these are still far from ripe.

FruitPina

It looks like the large pineapple in back is sneaking up on the smaller one in front. Pineapple plants (Ananas comosas) are a terrestrial bromeliad.

FruitBananas

These red bananas (Musa acuminata) aren’t ripe yet, but they won’t grow much bigger than this. They’ll just turn red.

That’s it for the familiar ones. Have you heard of these three below?

FruitMonstera

Yes, this is an edible fruit! It’s called Monstera deliciosa, which grows in Central and South America.

FruitSapodilla

The sapodilla plant (Manilikara zapota), bears fruit that looks similar to a kiwi, but is orange inside.

FruitStinky

The noni fruit (Morinda citrifolia), also known as the cheese fruit or vomit fruit, is edible, but it produces a foul odor that makes eating it quite unpleasant.

 

Some other fruiting plants in our collection aren’t producing at the moment, but are still worth a look. Keep your eyes peeled for the vanilla orchid, avocado, starfruit, rose apple, guanábana, and guava. Whatever you find, in the CBC at HMNS After Dark, you can definitely expect a sweet surprise.

FruitButterfly

Our butterflies are some of the most spectacular on earth, and without them, many of these fruits would never reach maturity. So next time you’re at the CBC, thank a butterfly!

Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.

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I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!

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This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:

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While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.

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This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…

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How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 

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You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.

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Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.

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The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!

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To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.

#ChillsAtHMNS

 

Being Natural: Nancy Greig

In 1994, Dr. Nancy Greig inherited what was “basically a hole in the ground.”

More than 21 years later, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a world-renowned exhibition, and Greig’s vision is a major part of the success of both the CBC and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

As Greig puts it, getting the job “was just lucky.” Before moving back to Texas, Greig was wrapping up a year of postdoctoral studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she was, in her words, “changing caterpillar diapers.”

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Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Dr. Nancy Greig visits with a rice paper butterfly in the facility her efforts have made hugely popular.

“This professor I was working with was looking at the caterpillar fauna on three species of oak tree. After we collected them in the field it was my job to raise them in the lab so we could determine what species they were,” Greig said. “I had to get them fresh leaves and clean the containers out, so that’s why I called it changing caterpillar diapers. Pretty much you have to dump the ‘frass’ out every day.”

Greig’s background is a blend of tropical plant biology and entomology.  She did her graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin, conducting research in Costa Rican rainforests under the supervision of Dr. Larry Gilbert, who studies tropical butterflies.  Between receiving her Ph.D. and the postdoc position, Greig spent two more years in Costa Rica teaching a tropical ecology course, that was “like summer camp for graduate students – an amazing experience.”  She was back in Austin for a Christmas visit in 1993 when her UT advisor remembered he had recently received a call about a position at HMNS.

“I thought I was going to be a University professor or something, and I was expecting another year or two of postdocs,” Greig said. “But I got in touch with the museum and they wanted me to come to Houston for an interview. Two weeks later, they called in St. Louis and asked, ‘How fast can you be here?’”

Greig’s field experience in Costa Rica gave her a leg up on the job; during her field work and subsequent teaching, she had spent plenty of time getting intimately familiar with the neotropical rainforest environment the museum wanted to craft in Houston.

When Greig first arrived in Houston, the Cockrell Butterfly Center was still under construction.

“It was a hard-hat zone,” she said. “There were cables and ropes everywhere. Some of the cement planters were in place, but not much else. The metal struts were up but there was no glass.

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Greig educates students about plants as well as insects. In nature, the two forms of life depend on each other.

“It was so bare when we first opened, so of course it’s grown up [since then]. At first the plants were so small,” Greig said. But despite the bareness, “the first year, we had a millon people come through the butterfly center. It was a big deal, and kind of a trial by fire.  I had never been on television or radio before, and we got plenty of press. I had to learn to talk in front of a camera!”

Her first duties were to help oversee the construction and work with the builders and the landscape architects.  She also had to hire staff, get the butterfly importation permits, and create the museum’s first entomology hall. This precursor to the current Brown Hall of Entomology contained many preserved specimens but had lots of text and no interactive displays.

“People would go through the butterfly center first and then go up there – and the energy level just died,” Greig said. “There were some great specimens and some good information, but it was a very quiet, somber space.”

After several years, Greig and the Exhibits department began planning a bigger, brighter, vibrant entomology hall. Along with a couple of museum board members, they visited museums and zoos all over the country to see what others had accomplished and how to adapt the best qualities into one fun, educational hall. The result has been well-received.

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Greig educates a student on butterfly identification at the CBC.

Gone were the static displays, replaced by interactive games, giant models and live arthropods. One of the biggest changes was to move the display cases closer to the ground, making the whole exhibit more kid-friendly and engaging.

The unveiling of the brand new Brown Hall of Entomology on July 1, 2007 was one of the highlights of Greig’s 22-year tenure as director, followed closely by the hysteria of Lois the corpse flower and “Cash for Cockroaches.”

In preparation for the opening of the new exhibit in 2007, the CBC offered to buy up to 1,000 cockroaches for 25 cents each from Houston residents to fill a feature of the hall, the Roach Dome. The public response was huge, and the story made the front page of the Houston Chronicle before jumping nationally and beyond with coverage from Reuters.

Lois similarly brought in a surge of media attention when the giant corpse flower showed hints of blooming in the summer of 2010. After being cared for and nurtured for years up in the greenhouses, Lois sprouted a slightly different stalk, sending the city of Houston into a three-week frenzy that culminated with her stinky bloom in July. Celebrity status was afforded to horticulturist Zac Stayton, a parody Twitter account was born, t-shirts and buttons were mass produced, and a documentary was made and released in the aftermath.

“It was so great for the museum; so great for Houston,” Greig said. “That is what the museum should be about. It was exciting and educational and fun. There was one woman who came over 30 times! At least once, sometimes twice a day!”

While Greig has always loved “creepy crawlies,” she has devoted her life to educating others about the positives bugs and arthropods provide to the world. She says that you can’t force that appreciation on people, but you can try to get through to them by asking them to imagine what the world would be like without them, among other tactics.

“I try to educate them with some fun stories and show that I’m not afraid. That there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seeing that someone can be totally comfortable with insects and spiders is important,” Greig said.

Nancy Greig Cockroaches

As an arthropod-lover, Greig believes all insects are important, and that even roaches are deserving of our love.

Greig herself is very enthusiastic about the evolution of many insects and their various adaptations for survival. The camouflage used by insects such as walking sticks and katydids really gets visitors thinking about how life got to this point, and Greig counts that as one of the must-sees of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is passionate about moving past the “creepy crawly” label as a result.

“It’s neat to be able to use the butterflies as the hook, the ambassadors, I would say, to bring people in, and then we help them to realize that bees and even cockroaches are important,” Greig added.

While Greig has always had a love of nature, she arrived at UT from Calgary ready to study linguistics. She says she took a circuitous route back to biology and that she is proof that “you can do really whatever you want to do.”

“It’s turned out to be really a perfect fit,” Greig said. “Running the Butterfly Center has been a great job for me. There are really not that many jobs like this. It was total serendipity.”

Visitors to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in October can see special plant life in the rainforest conservatory during the temporary exhibition, Savage Garden. And teachers hoping to meet Greig can mark their calendars for The Educator Event @HMNS Jan. 23, 2016, where she will give the keynote address. In addition, educators can book one of Greig’s Bugs On Wheels Outreach Programs, Monarchs or The Buzz About Bees.

#ChillsAtHMNS