Finding the flora and fauna: Butterfly Center staff conduct a BioBlitz in Memorial Park

Editor’s Note: The term “BioBlitz” was first coined in 1996 for intense attempts to record all the flora and fauna within a designated area. National Geographic, which has partnered with parks around the country for various BioBlitzes, describes them as “a 24-hour event in which teams of volunteer scientists, families, students, teachers, and other community members work together to find and identify as many species of plants, animals, microbes, fungi, and other organisms as possible within a designated area.”  These quick and dirty surveys are used both to gather information about the biodiversity of a given area, and since members of the public and other non-experts (students, etc.) are often included as participants, as ways of sparking public interest in local flora and fauna.

The “Eco-Tech” panel of the Memorial Park Conservancy recently recruited the Butterfly Center to conduct a preliminary survey or “mini-BioBlitz” of the insect fauna throughout Memorial Park, with the idea of inviting members of the public to help on future surveys. One of the goals of the panel is to get some baseline data on the biodiversity of all the creatures that live in Memorial Park, and from there, make plans on how best to preserve and manage or enhance this wildlife.

We were asked to survey several different natural habitats in Memorial Park (i.e., not the golf course). On a sunny morning in early July, Butterfly Center staff members, our summer intern, and a couple of volunteers drove out to Memorial Park armed with insect nets and containers.  While some surveys (such as birds or trees) can be done without collecting, there are so many kinds of insects (and so few experts) that at least some specimens have to be collected in order to make identifications.  

We decided to sample 10 transects — 100 feet long by about 8 feet wide — each one in a different area. Our first couple of sites were in open prairie vegetation, so we used sweep nets and aerial nets to collect samples. In case you are not versed in insect collection techniques, a “sweep net” is a canvas net bag on a sturdy metal frame that is swished through the vegetation. Periodically, the contents are emptied into Ziploc bags or other containers. 

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (photo by Zac Stayton)

This giant fishing or nursery web spider was nearly three inches across! (Photo by Zac Stayton)

 

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We found lots of these small millipedes (and a few slugs) in the leaf litter in the forested areas. (Photo by Zac Stayton)

Aerial nets are the more familiar “butterfly nets”: a much lighter, more delicate net bag that is swung through the air (it should NOT be dragged on the ground, used in water, or swiped through bushes!). These nets are more for catching fairly large, individual insects, especially ones that fly, so samples are put directly into a glassine envelope, or vial, or other appropriate container (or, if it is something readily identifiable, simply noted and released). Sweep nets generally collect things like grasshoppers and katydids, walkingsticks, mantids, leaf hoppers, stink bugs, the odd caterpillar, spiders, etc. Aerial nets are useful for larger flying insects such as butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, wasps, bees, some beetles, certain flies, etc. 

In the more forested areas, sweep nets were not really appropriate, so we used the aerial nets and also took litter samples (scraping up leaf litter and bagging it). Litter samples are typically brought back to the lab to process in a so-called Berlese funnel. Many small arthropods who live in the litter of the forest floor, including springtails and cockroaches, ants, small beetles, millipedes, etc., can be collected in this way.

 Another find in the leaf litter:  a “woolly bear” caterpillar.  This is the larval form of the Giant Leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia.  The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored).  (photo by Nancy Greig)


A find in the leaf litter: a “woolly bear” caterpillar. This is the larval form of the giant leopard moth, Ecpantheria scribonia. The caterpillar rolls up in a ball, showing red stripes between segments covered with black “fur” (these caterpillars do not sting but probably taste bad so are warningly colored). (Photo by Nancy Greig)

There are many other collection techniques, none of which we used in this preliminary survey. Pitfall traps are always fun; they are empty cans or jars set into the ground with their mouths at ground level. Sometimes bait (a little raw chicken or fish, for example) is put in the bottom.

Crawling insects, especially those interested in odorous food, fall into the “pits” and cannot get out. Such traps need to be checked every couple of days — often they will contain different kinds of beetle, maybe a cockroach or two, etc.

Malaise traps are screen tents or baffles that trap small flying insects. The insects get caught in the folds of the screen and since they typically crawl upwards to escape, can be funneled into a container filled with alcohol.

Yellow pans are any wide, shallow container with a yellow (painted or otherwise) bottom.  These are partly filled with water and a bit of liquid detergent. Wasps and pollinating flies, etc., are attracted to the yellow color and cannot escape once they fall into the soapy water. Yellow pans need to be used in open areas in sunny weather and the samples removed every day or two.

Our final survey site was along the banks of Buffalo Bayou, which was much higher than usual so there was not much shore. Here, we mostly used aerial nets. We saw several things in this area that were not seen other places, especially tiger beetles, damselflies, etc. Here, we mostly used aerial nets (or grabbed things with our hands). 

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The gorgeous Ebony Jewelwing, a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

 

The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park

The vibrantly colored Vivid Dancer is a common damselfly species along the banks of Buffalo Bayou in Memorial Park.

By noon, it was blazing hot and we were all soaked in sweat, so we bagged things up and stopped at the Shandy Café (great little place on Memorial Drive) for lunch on our way back to the Museum. 

Although we only collected for about three hours, we have our hands full in identifying everything. We first have to sort things to order, identify what we can, and then we will probably have to send some things off to experts in the various insect groups. I’m sure it will take us several weeks! 

Some of the coolest things we found: 

It’s always fun to open up the sweep net and find walkingsticks or praying mantids, or a colorful leafhopper. We picked up quite a few different grasshoppers and a few katydids.  We noted but did not catch too many butterflies (we can identify most of these by sight, so no need to collect).

I like wasps and bees; we saw several of the large red Polistes wasps, carpenter bees, leaf cutter bees, and a really cool “digger” bee starting her nest tunnel in the sand (see attached video clip). A medium-sized beetle that looked like a wasp was visiting flowers in several places. 

The very fast tiger beetles mostly eluded us down at the bayou’s edge, but we did catch a few damselflies there. The most common one there was the lovely Ebony Jewelwing.

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams.  We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou.  (photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)

Tiger beetles are extremely fast moving, long-legged, predatory beetles that often occur in open sandy areas, especially along streams. We saw many of these, probably Megacephala virginica – and managed to catch a few – along the bayou. (Photo from BugGuide.net by Chris Wirth)

 

Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis

Click here to watch a video of a female Hibiscus bee, Ptilothrix bombiformis, a solitary species as she digs a nesting tunnel into hard-packed earth as we found on our BioBlitz.

Once we have compiled our results and reported them to the EcoTech Panel, they will then make plans for another survey sometime in the fall. I believe they intend to invite more general participation, so if you are interested in the insects of our area, keep your ears open!

Help us thank the birds and bees (and bats, moths and flies!) during National Pollinator Week

For the next several paragraphs, we’ll be talking about a few very special flying creatures (and some others) that are called pollinators — to whom we owe huge thanks for providing much of the food we eat! 

Without these pollinators to carry their pollen from flower to flower, plants could not form fruits or seeds to reproduce themselves and feed our whole ecosystem of hungry animals — including humans. Did you know that at least one of every three bites you take is thanks to a pollinator? (More if you are vegetarian.)

Although the world’s pollinators include many of the animals you’d expect and more (e.g., also butterflies, beetles, monkeys, even some rodents and lizards), the most important pollinators of our fruit and vegetable crops are insects, particularly bees. Unfortunately, today many pollinators are in danger due to habitat loss, overuse of insecticides, and other factors. To learn more about the threats facing pollinators and what you can do to help, visit the Pollinator Partnership’s webpage at pollinator.org.

National Pollinator Week, June 16-23 this year, was initiated by a group of biologists calling themselves the “Pollinator Partnership,” whose goal was to bring the public’s attention to the vital ecosystem services provided by pollinating bees, butterflies and moths, beetles, birds, and bats — and to make people aware of the urgent issue of their declining populations. 

Seven years ago, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to designate a week each June to commemorate the importance of pollinators. Pollinator Week has now grown to be an international celebration.

From feasting to beekeeping, learn more about the efforts of these hardworking — and essential — animals in three special events planned for National Pollinator Week. 

Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Cockrell Butterfly Center
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m.

In addition to the Butterfly Center and Insect Zoo, you will visit the containment room and rooftop greenhouses — areas not open to the public where staff cares for the Museum’s butterflies and other insects. Kids 5 and above welcome! Click here for ticket info.

Beekeeping Class
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m.

From the tools and techniques needed to start your own apiary to tips of daily life with bees, beekeeper Shelley Rice will share the basics of starting your own beehive and how to harvest wax and honey naturally and safely. Participants will meet at Shelley’s private apiary. Advance registration required. Click here for ticket info.

Cultural Feast: A Culinary Cultivation — All About the Birds and the Bees
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m.

In the perfect kick off to summer, join the staff of the Cockrell Butterfly Center at Haven for a five-course meal showcasing the contributions of bees and other pollinators to our food sources prepared by chef Randy Evans. Culinary historian Merrianne Timko will discuss the culinary history of these pollinator-focused ingredients. Advance reservations required by June 16. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets online. 

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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