Insect Insight: Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

Well, it’s officially summer in Houston and we are literally buzzing with insect activity. Some species are off to a slow start due to the harsh winter, but they are sure to catch up soon. I love the summer! I can definitely tolerate it being hotter than all get out,  a lot better than the cold and I love to see the outdoors come to life. Millions of little creatures scurrying here and there doing their jobs to keep our environment working the way it should. How can you not appreciate that?

One insect you may be lucky enough to run into is the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Although I’m not terribly clear on the role these funny little guys play, it may just be to entertain people like me! These grasshoppers are commonly referred to as the clowns of the insect world. They are large, colorful, extremely clumsy, and just plain funny to look at!

Lubber grasshopper
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoelDeluxe

There are several species of Lubber grasshoppers. Most of them are found in South America, but luckily we have a few species here in North America. They are among the largest grasshoppers found in the United States. The term “lubber” refers to stout and clumsy individuals. You may have heard the term landlubber before, which means a clumsy or inexperienced sailor. This name fits them quite well. Most lubber grasshoppers are horrible jumpers, cannot fly, and are pretty slow at walking. You would think that this would put them at a disadvantage, but they have enough chemical and physical defenses to put off a large majority of predators that would threaten them!

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Clowns! Eastern Lubbers
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The Easter Lubber or Romalea guttatta is probably the most well known grasshopper in the Southeastern United States and is definitely the largest! They can be called the clowns of the insect world due to their coloration. They usually have a combination of yellow, red and black and their colors can vary. They have these colors for a reason. They are known as aposematic or warning colors. This coloration can also be seen on animals such as coral snakes, poison dart frogs, bees, wasps, ladybugs, monarch butterflies, etc. This is a way of warning predators to stay away, or get more than they bargained for. This can mean poison, venom, a bad taste or other unpleasant consequences.

The bodies of Eastern Lubbers do contain toxic chemicals that have been known to cause death in certain bird species and cause small mammals like opossums to wretch violently and feel sick for quite some time after. Of course there are some animals that are tolerant of their poison.

If their coloration does not work, they have an arsenal of other defenses. They will lift their wings, displaying their bright red color. This is often followed by a loud hissing noise as they force a bubbly frothy liquid from their spiracles (breathing holes). This substance contains some semi-toxic chemicals which are irritants. They can also regurgitate plant material that has been recently eaten and digested. This liquid is brown in color and also contains some semi-toxic compounds from the insect’s crop. It is often referred to as tobacco spit and many grasshoppers are able to do this. Wow, if  an insect was doing all that to me, I would probably freak out! I have been working with Eastern Lubbers for years and have never ever seen such a thing. They must not find me very threatening!

Juvenile Eastern Lubber
Creative Commons License photo credit: vladeb a nymph

If you’re wondering where to find these beauties, well, your guess is as good as mine! They prefer moist, densely wooded areas, but as they mature, they will disperse and can be found in almost any suitable habitat. I have collected them several times out at Bear Creek Park. Sometimes they will disperse into gardens and become a bit of a pest. They will eat a wide variety of wild plants but are fond of amaryllis and related plants in gardens.  However, despite their size, they have a very small appetite, so the numbers would have to be great to cause a problem.

The nymphs tend to be gregarious and they look quite different from the adults so they can often be mistaken for a different species all together. They are all black with a narrow yellow, red, or orange stripe running from their head to their abdomen. If you happen to run into these grasshoppers, take some time to observe them. We are so lucky to have such an amazing insect native to our little part of the world.

In the mean time you can stop by our Entomology Hall to see them on display. I’m fortunate enough to be fully stocked up with plenty of adults and nymphs to last me through the summer! Until next time, happy grasshopper watching!

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!

New Furry Friends for the Butterfly Center!

I am used to needing to replace insects on display. There are several factors that have an effect on their longevity and for the most part they do very well, but insects only live so long. I get so preoccupied with them that I forget about the more long-lived species such as the arachnids - like tarantulas and scorpions.

I recently realized that I have had the same 3 tarantulas on display for about 3 years. Female tarantulas can live upwards of 30 years if properly cared for. And as long as they are alive, I keep them on display. I started thinking, duh, why don’t I get some new tarantulas so people will have something different to look at? This is not to say that the ones on display aren’t gorgeous! I curently have a Mexican red-knee, an Indian ornamental and a Goliath birdeater. All three are strikingly beautiful animals! The birdeater will stay because it is the largest spider and people are definitely curious about that. The other two can retire, for now, to the peace and tranquility of the containment room.

So, I have got to go shopping! Ordering tarantulas is so much fun because there are so many to choose from. They come in an unbelievable array of colors; it can be so hard to choose! I wanted to pick those that are better suited for display and not for handling. We do handle tarantulas for our outreach program, Bugs on Wheels, but for that we have Rosie, a 17 year old Chilean rose hair that is such a doll and quite possibly the sweetest, most patient tarantula that ever lived!

Once I perused what was available, I picked the only two that I could get as adults and one spiderling that I can raise. It should be an adult in about a year. Getting a box of live bugs in the mail is like Christmas, it’s so exciting! When I saw these tarantulas for the first time I was overjoyed, they look even better in person. They are very shy, which is why they are not appropriate for handling. They will live in the containment room until I have a chance to put them on display for everyone to see. Let’s meet them!

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Antilles pinktoe spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

First, let’s meet the Antilles pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor). Spiders in the genus Aviculariaare very common in the pet trade. They are native to the rainforests of South America and a few Caribbean islands. These tarantulas are pretty docile but can move very quickly! They actually have a habit of shooting excrement, also called guano, at their pursuers and they can actually be quite accurate. They are all characterized by pink tarsi, giving rise to the name pinktoe. The Antilles pinktoe is native to Martinique and Guadeloupe. They are tree-dwelling and spend their time in funnel shaped webs made in palm fronds or bromeliads. They are absolutely beautiful with a green carapace or head, a red abdomen and green legs, all covered with reddish pink hairs. They are very hairy! I took pictures of my new friends, unfortunately, they don’t really do them justice.  She is a sub-adult, so she needs to shed one more time to be fully grown. She will look great on display.

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Brazilian red and white spider
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The other large female I purchased is called a Brazilian red and white or Nhandu chromatus, formerly, Lasiodora cristata. This spider is swiftly gaining in popularity. They are very large and sometimes called a white-striped birdeater. They have a grayish white head, white and black striped legs and a bright red abdomen. These are terrestrial tarantulas from Brazil. This species is nervous around people and will bolt if they feel frightened. I briefly held her the other day and she did quite well. I hope to have her feeling at home on display very soon!

The 3rd tarantula I purchased is one of the most popular species of spider and definitely one of the most beautiful. It’s called a Greenbottle Blue Tarantula (Chromatopelma cyaneopubescens). Wow, that’s a mouthful! The only ones available were spiderlings about .5-.75 inches long (very tiny). We used to have one of these spiders and they are really magnificent so I thought I’d try raising one. I only hope that it’s a female. They are very hard to sex at this size, but I will find out when it gets a bit larger.

The only drawback to having a male is that it would only live for a couple of years compared to the long-lived female.  When I opened up the box, I thought I had gotten the wrong thing. It looks completely different from the adult! I knew it would, but I was not expecting it to look so drastically different. When full grown, this spider will have metallic blue legs, a bluish green head and a bright red abdomen They are very striking.  They are native to the desert areas of Venezuela. They live in burrows lined with silk to protect them from the harsh climate.  They tend to be skittish and run very fast when disturbed. Maybe since this one is so young, I can get it more acclimated to being handled. I can’t wait to see how beautiful it will become!

Greenbottle Blue Tarantula
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I think these tarantulas will have long and happy lives here, especially since I spoil everything in my care, but in a good way! I hope they will be around several years from now when I’ll be training a new entomologist to care of them. In the mean time I hope you’ll stop by to take a look at them in the Entomology Hall. Hopefully, even if you think you’re arachnophobic, you can gather up the courage to take a close look and see how colorful and beautiful a spider can be! Happy bug watching!

For all the future Entomologists out there…

We recently got an e-mail from a young man named Derek. Derek is 13 years old and came across our video “Meet the Entomologists of the Cockrell Butterfly Center” on YouTube.  He is interested in becoming an Entomologist and must have been intrigued by what he saw. He had some questions for me about my career. I’m always happy to answer such questions and if you have an interest in a career in this field, maybe my answers will help you too!

Here’s what Derek wanted to know:

1. This is a dumb one, but how much do they make yearly?

Eyes of a Holcocephala fusca Robber Fly
Creative Commons License photo credit: Thomas Shahan

This is certainly not a dumb question and can be an important issue, especially if you have student loan debt, like me! Yearly salaries vary, depending on what exactly it is you are doing. As an entomologist, you can work at a variety of different jobs. You can work in a museum like myself, or be a pest control operator, work for the government, in a lab, as a professor, the list goes on and on really. Whatever you do, you should not expect to make 6 figures and you may start off with a lower salary than you’d like, but the longer you are in the profession and the better you do, the more valuable you become and the more money you will make! I am very very happy with the money I make and most importantly, I LOVE my job. There is no amount of money that could replace that. Rest assured, if you become an entomologist, you will have a fun and rewarding career and you’ll make plenty of money!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

2. Can you specialize in a specific insect? I am very fond and know a lot about the praying mantis.

This also depends on how far you go in school and what career you choose. A lot of entomologists that go for their PhD. specialize in a certain insect and study them in a lab at their universities. I personally have a lot of freedom in my job. I have hundreds of different insects that I care for here and I can choose to study any one of them in greater detail. I also love praying mantises, they are definitely one of my favorites! I spend a lot of time raising them and studying them. I could at any time choose to do a research paper or even write a book about them if I really wanted to! In other jobs as an entomologist, you may be more limited, so if I were you I would do a lot of research on what type of entomologist you want to be.

3. Did you ever receive a sting or a bite that can kill you? I don’t care if it hurts.

A Centipede on display at HMNS

Well, you know Derek, insects are not as dangerous as many people think, and a lot of it depends on your own body’s sensitivity to certain types of venom. We do have a bee colony here, and  if I were allergic to bee stings, a sting could probably hurt me or put my life in danger if I did not get the right kind of medical attention. Luckily, I’m not allergic to bees, but if I was, it would not discourage me from working with them because I know how to treat them respectfully and avoid being stung. And we take care to make sure our visitors can’t come in contact with them. We really do not have any insects here that are highly venomous, because there really aren’t many out there. Now other arthropods are a different story. We do also have arachnids such as spiders and scorpions and centipedes. All of these animals are venomous, but none that we have are deadly, although a bite from our giant centipedes can land you in the emergency room! I always take certain precautions when working with these animals, just like someone who works with venomous snakes. That being said, I have been bitten, scratched, poked, pinched, and even had venom spit into my eye. None of these were a big deal, I never had to go to the doctor or anything, but they were all learning experiences!

How many insects do you work with or study a day? And for how long?

Capturing Grasshopers on Film in Costa Rica

Well, you could say millions if you add in all of the ants in my various ant colonies! Thank goodness every ant doesn’t need individual attention! I spend a large part of my day with basic care of the insects in the Insect Zoo and Containment Room where I have hundreds of insects. I spend a lot of time just feeding them, making sure they have enough humidity, cleaning their habitats, etc. That stuff is a lot of work, and unfortunately, doesn’t leave a lot of time for study. My day is also taken up with other things like writing e-mails, answering phone calls, leading tours, taking the bugs to schools for our outreach program, and just generally educating people about bugs. So that’s what I do with my time from 8-5 Monday through Friday. Now, like I said before, I can study certain bugs if I’d like to and I do make time for that because every year I get the chance to write a research paper and present it to other entomologists at a conference. This year, I’m working on a paper about the Giant Katydid (Macrolyristes corporalis) which is such an amazing insect. I’ve already written a couple of blogs about it. To me, this career is very unique because I’m not just stuck in a lab.  I am kind of like a teacher, consultant, scientist and caretaker all rolled into one, which makes for a very fun and interesting job! I even get to travel! In 2008, I got to go to Costa Rica to see bugs in the rainforest, it was awesome! I learned all about bugs in college, but I’ve learned far more here from actually getting to work with live insects and observe their life cycles and behaviors. A lot of labs are full of dried specimens of dead bugs, which can be cool too, but I’m very happy to be here!

5. Finally, how would I become one? To be honest, I don’t know many colleges or schools that practice entomology, and you just don’t see ads in the paper for entomologists! Good question! Well, I went to Texas A&M for college and it is the only University in the state of Texas from which you can receive a degree in Entomology. I’m not sure where you live, but in most states, there is at least one university that offers this type of degree. The internet is a great resource for this, just google degree programs in Entomology and that should get you started. Next, you will have to decide how far you want to go, I only have a bachelors in Entomology just because, for now, I can’t afford anymore college, but I plan to get a masters someday soon and eventually a PhD. In college, you will have so many resources available to you that will help you figure out what jobs are available and what you want to do. Like I said, there are so many different things you can do with a degree in Entomology. These jobs can take you anywhere in the country, even several places around the world! You can even do my job almost anywhere. Most states in the U.S. and even countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America have museum with insects zoos and butterfly houses much like ours and they always need good Entomologists!

Well Derek, I hope this helps you! My best advice is to keep doing what your doing and studying insects. You may have people, even family members and friends tell you that Entomology is not a good career choice. Only because most people don’t know much about Entomology, or even bugs in general, but don’t let that discourage you. If you work hard and do well in school, you can do anything you set your mind to and I’m sure you will be a successful and happy Entomologist, just like me! If you have anymore questions, or any other budding entomologists out there for that matter, please feel free to contact us by sending an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org. Happy bug watching!