“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!

box

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

shipment

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.

deadleaf

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

deadleaf3

Until it moves!

dragonheaded

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

IMG_0807

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!

Meet our Blushing Beauties!

This year in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, we were taken on quite a roller coaster ride with Lois the Corpse Flower! I don’t think any of us will ever forget about that! People filled the Grand Hallway and waited in line to see the most talked about flower Houston has ever seen.

In the midst of everything, we quietly received a very special gift, which may have been overlooked. Over Memorial Day weekend, I traveled to New Orleans and was able to visit the Audubon Insectarium, which was amazing! I was very jealous of their live animal collection and in particular, their pink katydids. They had quite a few of them, but despite that, my attempts to organize some kind of trade with them to get some pink katydids here in Houston were futile.

It wasn’t long after I got back that I received a call from a family in Dayton who said that they had found a pink katydid! They were so kind to drive to HMNS and deliver it. When I saw it I was overjoyed, it was the exact same species they had in New Orleans and just as pretty and pink as any of theirs! He was a boy and we named him Don Johnson (One of my friends said his color reminded her of Miami Vice).

So, when it rains it pours; a few weeks later I got another phone call about a pink katydid, a female. Don Johnson had a girlfriend and this would hopefully lead to little pink baby katydids! I got yet another phone call from a gentleman who had found a golden katydid and an orange one before that. The orange one got away, but he brought me the golden one. So at this time I had a veritable cornucopia of colorful katydids!

What did Katy do?
Katydid in the wild
Creative Commons License photo credit: frankcheez

The pink coloration is unusual, but not quite as rare as you might think! The color comes from a genetic defect, similar to albinism, called erythrism. Some animals, such as flamingoes, become pink because of what they eat, but since katydids eat nothing but green plants with only the occasional flower, it is due to a lack or abundance of certain pigments in their bodies. Not many people actually understand the reason for this. In tropical places, it may help the katydids to camouflage themselves among pink or red flowers and plants. Here in the United States, however, it’s not much of an advantage. The only katydid native to the United States known to have this genetic defect is the oblong-winged katydid, Amblycorypha oblongifolia. The most common form of this katydid is green, less common is the pink or golden form, and the rarest is the orange form. I wish I could have gotten my hands on the orange one!

Sadly, Don Johnson passed away at the end of July, followed by Goldie, but my pink female was alive up until a couple of weeks ago, continuing to lay eggs in her enclosure. The eggs have started to hatch and we’ll soon have baby pinkies everywhere! They are fat and round with very long back legs, and their color is amazing! Don Johnson and Pinkie’s oldest son is up there on display now, soon to be joined by his brother’s and sisters.

If you haven’t had the privilege of seeing one of these hot pink katydids, stop by and take a look, they’re sure to steal your heart!

Katydid…She Did!

Since writing my blog “Katydid…Did She?” I have been overwhelmed by the amount of feedback I’ve gotten. Apparently, katydids are a very popular insect and I have heard stories and answered questions from readers as far away as Bangladesh and London.  I am so happy to share my love of insects with people around the world! Katydids have given mothers a way to bond with their children, been a companion for people seeking  an easy pet to care for, and inspired curiosity and wonder in so many.

Green Katydid
Creative Commons License photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

One great story came to me from a gentleman named James from London.  He had acquired a male and female pair of katydids from an entomology show. After having them for several months, the male passed away. The female seemed, he said, to be very sad. She was making an awful lot of noise and quickly laid several eggs, then died shortly after, dragging her weakened body to lay next to her mate. It seemed romantic that she had died of a broken heart.

I gave him some suggestions on how to properly care for his new eggs.  A short 5 weeks later, the first little hatchlings started to emerge. I was so happy to hear this news!  He sent me a few photos of his new babies for identification and they were adorable. I was surprised to find out that they were a species from Florida, Stilpnochlora couloniana. A beautiful and large species native to our own country! This is just one of so many great stories that readers have shared with me.

So to all of my readers out there that are crazy about katydids, I have wonderful news! The inspiration for my very first post about katydids, giant Malaysian Katydid ( Macrolyristes corporalis)  eggs, have finally hatched! This was a newer batch that was laid in mid- November. For months I have been doting over them and hoping that they would hatch. On Thursday, March 5, I found my first brand new little nymph. I was absolutely overjoyed! I now have 11 nymphs with 20 more eggs to go.

Blog 111
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1?
one of my babies!

These tiny little katydids have to shed their skin 6 times and in about 6 months they will have grown into the largest and loudest species of katydid. Right now they are very goofy looking. A tiny little body with extremely long skinny legs and antennae that are several times the length of their bodies. Once they reach adulthood, they will be put on display for visitors to see and travel to schools all around Houston to amaze children and teach them the wonders of the amazing world of insects! I would like to thank all of the readers who sent in their comments and stories and would love to hear more! If you have  anything to say at all about katydids or insects in general, feel free to leave a comment, they are always appreciated! To all of you insect enthusiasts out there, happy bug watching!

Blog 136
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1?
One of our majestic Giants

A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.