FIELD TRIP!!! Bug Hunting in Southeast Texas

The summer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is always an interesting time. The hallways, offices, and classrooms are filled with children, eco-teens, and other interesting folks volunteering their time or just looking for a summer job. It’s a wonderful time because everywhere you look there is a smiling face and someone willing to pitch in to help wherever needed.

Every year, we have a horticulture intern that is sponsored by the Houston Garden Club. We have gotten to know such bright, delightful college students this way and we really look forward to the company and extra help.

his year, we have Felicia English from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has been a great addition to our team here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We have also been lucky to have Deborah Wagner helping out on the Entomology side of things. She’s currently getting her Masters in Museum and Field Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Since we have these new people around, we like to entertain them with things like lunches out to our favorite eclectic spots and field trips. Field trips usually have an emphasis on horticulture and are to places like nurseries, botanical gardens, etc. This year, we decided to take an Entomology field trip first! This was a little out of the ordinary for us as a staff, but super exciting for me and our other staff Entomologist Lauren. So we headed out to Bear Creek Park one morning in hopes of seeing some great bugs!

I have to admit, I wasn’t super optimistic about what we would see, considering the extreme drought Southeast Texas has been experiencing. But it wasn’t long after we arrived that we spotted our first insect, a velvet ant!

Velvet Ants!

Velvet Ant (1974)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hunter-Desportes

These are cool critters! They are very common in East Texas. They are only active during certain times in the morning and afternoon, so spotting them is always a treat! If you’ve never seen one, you’d probably be in for quite a surprise!

They are large, nearly an inch in size, fuzzy, red and black creatures that resemble huge ants. They have no wings and scurry around much like an ant, but they are actually a type of wasp. The females are wingless. They live in burrows and eat nectar. They hunt solitary ground-nesting bees to feed to their larvae. The males are quite a bit smaller, not as fuzzy, and look more like a typical wasp. They have wings and are rarely seen.  We often have these on display in the Entomology Hall and probably will have them at the end of the summer. They’re very fun to watch and are awfully cute!

Walking Sticks!

Not even 5 minutes had gone by until someone cried out, “I found some walking sticks!”  “Wow, seriously?” I thought! Zac, our horticulturist had been digging  in some rotten wood when he came across a small colony of Western two-striped walking sticks.

These are no ordinary walking sticks. Aside from an elongated body, they don’t look much like sticks! They have two longitudinal stripes running down their backside, and they are pretty pudgy for a walking stick. The females can be about 3 to 4 inches in length and the males are much smaller. The males are often seen riding on the female’s back and are usually mistaken for a baby because of the size difference! Pairs usually stay connected after mating. The male has a much shorter lifespan than the female, so as a result the female is often seen dragging the males lifeless body after her wherever she goes!

These walking sticks are known by many other names, including musk mares because of the defensive fluid they secrete from the sides of their thorax. This milky substance has a foul odor and can irritate mucus membranes. They can aim a stream for up to 40 centimeters and will aim for the eyes. Needless to say, a shot in the eye will result in pain, temporary blindness, and other unpleasant consequences, but luckily the effects are not permanent! We came away with 3 males and 4 females, more than enough to display and start a colony with. Despite the nasty defense, they are interesting critters and the fluid is easy to avoid!

Bug Watching!
Tiger Swallowtail

Back on the path, we headed further in to the forest, not seeing much of anything and feeling bad about how parched everything looked. We were happy with what we had encountered so far, however.

The surprises kept coming!

We had not expected to see any butterflies whatsoever until a very large, dark colored butterfly came soaring over our heads, coming to light on a branch up ahead. As we got closer we saw a female tiger swallowtail hungrily sipping nectar from a buttonbush, which as it turns out, is a great nectar source if you’re interested in butterfly gardening!

What we saw was the dark form of the female Eastern tiger swallowtail. Males have yellow wings with 4 black tiger stripes, while the female can have yellow wings, like the male, or black wings, like the one we saw. Any sighting of this breathtaking butterfly is awesome!

We also came accross an injured hackberry tree with sap oozing from the wounds. The sap was attracting tawny emperors from all over the forest to take advantage. The butterflies did not scare away easily and allowed us to take many pictures of the spectacle. We were very pleased!

Bug Watching!
Tawny Emperors

Buprestid Beetle!

As we went farther, there was one thing on my mind, lubber grasshoppers! I knew from early trips to this park with my friend Laurie that we would reach a creek with a bridge over it. On the other side of that bridge we could possibly find tons of lubber grasshoppers to bring back with us!

A few years ago, in the same area, there were so many of them that we had to try hard not to step on them! But, that was a very wet summer and I did not have high hopes. As we went along, everyone had their eyes peeled! We got to the bridge and right before we crossed it Zac, our horticulturist, had something fly right into his head. It was not what we were looking for, but it was quite a find!

A red-legged buprestid beetle. Buprestids are known as metallic wood-boring beetles and are on of those families that has many absolutely breathtaking species of beetles. Metallic, colorful, jewels of nature. This was a spectacular species that is actually no too common in our area, bonus!

Bug Watching!
Buprestid Beatle

Lubber Grasshoppers: Found!

So, over the bridge we headed, not before seeing a couple of alligator gars in the creek! Not 5 minutes after we crossed the bridge did someone pipe up, “found a lubber,” “oh here’s another,” “I found one too!”

Oh my gosh, they were everywhere! We caught as many as we could until they all started to retreat into a huge poison ivy patch. They were actually eating the poison ivy! We already know that lubber grasshoppers have bright coloration to warn potential redators that they are poisonous. We also know that they get their poison from eating nasty plants in the wild (if you don’t know, read my post about lubber grasshoppers!), so seeing them eat that nasty poison ivy was not a surprise!

Bug Watching!
Lubber Grasshoppers

We came back with about a dozen which will live out the rest of their lives on display and teaching kids about bugs. They are very well cared for, in fact, totally spoiled! It was a great feeling to know that even though the weather has been harsh, we still have a hot spot for lubbers and other amazing native Texan insects!

We had a great adventure and a lot of fun together as a staff. We saw not only the insects we were hoping for, but also other wildlife such as birds, fish, other invertebrates, and I even saw a deer! No one else saw it and many of them thought I was crazy, but I definitely saw one!

It was fun for me to be able to teach our horticulture staff a little bit about the fine art of bug huntin! Later, we visited Moody Gardens in Galveston. The rainforest pyramid has recently been renovated and it’s really neat! They have a slew of different wildlife in there including, white faced saki monkeys, cotton top tamarins, macaws, sloths, and many other things. Not to mention the plants in their conservatory are absolutely gorgeous! I would definitely recommend a visit there.

Next for me is my annual conference in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. This is another favorite part of the summer for me. There’s nothing like bug nerds from around the country meeting in a lush insect habitat for a week. I can’t wait to tell you folks all about it!

Until next time, happy bug watching!

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!

Blog 124
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!