Malaysia – The Edible Tropics

This cold weather is making me think very wistfully of  last November when I spent 12 days in Malaysia and Singapore.  It was HOT there!

Two of us from the Butterfly Center went to Penang, Malaysia, to attend the biannual conference of the “International Association of Butterfly Exhibitors and Suppliers” (IABES) – which is, as the name suggests, an organization of live butterfly exhibits from around the world, as well as the businesses that supply us with butterflies.  The Cockrell Butterfly Center has been an IABES member since 199?, and I currently serve on the board.  Economic hard times meant fewer attendees in 2009 than were at the 2007 meeting in Ecuador; however, there were representatives from about 25 organizations.  It is truly an international group, with participants from North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Having the chance to share ideas and problems with our international counterparts at these meetings is a big draw, but so is the opportunity to see a new part of the world.  I had never been to Malaysia and was eager to learn more about it.

In case your geography is shaky, Malaysia is in Southeast Asia, south of Thailand and north of Indonesia.  Peninsula Malaysia is separated from Malaysian Borneo by the South China Sea.  Penang is a large island off the northwest coast of Malaysia – its main city is Georgetown.  Since parts of Malaysia were under British rule from the late 1700s until 1957, English is widely spoken, and most signs use the Roman alphabet (or Latin alphabet), which made it easy to get around.  While primarily Moslem, Malaysia is very multicultural and tolerant of many religions – in Penang we encountered mosques, Christian churches, Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist temples, all within a block or two of one another.  Racially speaking, the native Malays are basically Indonesians, but other large ethnic groups include Chinese and Hindus (i.e., people from India).

Things I didn’t expect – how modern and industrial Penang was (and we didn’t get to Kuala Lumpur, which is even more modern).  There are lots of cars and lots of motorcycles. There are also many interesting colonial buildings in the city center – and as mentioned, places of worship of almost any religion you’d care to name.  There are also fun street markets with exotic fruit and vegetables and lots of seafood and weird things like black-skinned chickens.

I love to eat and to try new things – and eating seemed to be a national pastime.  Every morning our host took us to a different warren of “hawker” stalls, small open-air places serving their own specialty, whether spicy noodles or soup, Chinese style roast pork or duck, Indian food, or even pizza, hamburgers or French toast.  Most of our breakfasts consisted of noodles in a more or less spicy broth with a variety of toppings (including cubes of congealed chicken blood, the only thing that I didn’t particularly relish).  One day we went for dim sum (yummy Chinese dumplings, chicken and duck feet in sauce).  For dinner, we hit the hawker stalls again, or a Chinese restaurant, and a couple of times tried the “Steamboat” arenas which seem to be very popular with the locals.   The “Steamboat” is a big pot of steaming hot broth in the center of the table, into which you put your selection of meats, seafood, and vegetables, pulling them out as they are cooked.

We snacked on a number of exotic fruits sold on street corners and in markets.  Jackfruit (related to mulberries and figs) is shaped like a huge green knobby oblong sort of ball.  Inside, large chunks of yellow or orangish flesh, which is sweet and tastes sort of like a combination of banana and pineapple (or maybe those tropical banana-pineapple lifesavers), are packed into white, inedible flesh.  Not bad, but I found it cloying after a couple of pieces.

I preferred rambutan, a weird-looking fruit resembling reddish sea urchins that is closely related to litches.  The pearl-colored, eyeball-sized and shaped fruit inside the rind is sweet and tart, and surrounds a good-sized seed.

And then, of course, there is durian, infamous fruit of the Asian tropics.  Durians are not quite as big as jackfruits (and not related), perhaps up to a foot long and almost as wide, and are covered with large spines.  You have to cut them open to get to the delicacy inside.  It’s definitely an acquired taste – the sweet (to me, overly sweet) whitish flesh has a penetrating smell that has been variously described as rotting meat, or feces, or … you get the picture.  The locals love this fruit – and it is not cheap.  Apparently it is also a favorite food of orangutans.  However, perhaps catering to delicate North American and European noses, many Malaysian hotels forbid guests from eating durian in their rooms!

Far and away my favorite of all tropical fruits is the mangosteen.  Despite the name they are not anything like mangos.  Mangosteens are very hard to find in the New World (I saw them in Panama once), and can only be found “in season” in their native Southeast Asia.  From the outside they look sort of like a purple persimmon.  But breaking open the thick purple rind you find what looks like the segments of a white tangerine inside.  Delicious!!!  I’m not sure how I’d describe the taste – sort of a cross between strawberries and pineapple but milder.  Just the right combination of sweet and tart and juicy.  Mmmm!  My mouth is watering just thinking about them.  Too bad it will mean another trip to Southeast Asia before I get to enjoy them again :- (

I seem to have gotten sidetracked by the edible side of Malaysia. In my next blog I’ll talk a bit more about the natural history, and about the fabulous city of Singapore!

A Tale of Two Beetles

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 Taxicab Beetles

During my time here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I’ve bred and raised several different types of insects, walking sticks, katydids, grasshoppers, mantids, and even some spiders. These insects are relatively easy to breed and have a quick lifespan. I’ve always wanted to delve into the world of breeding beetles, but for some reason, I’ve been hesitant to take on such a task. Maybe because of the commitment; some species of beetles can take years to reach adulthood!

Well, I’ve taken the dive! On Tuesday, September 7, I received a shipment from a wonderful colleague of mine at the Sophia Sachs Butterfly House in St. Louis, Mark Deering. Mark has been raising beetles for years and seemed like the perfect mentor for me. He sent me two small colonies of beetles, one of Eudicella euthalia and one of Pachnoda marginata. These are two types of flower beetles from Africa. Flower beetles are a group of scarab beetles that visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar. Among the 4000 species of flower beetles are some of the most beautiful beetles in the world! Luckily, these two species are excellent for beginners, taking only 7-10 months to complete their life-cycle.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A newly emerged
female Eudicella.

The genus Eudicella is comprised of more than 20 species of brightly colored beetles. These beetles are only found in tropical Africa. They are often referred to as “buffalo beetles” due to the “y” shaped horn found on the male’s head. The females’ head is shaped sort of like a shovel and used to dig into the substrate and lay her eggs. Beetles in the genus Pachnoda are also indigenous to Africa, and members of their 108 species groups can be found all over the continent. Pachnoda marginata is the most commonly bred species. They are also known as sun beetles or taxicab beetles because of their unique color pattern. The male lacks any sort of distinguishing characteristic such as a horn, so I really can’t tell male and female apart!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A grub

Setting these beetles up for rearing was pretty easy and now all I need to do is wait. The larvae of both species thrive in a substrate made from hardwood mulch and humus or decomposed organic material. They will feed on this mixture for several months until the time comes for them to change. If you didn’t know, beetles have complete metamorphosis just like butterflies. The larvae of scarab beetles are commonly called grubs and are fat, white, and shaped like a “c”. Most of you are probably familiar with grubs since they are often found in your lawn or garden. Once the grubs are ready to pupate, they will construct a cell from compacted dirt and saliva. This cell acts as a cocoon inside which the grub turns into a pupa.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A cocoon

A few months later the adult beetle emerges. It really is an amazing transformation and even as an entomologist, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that! Being able to rear these beetles here is a great advantage for us. Sometimes exotic beetles are hard to come by or they don’t make the long trip from our only supplier in Malaysia. I’m so excited to have these beautiful beetles here for display and education! Be sure to stop by the Entomology Hall here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these and other spectacular beetles on display! Happy Bug Watching!