Poisoning Pesky Pests

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 © Photo credit: Gerald Yuvallos

April showers bring flowers – and mosquitoes!!!  The one good thing about our prolonged dry spell is that we have had almost no mosquitoes for months…but that is about to change.  Truly, mosquitoes are some of the most pestilential insects on this earth – not only is their bite unpleasant, but some species have the capacity to transmit diseases.  People will do almost anything to get rid of them.  And pest control companies prey on this urge, and will sell you just about anything. 

The device the pest companies are pushing these days – the “mosquito misting system” – costs several thousand dollars to install, but it does actually kill mosquitoes.  These systems use a series of nozzles, usually placed around the periphery of the homeowner’s yard, which emit a fine mist at intervals (many have programmable timers).  The mist, which contains water mixed with a pyrethroid insecticide, kills mosquitoes on contact.  Pyrethroids are widely used, generalist insecticides touted as “safe” for humans and pets such as dogs and cats, because they are derived from plants (learn more about these “safe” chemicals by clicking here.)

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  © Photo credit: Foxypar4

Some pest control companies boast right up front that these misting systems also kill “spiders, ticks, fleas, wasps, gnats, and roaches” as well as mosquitoes.  Of course, they don’t mention that along with these “undesirables,” the mist also destroys butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, praying mantids (and some of us consider spiders to be beneficial), etc., and is toxic to fish and amphibians.  In other words, although the chemicals used in these systems may be relatively safe for humans (but check out this link for some sobering information)  I wouldn’t want my child or dog or cat to be directly exposed to them.  Yes, pyrethroids are derived from plants, but they are generalist poisons that are bad news for many creatures.  And just because something comes from a plant doesn’t mean it is safe – would you want to be sprayed with extracts of oleander, foxglove, or poison ivy???

We frequently receive calls from butterfly gardeners around town who worry when their neighbors install one of these systems that it will impact their gardening efforts.  We don’t have good news for them – yes, it will.  Gardening for butterflies with one of these systems next door (since the mist can drift, and flying insects don’t stay put) is like putting out bird food if you have an outdoor cat.  You are luring butterflies and other beneficials to their death. 

The companies installing these systems will assure you that since you can use the spray just at night, day-flying insects will not be affected.  But think about it:  first, many beneficial insects are active at night, and many larval insects (e.g., butterfly caterpillars) are not able to fly away from areas that are sprayed.  Furthermore, plants or other objects near the spray nozzles build up a residue of the poison that is certainly not good for anything eating them or living in or on them.

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 Mosquito Misting System

You may be surprised to learn that scientists working on mosquito control do not like these home misting systems any better than I do.  A couple of years ago, while doing research on mosquitoes and careers in entomology for the new insect wing, I talked at length to Dr. Rudy Bueno, head of the Harris County Mosquito Control Division (part of Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services, www.hcphes.org ).  I was impressed (and frankly surprised) by the conservative nature of their spraying programs.  For Dr. Bueno’s crew, spraying is a last resort, done in specific areas where their field workers have identified large populations of mosquitoes that may vector diseases such as West Nile virus (not all mosquitoes transmit disease), and where they cannot use other treatment methods such as getting rid of the standing water or treating with mosquito dunks.  They only spray when an outbreak cannot be controlled with more benign methods, and – here’s the rub – the sprays they use contain the same chemicals as the home mosquito misting systems.  Dr. Bueno’s concern is that through constant exposure to these chemicals that mosquitoes get through the home systems helps mosquitoes to evolve resistance to the chemicals – making the county’s spraying efforts much less effective, and meaning that more potent and dangerous chemicals may have to be used to control outbreaks.

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 © Photo credit: akeg

I asked Dr. Bueno what he would recommend to the homeowner concerned about mosquitoes.  Their mantra in HCPHES is “reduce the source” – in other words, eliminate as much as possible any place around your home where mosquitoes might breed.  Some mosquitoes can breed in less than a tablespoon of water, or even in wet leaves, and can complete their life cycle in less than a week.  Most homeowners are fairly careless about leaving potential breeding spots on their property.  Clogged gutters, plant saucers, bird baths, dog or cat water bowls, and many other containers that hold water are all potential breeding sites.  So clean out those gutters and change the water regularly in bird baths and drinking bowls, and turn wheelbarrows or pots or buckets upside down so they don’t hold water.  Put mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis, a small native fish species that eats mosquito larvae) into any outdoor ponds.  In areas of standing water that can’t be drained you can use “mosquito dunks” – floating “donuts” that release a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis israelensis,) that infects only mosquitoes.  One of the main places mosquitoes breed in Houston is in clogged storm sewers, so be sure not to put leaves or other debris into these sewers.  Of course, if you live next to a salt marsh or other area with shallow standing water, you may still be plagued by mosquitoes from time to time.  But there is a lot we as homeowners and good citizens can do to reduce the number of mosquito breeding areas right in our own neighborhoods.  Click here for more information on mosquito prevention

In my opinion, these home misting systems should be outlawed!  Yet to date they are almost completely unregulated, and people are so eager to rid their surroundings of mosquitoes that they don’t think about the consequences of the widespread use of these poisons.  Please do your research, and some thinking, before you spend any money on mosquito control.  One thing you can do is check out information in the lower level of the Butterfly Center – a computer kiosk rates a variety of potential mosquito control methods.  You’ll learn that in addition to “reducing the source,” using repellent with 33% DEET (more is overkill) and/or wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants when outdoors in mosquito-infested areas are the best ways to prevent bites.  And in your backyard, a simple fan can keep mosquitoes away during outdoor activities, and in fact is as at least as effective, and much safer, than any of the candles or coils on the market.

I hope one day the Environmental Protection Agency will ban the use of home mosquito misting systems and other supposedly “benign” poisons that may make our lives more comfortable but that on closer examination have deleterious effects.  It would be nice if pest control companies would voluntarily stop installing these systems, but as long as the public demands (and shells out money for) them, why should they?  In the meantime, I’ll be trying to educate as many people as I can – and I hope you will too.  Butterflies, honeybees, ladybugs, frogs, fish, and many other wonderful creatures would join in the chorus, if only they could!   

Mantids and Me :)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
Some of my Babies

 If you couldn’t tell from my previous post “Mantis Madness“, I am wild about mantids! They are quite possibly me very favorite insects, although, it’s hard to say – because I love all insects!

This past Saturday, Valentine’s Day, the Cockrell Butterfly Center put on a great event called Hug-A-Bug. This event celebrates insects that are beneficial to your garden and lots of people showed up to hug a bug of their own and take home ladybugs to release in their gardens.

I just happened to have about six different species of mantids that I wanted everyone to be able to see, since they are definitely considered beneficial. These mantids all came from a good friend of mine named Yen Saw. Yen is a hobbyist here in Houston who raises mantids from all around the world. He has been so generous and donated several of them to us.

Since meeting him, and with his help, I’ve been raising them like crazy. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. But what’s not to like? They are fascinating, unusual, beautiful, charismatic, and so photogenic. If you missed Hug-A-Bug, not to worry, you can see these amazing insects right here. Of course I took pictures of them all!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The Devil Flower Mantis is found in Northern Africa and the Middle East. Since they are a desert-dwelling species, they love the heat here, but not the moisture – so we have to keep her very dry.

The name comes from their diabolical look, but they are very shy. These are so beautiful and the detail on their wings is amazing. Flower mantids are very specialized predators. They all have beautiful coloration, which helps them camouflage themselves within certain flowers. They sit on a flower and wait for an unsuspecting pollinator to arrive, and then they grab it! They catch things like bees, flies, butterflies and moths. It’s really amazing to see one of these mantids catch a fly in mid-air!

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Creative Commons License photo credit:
emills1 Asian Flower Mantis

This one is called the Asian Flower mantis and it comes from South and Southeast Asia. They are quite small, but have a very big appetite.

Their colorful wings and triangular eyes help them blend in with flowers. They are very shy and don’t enjoy being handled at all. Right now I’m raising nymphs of this species that are adorable!

My favorite of the flower mantids is the Spiny Flower Mantis from Africa.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

They are fabulous! They have a very distinctive pattern on their back to deter predators. If that doesn’t work, they flash their brilliant yellow hind-wings. Many insects flash bright colors like red and yellow. In nature, these colors serve as a warning saying, “stay away – I’m dangerous.”

It’s really quite an interesting display and luckily, this mantis did it while I photographing her. She stood there, beating her wings as if she were in flight for several minutes. You can see what it looked like in the photo below! They also have spines covering their body, which make them look even more menacing. No one wants to mess with these little mantids.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Mantids are masters of camouflage. They have a lot riding on their ability to blend in with their environment. Not only do they need protection from a wide variety of predators, they must also remain hidden from their unsuspecting prey. If they are discovered, the prey will skedaddle and they’ll be left hungry.

Different mantids exhibit camouflage that tells you what kind of environment they live in. The orchid mantis, for example – I’ll bet you don’t need to scratch your head for too long to figure out where they hide! The Florida bark mantis has extraordinary camouflage as well.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

You can see for yourself here! It looks like nothing more than an old, lichen-covered piece of bark. It’s amazing to me that an insect this cool is native to the US. I would be so excited to see one of these in my backyard!

This Grass Mantis has got be, hands down, my very favorite! He is a cutie and we want him to stay around forever!

Unfortunately, males do not have as long of a lifespan. This is another native beauty and can be found in Florida and Georgia. We have some similar species here in Texas that are called stick mantids.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

These mantids not only blend in, they resemble a harmless walking-stick. So a small insect might feel a little too comfortable getting close to this guy – until they are face-to-face with those grasping front legs!

So there you have it, my mantis show!

I hope you will stumble upon some of these amazing creatures while venturing outside. Any time you are out in nature, it’s a good idea to bring your camera. There are so many beautiful things that can catch your eye.

Photographs are a cheap and easy way to personalize your home or office. My walls are covered with photos of bugs – including, of course, lots of praying mantids!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
How could you not love a face like that?!

Spring is almost here and I’m starting to see lots of bugs – pretty soon they’ll be all over the place. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Where Have All the Bugs Gone?

It’s that time of year again. The days have gotten shorter and the temperature is slowly dropping. You may have been too busy to notice, but sometime between the shopping and cooking you probably have thought to yourself: I haven’t had to swat away any mosquitoes, or I haven’t been dive-bombed by clumsy June bugs. Where have all the bugs gone? Did they die? Are they hibernating? Well, the answer isn’t quite that simple. Over the last millions of years, insects have learned to employ all sorts of strategies to ride out the winter. While we are putting on thick socks and sweaters, the bugs are right there with us. They are everywhere, right under our noses, literally!

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

If you’re an insect, you basically have two choices; you can stay or you can leave. An overwhelming amount of insects choose to stay put and deal with the frigid temperatures. One of the best ways to deal with the cold is to suspend your growth and remain as an egg, larva (or nymph), or a pupa. The adults of these insects do die off in the winter, but they are very busy until then. In the late summer and early spring, praying mantidsall around are laying their egg cases in preparation for the winter. They will lay hundreds of eggs, glued together, attached to a stick or leaf, and cover them with a thick layer of foam. After constructing her last egg case, the mother of many will pass away. Through the winter, the egg case will remain safe until it feels the warmth of spring. Then hundreds of tiny mantids will hatch and start the life-cycle over again.

If you are like the June bug, you will spend the winter as a fat grub, lazily feeding on roots all winter deep underground, where it is much warmer. When spring arrives, they form a pupa and emerge as adults in early summer, giving rise to the name June bug. Similarly, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs will remain under the water’s surface where temperatures stay warm enough to sustain them. This is often under a thick layer of ice! There are plenty of mosquito larvae down there to feed them through the long months. Right now in Texas, swallowtail butterflies are forming a chrysalis. The life stage that usually lasts about 2 weeks, will last for 3 months or more. Many of our visitors have a hard time thinking of a chrysalis as a living thing. It doesn’t resemble anything alive at all. When they see them wiggle in response to touch, they are always amazed. The thing that they don’t realize is that aside from not being able to see, they know exactly what’s going on. They can feel the days getting shorter, and the temperature dropping. They won’t make a move to emerge until spring comes!

If an insect is stuck as an adult, the most vulnerable life stage, it gets a little trickier! As long as they can keep their body temperature above 45 degrees Fahrenheit, they will make it. In Texas, this is not a problem, but in the north, they sometimes have to use drastic measures. These insects often find shelter in hollowed out trees, in leaf litter, and under rocks or dead logs.

If this cannot keep the freezing temperatures away they can do something pretty interesting. They can lower the water content in their bodies and replace it with a substance called glycerol. This chemical has several practical uses, but most importantly it lowers the freezing point in their bodies, acting as antifreeze! This is what can make an insect that appears frozen and dead to magically come back to life when thawed. That’s pretty impressive! This, along with going into a hibernation-like state called diapause keeps them alive. One insect that uses this method is the mourning cloak butterfly. This beautiful butterfly is the first to come out of hiding and appear in the spring.

Now if you’re a social insect, you pretty much have it made. Honeybees can store several pounds of honey for food. They don’t even need to leave the hive which is kept warm by the body heat of all the bees. Ant colonies spend all year building up a food supply and stay very deep below the ground. Even some insects that are not social will seek out others to pile on top of for warmth, like ladybugs.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Jef Poskanzer

Butterfly in HDR
Creative Commons License photo credit: chefranden

There are some insects that have opted to take a yearly vacation to sunny Mexico, which would definitely be my choice! The monarch, perhaps the most well known insect in North America makes this amazing journey every year. It’s a mind boggling to think that millions of butterflies fly up to 3000 miles to a few sites that they have never been to or seen before, how do they know how to get there? It is a mystery that keeps us all enchanted by the amazing insect. If you’d like to learn more about the monarch butterfly and their journey, visit the monarch watch website.

Since we live in an area with very mild winters, there are some bugs that we still see all year, including a lot of butterflies. There are a few local monarchs that don’t feel the need to migrate south. Every year we get several calls from people who have spotted a monarch and want to know what will happen to it or if they should help it. The answer we give them is to just let it be, the temperature will probably not drop low enough to kill it and if it does freeze, the butterfly will find shelter. They know how to deal with the cold! So you may enjoy this little break from the bugs buzzing all around us. As for myself, I can’t wait until the spring when all of the bugs are back, happily doing their jobs to keep the world turning! Plus I hate cold weather!

Go buggy! Learn more about insects:
The Sphinx Moth: It’s a Work of Art
Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt: learn how to pin a butterfly
Do butterflies breed? Your butterfly questions answered

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!