What in the World is THAT!!??

We often receive pictures that look completely and totally alien and WEIRD to most people, but like good little Entomologists, we know exactly what they are! The picture sent in to us most recently from a gentleman in Deer Park is a two-for-one special!

Have you ever seen a very large green caterpillar with strange-looking white ovals protruding from it? Well, it’s not just one insect, it’s two.

The picture clearly shows a large green caterpillar with a horn on it’s rear. It’s a little blurry, but it’s clearly a type of hornworm. Hornworms are the larvae of sphinx moths. Sphinx moth caterpillars are characterized by a horn-like appendage on their last segment, giving rise to the common name. This is more than likely a tomato or tobacco hornworm. These caterpillars can devastate plants in the solanaceae family (tomatoes, tobacco, potatoes, peppers, etc.), so they are considered a major agricultural pest.  Fortunately for farmers these two species are often attacked by a little monster which lies inside those weird white protrusions.


Braconid wasps are tiny parasitic wasps of which there are over 50,000 species. These wasps are our friends. They do not sting, but they parasitize some of our most damaging pests like caterpillars, aphids, and  beetle larvae.  They are mostly internal parasites and they can parasitize most any developmental stage of insects. There are even ones minute enough to lay eggs inside itty bitty eggs of insects, like aphids. Braconid wasps are very species-specific. The species of wasp that commonly attacks tomato and tobacco hornworms is called Cotesia congregatus.

The female lays her eggs just under the skin of  the caterpillar and within days the larvae hatch and start to eat the caterpillar from the inside. After about a week the larvae of the wasp drill a hole in the host’s skin and form a silken white cocoon to pupate in. The cocoons are what you see protruding from the skin. If the caterpillar is still alive at this point, they don’t have much longer. The adult wasps later emerge and fly off to mate and parasitize another caterpillar.

As gruesome as this sounds, it’s all part of the delicate balance of nature. For every organism that exists, many others exist to keep their populations in check. This is the foundation of biological control. Biological control is a method that uses an insect’s natural predators and parasites against them. Way better than chemicals!

So there you have it, another mystery solved! If you have a tricky bug you’d like identified, or even just a question that’s been bugging you, send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org. We’ll take our best crack at it and feature your question or picture in our blog. Until next time, happy bug watching!

Adventures Among Ants

Ants are endlessly fascinating.  They seem so HUMAN in the way they bustle around, cooperating in all things whether building great metropolises, hauling food, overcoming enemies or taking care of their queen and their baby sisters.  They epitomize industry and selfless devotion to the cause – their colony.  Of course as children we may have squished dozens of these little workers, but we have also watched their activities in wonder, marveling to see so many of our own behaviors reflected in their activities.

Dagger-Jawed Army Ants
©Mark W. Moffett/Minden

With 12,000 species world-wide, ants are the most diverse and widespread of the social insects, which include termites and some wasps and bees.  Ants are found on every continent and in every habitat, but are especially successful in the tropics.  Everywhere they are abundant and in many habitats are the dominant organisms, in terms of individuals far outnumbering all other animals.  They have few enemies and many have long-lasting, stable colonies.  Individual ants are remarkably long-lived, as insects go, with queens living as long as 13 to 15 years or so, and some workers surviving 4-7 years.  Unlike other social insects such as termites or honeybees, which are quite specialized, ants have many different ways of life.  Some have mutually beneficial relationships with plants or other insects.  Although a few ants are household pests, and some may cause agricultural or other damage, many are beneficial in terms of controlling pest populations, cleaning up wastes, and aerating the soil.

All ants are social; there are no solitary species.  Some are tiny, less than 1/16 of an inch long, while some tropical species are over an inch in length.  Depending on the species, ant colonies may be made up of only a few individuals, while others number in the millions.  In this and other ways, ant societies appear to parallel human societies.  Some are simple hunter-gatherers, with little specialization among workers, while others have huge and sophisticated societies with highly specialized tasks divided among different “castes.”  Driver ants in Africa and army ants in South America are ruthless predators, moving in huge numbers from temporary bivouac to bivouac in search of prey.  Any of us who read “Leinigin versus the ants” when we were in school can still remember the terror inspired by the image of a huge river of driver ants overrunning everything in its path.  Leafcutter ants also have huge colonies, but theirs are sedentary and underground, sometimes lasting more than 20 years.  Leafcutters are farmers, chewing up fresh leaves and fertilizing them with their saliva and feces to provide a rich substrate for the fungus they cultivate as food for the colony.  Harvester ants in dry grasslands stockpile seeds in underground storage areas.  Other ants are ranchers, herding and protecting groups of tiny, honey-dew producing insects such as scale and aphids.  Desert-dwelling honeypot ants use their own sisters as “cisterns” to store honeydew.  Formica ants in boreal forests make huge mounds of pine and spruce needles, which serve to regulate temperature and humidity.  Some ants do no work themselves, instead robbing pupae from neighboring ant nests, and then forcing the captured ants to work as slaves.

Dr. Mark Moffett
Photo by Frank J. Sulloway

Mark Moffett, renowned National Geographic photographer and explorer, has made a career out of his fascination with ants, and will be at the museum to talk about his favorite organisms on Wednesday, September 15.  An enthusiastic speaker with – needless to say – wonderful photographs – Mark will regale his audience with tales of warfare, industry, and cooperation.  He encourages all ages to attend!

Don’t miss Mark’s distinguished lecture at HMNS:
Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions
Mark Moffett, Ph.D.
Wednesday, September 15, 6:30 p.m.

Purchase your tickets in advance here.

Check out Moffett on Colbert in May 2010:


Hug-A-Bug, This Saturday!

Spring is almost here (thank goodness!) and soon Houstonians will be working in their gardens like busy little bees. You can fill your garden with some wonderful plants from our annual spring plant sale, which will be held on April 10th. Before then, however, you can take the opportunity on Valentine’s Day weekend to learn about the world of beneficial insects at Hug-a-Bug! Put those pesticides down because your garden will love you, if you love bugs!

Stop And Smell The Flowers
Creative Commons License photo credit: I Shutter

Pests can be a pain in your garden, but Mother Nature has a plan. This is where beneficial insects, such as ladybugs, come into play. Pesticides can harm creatures of all walks of life, not only targeting the pests, but beneficials such as butterflies and bees, not to mention defenseless animals such as frogs, toads, and lizards. They can also leave residue on your plants. Biological control is the most eco-friendly and effective method. Here are a few beneficial insects you’ll meet at Hug-a-Bug, and you can even purchase for your own garden.

LadybugsAhh ladybugs – beautiful, peaceful, and fierce predators! Most people are under the impression that these cuties of the bug world feed on nectar, but they are actually hungry for blood – aphid blood! Ladybug larvae and adults feed on plants pests, especially aphids. If aphids are in short supply, they will go after other soft-bodied pests such as whiteflies. At Hug-a-Bug, we will be giving away vials of ladybugs for you to release in the butterfly center or even in your garden at home!

Green Lacewing - Chrysoperla carnea
Creative Commons License photo credit: yaybiscuits123
Green Lacewing

Green Lacewings - Not familiar with these guys? Well, pay attention to your front porch light at night and you might notice these dainty little bugs flying around. The adults have a green body with large, lacy looking wings – hence the name! The adults are harmless pollen and nectar feeders while the larvae, like ladybugs, munch on soft-bodied plant pests.

Parasitic Wasps - When most people hear the word wasp they think of red wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. These are of course not favorable to people because of their nasty stings. But the vast majority of wasps go completely unnoticed by people. They are tiny and parasitic on other arthropods. Each species has a specific host, whether it is a type of caterpillar, aphid, mealy bug, scale, or whitefly. These tiny wasps have no stinger and buzz about protecting our plants from pests.

Afican Praying Mantis
Creative Commons License photo credit: SMB(spidermanbryce)

Praying Mantis - You know this is one of my favorite bugs! Highly intelligent, expressive and thoughtful, they are just fascinating! Most people know the praying mantis because of its distinct appearance. They may not be quite as beneficial as some of the more specialized predators, but they are a friend to your garden none-the-less. If you don’t like larger bugs such as caterpillars or grasshoppers munching on your foliage, these are for you!

Mother Nature is truly incredible! For every plant’s pest, there is a predator or parasite out there to keep them in check. If you let nature run its course in your yard, you will have a very healthy little ecosystem to observe and admire.

If you need any help, all of these bugs can be purchased in large quantities from many places including Rincon Vitova, a pioneer in biological control.

I hope you will come join us at  Hug-a-Bug this Saturday, February 13 in the Cockrell Butterfly Center from 11 to 2 to learn more about these fascinating beneficial insects and see them up close and personal. There will also be fun crafts and games for the kids and a chance to talk to the butterfly center’s very own staff of entomologists and horticulturalists. We hope to see you there!