With our world-class collections, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a popular place to take selfies. Just search #HMNS on Facebook or Instagram and you’ll find a trove of smiling faces in front of dinosaurs or having close encounters with the resident butterflies! Who wouldn’t want a selfie with a Tyrannosaurus rex lurking threateningly over their shoulder?But this Tuesday, we’re asking you to take an #UNselfie for HMNS, and post it to social media — Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or whatever you prefer (and be sure to include #HMNS in your post). Why? To observe #GivingTuesday, a global philanthropic campaign that encourages charitable giving during the holiday season. In contrast to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday is all about the unselfish act of giving back to the organizations that make a difference in your life and your community, and taking yourself out of the picture.By making a charitable donation to HMNS today, no matter the amount, you will make an impact here at your museum.Contributions ensure that HMNS continues to provide exceptional programs, exhibitions, and collections to educate and inspire generations to come.This #GivingTuesday, we encourage you to think about the ways in which HMNS impacts your community. When you donate to the Museum, you’re giving the gift of natural science back to the citizens of Houston and beyond. Donate now!
P.S. Help to spread the word and encourage others to give by sharing on social media using the hashtags #GivingTuesday and #HMNS! Let us know why you support HMNS by taking your own #UNselfie today!
Editor’s Note: Katie is a Development Associate for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
One of the most distinctive and easily recognizable insects in the Cockrell Butterfly Center is the rice paper butterfly (Idea leuconoe), also known as the paper kite and the large tree nymph. All these common names allude to the rice paper’s characteristic slow, graceful, and sometimes floppy flight. These butterflies make great, showy additions to butterfly exhibits and are therefore a widespread staple, found in most live butterfly displays. Rice papers are native to the forested regions of Southeast Asia.
Rice papers make great additions to butterfly exhibits.
Rice papers are related to the well-known monarch, both belonging to the subfamily Danainae and known to be distasteful to most avian predators by sequestering chemicals in their bodies from their larval food plants. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed to become unpalatable. Similarly, rice paper caterpillars feed on the milkweed relative, Parsonsia, to become distasteful. The monarch’s striking black-on-white and yellow coloring serves as a warning to potential predators. Rice paper larvae have a similar flashy coloration: black and white stripes with red spots.
Contrasting colors on rice paper caterpillars warn predators to stay away.
The rice paper life cycle begins with the female butterflies laying eggs on their host plant, Parsonsia. The eggs are small and cream-colored, usually laid on the underside of leaves. The eggs take about five days to hatch into tiny black-and-white striped caterpillars. The caterpillars first feed on their eggshell before directing their appetite to the Parsonsia leaves. The newly hatched larvae are too small to chew all the way through the thick leaves, so they create a circular trench as they eat the leaf epidermis. As they are eating they will extend their bodies and regurgitate yellowish foam distal to the chewed area. They continue this behavior until they have completely surrounded themselves in a ring of foam. This foam has been found to act as an effective ant repellent; ants will not cross the barrier. As the caterpillar grows, it “molts” five times in stages called instars. First through third instar caterpillars will exhibit this foaming behavior. Fourth and fifth instar caterpillars do not use regurgitated foam to repel ants.
Stages of caterpillar development. The top-right image shows a caterpillar inside its ring of ant-repelling foam.
It takes the caterpillars about two weeks of munching on leaves to reach pupation size. At this point, the caterpillars will find a safe spot to hang and form a “J” shape. They will then molt to reveal chrysalids that take about two days to completely dry. The chrysalids are a beautiful, shiny, metallic gold with black spots and swirls. Approximately 10 days later, the chrysalids pop open to reveal a brand new butterfly. The wet butterfly allows its crumpled wings to unfurl. A couple of hours later, the butterfly uses its newly dry wings to take flight and awe and educate museum visitors.
The beauty of butterflies is undeniable. Whether you’re gazing at the brilliant hues of a Blue Morpho, taking in the incredible delicacy of Rice Paper butterflies as they flit about, or staring at an Owl Butterfly as its wings stare right back at you, these incredible creatures captivate the viewer.
Just in time for Mother’s Day, you can adopt and release a butterfly right here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center! From 9-11 a.m. on May 10 for only $15 ($10 for members), you’ll be given a butterfly to release in the Butterfly Center and a personalized adoption certificate to take home. The perfect way to celebrate Mother’s Day, you can become a proud “parent” in your own right to one of nature’s most delicate and beautiful creatures.
For this blog, I thought I would share with you and answer some of the most common questions we get here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, specifically related to butterflies. The question that we get asked the most, by far, is:
“How long do the butterflies live?”
Well, typically they live in our center for about two weeks, but there are a few exceptions. The longwing butterflies, in the genus Heliconius, can live for months. They not only feed on nectar, but also pollen. They extract very nutritious amino acids from the pollen, which allows them to live longer. Another butterfly that seems to live a long time is the rice paper, Idea leuconoe.
“How many butterflies do you have in here?” There are anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 butterflies flying through the Butterfly Center at a time. On really, bright sunshine-y days when the butterflies are very happy it seems like there are way more than 2,000 and on gloomy cloudy days the butterflies hide and it seems like there are fewer than 1,500.
“What is that liquid in the red bowls?”
That is our butterfly feed. We cannot always guarantee fresh nectar from blooming flowers to the butterflies, so we supplement them with this instead. It is a mixture of 4 parts water to 1 part sugar with a cap full of amino fuel. Many people ask me if they can make a similar set up to put in their yard. Absolutely! But, do be prepared for ants and bees to take advantage of the nectar as well as the butterflies.
“Why do you have fruit and nectar for the butterflies?”
Some butterflies are nectar feeders and others are not. Most of the butterflies that do not drink nectar are fruit feeders. We like to give our butterflies a variety of tropical fruits, including kiwi, papaya, mango, cantalope and honeydew. They especially love super ripe black bananas and on occasion they get starfruit, which we pick from our tree in the butterfly center.
Some male butterflies, especially swallowtails and sulphurs, will do what we call “puddling.” They are attracted to salts and amino acids in mud and will actually drink from it, sometimes in very large numbers called a “puddle club.” It is thought that the males benefit from the salts, increasing their reproductive success – but of course it is not known for sure and scientist are still trying to work out the reason.
Some butterflies are also attracted to tree sap, carrion, and dung. Sometimes our iguana, Stretch, will leave some excrement behind and – low and behold – a butterfly will land on it and start drinking. We have even thought about collecting some iguana poop and putting it in a huge pile for the butterflies – but we eventually decided against that.
“Do the butterflies breed in here?”
The butterflies are free to mate but due to USDA regulations we are not allowed to provide them with host plants. Female butterflies will only lay eggs on a specific plant that her caterpillars can eat, so we have to make sure that no host plants are in the butterfly center. This involved alot of work when we first opened because we have so many species of butterflies and they do not all feed on the same plant.
The reasoning behind this policy is that the USDA believes that the escape potential of a caterpillar is greater than that of an adult butterfly; if the butterflies were allowed to lay eggs, then there would be caterpillars everywhere, and the chance of someone leaving with one on them would be pretty high.
Another obvious reason that we do not want caterpillars is that they would eat all our beautiful plants. Now, just because we do not want caterpillars in the butterfly center doesn’t mean we do not like them. Caterpillars are so much fun to have in your garden. If you plant the correct host plant, you can attract native butterflies to your yard. You can find a list of host plants that you can plant in Houston by clicking here.
“Why won’t that butterfly leave the other one alone?”
The butterflies in this video represent this question (It’s not the best quality, so sorry!). These butterflies are courting. Although they look like different butterflies, they are subspecies of the same species, Heliconius erato. The male is flying above the female trying to entice her to be his girlfriend with his wonderful smell. Sometimes the female is so attractive that two or three males will be courting her. This behavior can almost always be viewed in the butterfly center – you just have to look for it.
Another courting behavior that is encountered a lot is two butterflies chasing each other. They will flutter around each other in circles, resembling a graceful rehearsed dance. This normally happens in a nice sunny area, so look for it next time you are here.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my question/answer session. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comments and I will be happy to answer!