Crawlies, Un-creeped: the Truth Behind Your Arthropod Phobias

Here’s a task for you: try to rid your audience of their phobias by taking up-close photos of some of the creepiest bugs in our collection. Some are venomous, some do bite, but as usual, none of them want to hurt humans. Any bite or sting in the world of arthropods is an act of self-protection. Unless, of course, you’re prey…

Let’s start with insects. Take a look at this guy (or girl, rather).bug12

This is a female giant Asian mantis, Hierodula membranacea. With her spiny forelegs used for catching prey and her habit of devouring other bugs alive (not to mention her tiny pupils that look right at you), she seems pretty creepy. And she’s big at about five inches long and flies! But she’s not poisonous, doesn’t bite, and is practically harmless. In Asia, mantises are revered for their patience and hunting prowess, and are kept as pets. Creep factor: 4. Real danger: 0.

Now how about this big beetle?bug10

Size alone might keep you from allowing the Atlas beetle, Chalcosoma atlas, to crawl all over you, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating species. Its elytra or wing sheaths on its abdomen are incredibly strong and have a green iridescence. Its inch-long horns pose no threat to humans, but the beetle does use them to fight other beetles for mates. The front horn is attached to its head and is mobile, while the hind pair are attached to its thorax and remain still. Creep factor: 2.5. Real danger: 0.

Now let’s look at some roaches.


I’ll be honest. These are my great phobia. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, Gromphadorhina portentosa, emit a sound when threatened, but they are harmless. In spite of their creepiness, they are some of the oldest and most vital insects on Earth, acting as a clean-up crew that will eat just about anything, turning waste into nutrients that plants can use. Roach species keep themselves immaculately clean and will not hurt you, and these ones don’t even fly. Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Nancy Greig finds these little guys cute and cuddly, and I’m trying hard to see them through her eyes. One day, Nancy. One day… Creep factor: 6.5 (according to Jason). Real danger: 0.

Check this out.bug13

The white-eyed assassin bug, Platymeris biguttatus, is the first on the list that can harm humans. It injects venomous saliva into its prey, moves quickly, and flies. They stalk other insects, pounce and bite in a flash, then suck the fluids out of their victims. Assassin bugs are true bugs in that they belong to the insect order Hemiptera and are mainly characterized by their mouthparts which are modified for piercing and sucking. Their bite is more painful than a bee sting. Pretty creepy, but what you don’t touch can’t hurt you. I’d say they’re more awesome than scary. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 2.5.

As they say, go big or go home. Take a look at this!


This strange-looking fella is a giant jungle nymph, Heteropteryx dilatata. No lie, it’s big. About eight inches of spiny legs, long antennae and small wings. When you touch its back, it fluffs its wings, emits a noise that sounds like a ratcheting wrench, and arches its abdomen like a scorpion to make itself appear larger. Here’s an example:


While the insect is harmless, this display can be intimidating for those unfamiliar with the species. Creep factor: 4.5. Real danger: 0.

Here’s another big guy.


This female spiny devil, Eurycantha calcarata, is less aggressive than the male of her species, which has pronounced spines on its back legs. When disturbed or seized by a predator, this seven-inch-long insect thrashes its abdomen back and forth, using its spines to injure its enemies. Since our skin is much softer than its exoskeleton, the spiny devil can inflict a nasty puncture wound without biting or stinging. Creep factor: 3.5. Real danger: 1.5.

Now let’s move on to arachnids.bug9

Boom. Burn the house down. If you’re arachnophobic, there’s nothing more frightful than the goliath bird-eater tarantula, Theraphosa blondi. This tarantula, named Birdie, is locally famous for her size — about seven inches across, much larger than the palm of your hand — and her feistiness. Like many tarantulas, when threatened, Birdie scrapes tiny barbed hairs from her abdomen which can irritate and blind the eyes of mammals and other predators. She has venomous fangs, eight legs and two pedipalps for snatching her victims. You wouldn’t want to pick her up. However, she is a beautiful specimen with her mocha-colored fluff, and her athleticism as a predator is remarkable. This girl lives up to her name and can occasionally prey on birds in the wild. And like any spider, she won’t hurt you if you don’t mess with her. Creep factor: 9. Real danger: 4.

While we’re on the subject of tarantulas…


How about this well-fed Costa Rican curly-hair, Brachypelma albopilosum? Unlike the goliath bird-eater, the curly-hair is much more docile, but no less efficient at catching and envenomating her prey. I wouldn’t pick one up in the wild, but our entomologists handle this spider, named Peanut, on a regular basis with very little trouble. Creep factor: 8. Real danger: 2.

Last tarantula, but certainly not least… 


You arachnophobes are probably like, jeez, how many tarantulas does the world need? This Chilean rose-hair tarantula, Grammostola rosea, is more docile than the curly-hair. In the right light, the fur on her cephalothorax glows with a red iridescence, plus she’s cute and cuddly. She still has fangs, though. Always respect the fangs. Creep factor: 7. Real danger: 2.

Now for some little guys.


Size isn’t a factor with this famous creep-tastic black widow spider, Latrodectus mactans, but her bite is potentially deadly to humans. Symptoms of a black widow bite can include localized pain and swelling around the bite, muscle cramps, tremors, abdominal pain and vomiting. If you think you have been bitten by a black widow, seek medical treatment. The red hourglass shape on the underside of her abdomen is an advertisement for danger, but it also allows us to easily identify the spider if a bite does occur. These shiny, black arachnids hide in crevices away from humans, but can occupy places like barns and sheds and can be aggressive around their egg sacs. I’d say the danger here outweighs this spider’s creepiness. But yet again, they are good at what they do, have evolved a powerfully efficient venom, and won’t hurt you if you don’t disturb them. And she’s like a little black pearl with legs. Creep factor: 6.5. Danger: 9.

Let’s look at another small-but-deadly spider.


The brown recluse, Loxosceles reclusa, prefers dark places to hide in, similar to the black widow, and their venom is just as formidable, though they are non-aggressive and only bite when threatened, usually when pressed up against a victim’s skin. Their venom, used to catch their prey, contains enzymes that break down skin, fat, and blood vessels in humans, leading to localized necrotic tissue if left untreated, serious medical conditions and eventually death. If bitten, seek medical attention. You can recognize a brown recluse by the violin shape on its cephalothorax, which is pretty cool if you ask me. For this reason alone, I’d call the brown recluse the classiest and most musical of spiders. Who else garbs themselves in classical instruments? Creep factor: 6. Real danger: 7. 

Finally, and most creepily, look at the adaptations on this guy!


To my eye, whipscorpions, Mastigoproctus giganteus, are about as creepy as it gets. It’s big at around four inches in length, has eight legs and a pair of pinchers, and a whip-like tail in place of a stinger. They are carnivorous, feeding on millipedes, slugs, and even cockroaches (which makes them my friends, of course). While some species of whipscorpions can exude an acidic compound when threatened, which smells like vinegar, they are harmless to humans. Plus, look at how awesome they are! They’re like the Indiana Jones of arachnids! Creep factor: 10. Real danger: 0.

Visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these creepy arthropods in action and learn more about their unique and fascinating adaptations.



Pinchers, stingers and claws, oh my.

Scorpion in Question
Creative Commons License photo credit: furryscaly

“How do you count scorpions?” Well, carefully is the best answer. The same can be said for any animals with either pinchers, claws, or really sharp teeth. That pretty much covers the majority of our animal collection here (except for the amphibians).

The next question that pops to mind is: why would you count scorpions? Like many institutions that maintain animal collections, an inventory is essential and often required by law. Check out this article from the Seattle Times on the London Zoo, when they were taking inventory of their collection.

While our collection is much smaller, we still have to keep proper notes and update our inventory list. It just seems a bit tedious when you are trying to count roaches. Prolific, fast-moving roaches. See how many you count in the picture below and then imagine what happens when you scare them.

Roaches! by gifninja

Aerial shots of our Roach Dome – a simulated
home environment exhibit in the Butterfly Center,
where we house numerous cockroaches for display.

Poisoning Pesky Pests

 © 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.)

  © 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.

 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, ).  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.

 © 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!   

Because One Roach Post Just Isn’t Enough

texas sized cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit: sirtrentalot

In my previous post about roaches, I let you know that roaches are helpful to man even if you don’t want to snuggle with them. Now I would like to give you a few fun facts to let you know why they are kinda awesome. In no particular order:

  • Roaches are 340 million years old. That means that they were around even before the dinosaurs.
  • Roaches have amazing little bodies.  The antennae of a cockroach have more than 130 segments each and act as sensory organs for measuring temperature, motion and scent.  Each of their eyes has more than 2,000 compound lenses in addition to a simple eye spot.  Their ears are located in their knee joints.  Their blood is pigment-less and they have no veins or arteries.  Their blood simply flows through their body cavity.
  • Roaches can live several weeks without a head (if proper measures are taken to keep them from bleeding out) because they have two separate and distinct brains.  The first brain is in their head and is the “major” brain.  It deals with complex issues.  The second brain is in the tail and is a simple and “minor” brain.  This brain mostly deals with “RUN!” The nerves of roaches are also 10x faster than ordinary nerves.  This, in conjunction with their minor brain, keeps them several centimeters in front of your foot.
  • Speaking of brains… Roaches are slightly less smart than an octopus.  If you have ever met an octopus, that is saying quite a bit.
  • All of the 5 families of roaches have 4 things in common. 1) They have thick leathery forewings, 2) grasshopper like mouth parts designed for chewing, 3) simple life cycles (no caterpillar or cocoon, 4) and they all make ootheca – hard shelled capsules in which females deposit their eggs.
  • Roaches are in all 50 states and found on every land mass that falls 30 degrees north or south of the Equator.
  • Approximately 40 new species of roach are discovered each year.  The current number of roach species know hovers around 3,500.  Out of those 3,500, about 1.5% are considered domestic pests. For comparison, there are about 4,700 know species of mammals. 
  • There are 5 species of cockroach in the United States – the American, German, Smoky Brown, Oriental, and Brown Banned.  None of these is native to North America.
  • What’s in a name? Cockroach comes from the Greek blattae meaning “domestic pests.” The Romans changed things up slightly when they translated it to mean “pests that flee from light.”  But in fairness, the term included mice and other critters too. Also of note, until WWII, the German cockroach was called the French cockroach.  Hmm.
  • Aggressive behavior in male cockroaches, and I am not making this up, include “stilt walking,” body jerking, biting and kicking (much like the teenager of today).
  • Roaches can stand an obscene amount of radiation.  In humans, 300 rads can cause cellular level change.  400 to 1,000 rads over a 2- to 3-week period is lethal.  Experiments conducted in the 1960s showed adult, German cockroaches could survive a 6,400 rad dose. 
  • And finally, roaches don’t like cucumbers or tomatoes for some reason.  Check that out next time you are at your favorite buffet.
Creative Commons License photo credit: telethon