Attention: Butterfly Enthusiasts!

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “when is the best time to visit the Cockrell Butterfly Center?”  or “when can I come and enjoy exhibit without being surrounded by school children?” Well, this is it folks, right now – the best time ever to come and enjoy the exhibit halls of HMNS in relative calm and quiet.

September is a very slow month for us here. Children have just returned to school, field trips have not started and most everyone is too busy to even think about a trip to the museum. I would guess that most museums in the district go through this in the fall as well. It gives us some much needed time to slow down and work on things that we’re not able to get to during the busy spring and summer. I really enjoy the quiet and we can literally hear crickets chirping in the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

Butterfly - London Butterfly House, London, England - Sunday September 9th 2007
Creative Commons License photo credit: law_keven
The Indian Leafwing

What does this mean? This is a perfect time for a nice, relaxing visit, especially to the Butterfly Center. We still have plenty of sunny warm days where you can see a thousand butterflies flying around. If you are a photographer that is discouraged by the crowds, this is a great time to come and get some nice pictures. If you are a mother or father that stays home with small children, what a wonderful time for you. The noise and chaos of large school groups can be very intimidating to small children, especially if they have never been here before. I can’t stress enough what a great time this is to visit, so if you’re working, take a day off and take advantage of the amazing places that make up Houston’s famous Museum district!

Right now, we have some absolutely amazing butterflies flying and  awesome insects in our Entomology Hall. If you are wild about blue morphos (who isn’t?), you’ll love these! The Indian Leafwing (Kallima paralekta) is a rare treat for us from Southeast Asia! Their camouflage is incredible. They look exactly like a leaf while at rest, but when they open their wings, they display brilliant blue and orange. They are one of my very favorites!

Another one we’ve been getting lately is the one-spotted prepona (Archaeprepona demophon). This butterfly, from Central and South America, is often mistaken for a blue morpho, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it’s quite different!

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Archaeprepona demophon
Glasswing Butterfly
Creative Commons License photo credit: wwarby
Clear Wing Butterfly

If you have very, very good eyes, you may be able to spot our tiny Greta oto, also known as the clear wing, or glass wing. They are so small, but very beautiful and elegant! They also come from Central and South America and despite their size, have a big personality! As caterpillars, they feed on poisonous plants. They retain these toxins into adulthood, making them distasteful to predators. The males exhibit a type of behavior known as lekking. This is a mating behavior where males gather on a daily basis, in the same area, and assume the same position within a circular arena. Here, they put on mating displays, dances, and even engage in fighting, depending on the animal. Females come to the lek to be fertilized.

You will not find these butterflies on our identification chart. We don’t get them often, so hopefully you will make the trip to see them! As always, we have some spectacular insects on display as well, including exotic and native beetles, katydids, walking sticks, spiders, scorpions, and creepy roaches! Well, not creepy to me.

I hope you will take advantage of this quiet time of the year. Come and bask in the peace and serenity of an almost empty butterfly center and hopefully have one of your favorite visits here at HMNS! Happy bug watching!

Bugs are Amazing!

Well, it’s officially summer here in Texas and Houston is literally buzzing with insect activity! I don’t know about you, but I have about 18 mosquito bites and I’m sure there will be many more to come. Bugs are everywhere now and this is the best time of year for them.

People always ask me why I’m so interested in bugs and why would I want to work with them for a living. Most people are so concerned with how gross or weird they are to see how amazing they can be. The more I get to know them, the more I want to know – they just blow me away! Hopefully you will feel the same. I wanted to share some amazing insect facts with ya’ll so maybe while you’re out and about this summer, you’ll think a little differently about our little friends!

First thing’s first, Arthropods are the phylum that insects belong to and includes all of their close relatives like arachnids, crustaceans, and myriapods. There are an estimated 1,170,000 known species on earth. Those are only the ones we know about; there are probably millions more waiting to be discovered!

Of these, about 1,000,000 species are insects, which account for more than half of all known living species on earth…that’s amazing! Scientists believe that there are up to 9,000,000 more species that have yet to be discovered, OMG.

So lets compare that with some other animals shall we? There are 5400 species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 8200 species of reptiles, and somewhere around 6000 species of amphibians.

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The largest order of insects are the beetles with 350,000 species making them the most abundant animal on earth. In fact, 1 in every 4 animals is a beetle! Coming in second are butterflies and moths, with 170,000 species. The largest insect (heaviest) is a beetle called the Goliath Beetle. They can weigh 4 ounces, which is as much as a quarter pound burger (meat only.) The longest is a walking stick from Southeast Asia measuring 22 inches.

Think insects all have short lifespans? Think again. Cicadas can live 17 years underground before becoming adults, ant and bee queens can live for decades and one type of wood boring beetle emerged as an adult after being in a bookcase for 40 years, yikes!

The loudest insect is an African cicada. We are used to hearing cicadas during the hot summer days. I heard cicadas in Costa Rica that were so loud I thought they were birds at first! The African cicada can produce sounds that have been recorded at 106.7 decibels. In comparison, a jackhammer produces about 100 decibels.

grasshopper chomping on my leg hair
Creative Commons License photo credit: slopjop

Most people know that Monarch butterflies migrate pretty far, but did you know that locusts travel much further? They have them beat by a couple thousand miles. They have been known to travel nearly 3000 miles one way! One species even flew from Africa, across the Atlantic ocean to South America; now that’s amazing! They also win in terms of the largest swarms. The largest swarm was recorded in Africa in 1954. It was so huge it covered an area of 77 square miles. That’s kind of scary.

Insects are pretty amazing fliers. They were the first animals to take to the air, about 200 million years before the first birds. Dragonflies are up there, having been clocked at 36 miles per hour, but the horsefly can reach speeds of more than 90 miles per hour! A hummingbird can beat its wings about 60-80 times per second,  pretty impressive. A tiny fly called a midge can beat its wings up to 1000 times per SECOND, that’s unbelievable.

When it comes to foot racing, we do have a super star, right here in Houston. The American cockroach(big one with wings) can reach speeds of 3.4 miles per hour. Now that doesn’t sound fast, but in human terms, it would be like one of us running 400 miles per hour. The Australian tiger beetle is the fastest clocking in at 5.6 mph, which is the equivalent of 720 mph for a human.

European rhino beetle taking a walk on a concrete mixer
Creative Commons License photo credit: e³°°°

All insects are of course very strong, being able to carry or move things many many times their own body weight. A well known beetle, the rhino beetle can carry up to 850 times its own weight. That would be like an average guy, maybe 175 pounds, being able to lift 150,000 pounds. Good luck with that!

So see, insects are pretty darn incredible. It may even make you feel better to know that out of the million species of insects that exist on earth, less than 1 percent are considered to be pests or harmful to humans. The vast majority live in tropical regions like Asia, Africa, and South America, with the highest concentration in rainforests. I could go on and on about the feats of insects, but I’ll save some  for another time. Until then, I hope you all can learn to appreciate the most incredible, beautiful, and diverse life forms on our planet. Happy bug watching!

A Nature Walk through Hermann Park

Wax myrtle is a tree that is eaten by the 5 species of exotic walking sticks that we have here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, as well as some of our grasshoppers and other herbivores. Recently, while trying to catch dragonflies (don’t ask), I stumbled upon not one, or two, but tons of these trees in Hermann Park! They were all over the place between the Japanese Gardens and the Houston Zoo. Now, every week I have a nice walk down to that part of Hermann Park to enjoy these trees, and every time I go, it’s a different adventure! 

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A handsome Wood Duck

Today I thought I would take my camera and document some of the great things I saw: vibrant wildflower plants, amazing wildlife and people enjoying a beautiful day. It’s a really nice way to get out of the office and I always look forward to what I’ll see. I love all kinds of wildlife, not just bugs of course!

Hermann Park is filled with so many different species, especially birds, many of which are ducks. The wood duck is just one of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Their colors are amazing and they have such a distinguished look. These ducks nest in trees near water sources. The ducklings jump out of the nest, falling several feet to the ground without being hurt. Many people consider them the most beautiful water bird, and I can see why. This duck was not shy with the camera!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Great Blue Heron

Another bird that I am always happy to see is the Great Blue Heron. The first time I saw one of these take flight, I was so impressed. They are huge birds, but are so graceful and delicate. Seeing these majestic birds completely makes me forget that I’m in the middle of the 4th largest city in the United States. There were two of them today, hiding behind tall plants in the water. Luckily one came out of hiding for me! 

My visits have become even more special recently with the beginning of spring. Dragonflies and butterflies have taken to the air. Aquatic insects dart around the surface of the ponds, feeding fish, tadpoles and baby turtles. The babies are my very favorite part of spring! I’ve been lucky enough to encounter several ducklings on my last couple of visits. Their numbers have decreased, but the surviving ducklings are getting bigger and depending less on their mothers. I saw one today swimming by itself looking for food. It’s still pretty fuzzy and cute!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
A duckling – how precious!
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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I was also able to photograph a dragonfly. If you’ve ever tried, you know it can be very frustrating! They scare so easily and it’s so hard to get up close. The key is definitely patience. Dragonflies are very territorial and will always come back to the same perch or one near it. If you keep at it, you will be able to catch a couple of shots of one.

Once I had gathered enough food for my insects and lollygagged around enough, I started to make my way back to work – but not without seeing the very familiar, adorable face of a squirrel. I’ve always loved squirrels for their cuteness and fun-loving personalities. They definitely have a way of helping me to forget about any stress. You can’t watch them without snickering a little bit. This squirrel seemed a little confused about what I was doing, but he gave me some really great poses.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

I really should bring my camera every time, as today was actually kind of a slow day for wildlife. I’ve also seen nutria, red-eared sliders, box turtles, whistling ducks, sea gulls, bull frogs, and tons of insects! Hermann Park really is a gem. It is such a historically significant part of our city and it is filled with so many simple, wonderful things to do. I encourage everyone to get out every once in a while to enjoy nature wherever it may be. You never know what you will see and how it can brighten your day!

Happy nature watching! 

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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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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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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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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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!