A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.

Ghosts in the Trees

Last night, I was reminded of how unusual some of the insects we raise here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center are to most people. I had set up a table in the grand hallway of the museum to promote our outreach program, cleverly titled “Bugs on Wheels.” As soon as I left the Butterfly Center’s doors, I had drawn a crowd that didn’t seem to subside for the entire evening!

I think what grabs most people’s attention are our exotic walking sticks, which we have been displaying for several years. As soon as people see our giant prickly stick, they commence with “what on earth is that?” type of comments, and I love to educate them!

Walking sticks belong to the insect order Phasmatodea or Phasmida. This name comes from the Latin word phasma, which means ghost. It refers to their amazing camouflage skills, which in the right setting, can make them vanish right before your eyes! These insects are all herbivorous and harmless, having no venom or large mandibles for biting. This makes them an easy target for insectivores! So they have come up with some pretty fantastic ways to protect themselves from predators. These insects have simple metamorphosis, so the immature nymphs, look like tiny versions of the adult. Here at the butterfly center, we raise 5 different species of exotic walking sticks. I’d like to share a little about each one with y’all!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
an immature female

The Giant Prickly Stick, or Extatasoma tiaratum, is one that really draws the crowds! The females are very large, 6 to 8 inches in length, and very fat! They range in color from light peach to dark red-orange. They are often – almost all the time, actually - mistaken for a scorpion. This is no accident, this species is native to Australia, the venom-capital of the world! They spend their entire lifetime hanging in eucalyptus trees feeding on the yummy foliage and easily folding themselves to resemble a dried up leaf.

If they are spotted by a potential predator, they will curl their abdomen to look remarkably like a scorpion. This warns predators that if they don’t want a nasty sting, they should stay far away. What a clever defense! Since they are, of course, completely harmless. They have a very soft exoskeleton which keeps them confined to the safety of the tree tops. If they need to do anything like lay an egg, they drop it to the leaf-covered ground. The females have small vestigial wings, but are incapable of flight. They can lay up to 1,000 eggs in their lifetime and can live a little over a year. The males are quite a bit smaller, very thin, and excellent fliers. They are equipped with much longer antennae than the female, which they use to sniff out a mate.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Spiny Devil

The Spiny Devil (Eurycantha calcarata), is a close neighbor of the prickly stick; they are native to New Guinea. These adorable stick insects have very different habits. They are equipped with a very hard exoskeleton that is covered in hard spines, especially the legs! Since they are a harder egg to crack, they are not as attractive to eager insect-eaters, plus, they put up quite a fight! They can use their legs as a weapon by squeezing with all of their strength. I can speak from experience and say, it hurts!

When threatened, they can put on quite a show, raising their abdomen and back legs. We like to call it “the handstand of pain!” Since the female has the freedom of reaching the ground, she uses the pointy tip of her abdomen (her ovipositor) to lay her eggs deep in the soil. The male and female look quite similar, both are wingless and they are nearly equal in size. Both sexes can live for about a year and a half as adults – not bad! The male does have one distinguishing characteristic, a single very large spine on his hind femur.

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Creative Commons License photo credit:
emills1 Ouch!

They are very territorial and use this spine for fighting. They can seriously injure or even kill another male during combat. Still want to mess with these guys? Well, the males can also emit a very foul chemical that smells just like a skunk. However, they are usually pretty laid back.

The Phyllium celebicum or moving leaf insect is a breath of fresh air. These leaf mimics are petite, dainty, have no spines or smells, and are 100 percent cute! They inhabit the rain forests of Malaysia.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Since they have no other defense mechanisms, their camouflage has to be absolutely perfect, and well, see for yourself! They also spend their entire lives in the canopy, dropping their eggs to the ground haphazardly. The female, pictured right, has larger wings than the Giant Prickly Stick, but their only function is camouflage. The male is half the size of the female and he’s an amazing flyer! These live a little under a year and we love to have them around.

I actually noticed something very interesting from observing them. The outer 1/2 inch of the female’s body is only a layer of skin, and all of the organs are arranged down the very middle of the abdomen. This is important because I started seeing a couple of them missing chunks of their abdomen, but they didn’t appear to be injured. I’m sure they get nibbled on by several herbivores in the wild - it’s a pretty cool adaptation.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Sharing the same rain forest is the Giant Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). They are spectacular, very large and beautiful. The females are bright green and usually 7 inches in length with a wide abdomen. They have small wings which they rub against their bodies to produce a hissing noise. Their thorax, abdomen, and legs have rows of sharp spines. When disturbed they thrash around violently and they also do “the handstand of pain.”

They spend most of their time in the trees and only travel to the ground to lay their eggs. The male is brown and only about 4 inches long. They have bright crimson hind wings and are very showy. They are always very nervous and thrash around a lot! This species is harder than the others to raise. They need high humidity and they take a long time to develop.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
a male

The eggs take around 17 months to hatch and the nymphs take over a year to develop into adults. This species can be very aggressive, but we always end up with a few that can be handled, they are very curious and active. 

The last resident of southeast Asia is the Annam stick insect (Baculum extradentatum). These look very similar to our native walking sticks. They are very slender and really resemble a twig. These are interesting little creatures. When disturbed, they will essentially go limp and flop to the ground. It’s really the only option for them since they are so defenseless.

The most interesting thing about this species is that they can be completely parthenogenic. This means that the females can reproduce without males. We do have males in our populations and it is a full time job making sure we don’t have too many individuals. They are egg-laying machines. Their life span is about a year and males and females look very similar, but the males are much smaller.

These walking sticks are some of the most amazing insects I’ve worked with. I’m so impressed with their diversity and beauty. Next time you see them in the Entomology Hall or in the Grand Hall, come by and see them, you’ll certainly be amazed!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
male
Baculum





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!