About Erin M

As an entomologist at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, Erin designs, creates, and maintains exhibits for the Entomology Hall, raises and cares for live insects and insect relatives, and educates the public about the wonderful world of bugs.

FIELD TRIP!!! Bug Hunting in Southeast Texas

The summer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is always an interesting time. The hallways, offices, and classrooms are filled with children, eco-teens, and other interesting folks volunteering their time or just looking for a summer job. It’s a wonderful time because everywhere you look there is a smiling face and someone willing to pitch in to help wherever needed.

Every year, we have a horticulture intern that is sponsored by the Houston Garden Club. We have gotten to know such bright, delightful college students this way and we really look forward to the company and extra help.

his year, we have Felicia English from Stephen F. Austin State University. She has been a great addition to our team here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center. We have also been lucky to have Deborah Wagner helping out on the Entomology side of things. She’s currently getting her Masters in Museum and Field Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Since we have these new people around, we like to entertain them with things like lunches out to our favorite eclectic spots and field trips. Field trips usually have an emphasis on horticulture and are to places like nurseries, botanical gardens, etc. This year, we decided to take an Entomology field trip first! This was a little out of the ordinary for us as a staff, but super exciting for me and our other staff Entomologist Lauren. So we headed out to Bear Creek Park one morning in hopes of seeing some great bugs!

I have to admit, I wasn’t super optimistic about what we would see, considering the extreme drought Southeast Texas has been experiencing. But it wasn’t long after we arrived that we spotted our first insect, a velvet ant!

Velvet Ants!

Velvet Ant (1974)
Creative Commons License photo credit: Hunter-Desportes

These are cool critters! They are very common in East Texas. They are only active during certain times in the morning and afternoon, so spotting them is always a treat! If you’ve never seen one, you’d probably be in for quite a surprise!

They are large, nearly an inch in size, fuzzy, red and black creatures that resemble huge ants. They have no wings and scurry around much like an ant, but they are actually a type of wasp. The females are wingless. They live in burrows and eat nectar. They hunt solitary ground-nesting bees to feed to their larvae. The males are quite a bit smaller, not as fuzzy, and look more like a typical wasp. They have wings and are rarely seen.  We often have these on display in the Entomology Hall and probably will have them at the end of the summer. They’re very fun to watch and are awfully cute!

Walking Sticks!

Not even 5 minutes had gone by until someone cried out, “I found some walking sticks!”  “Wow, seriously?” I thought! Zac, our horticulturist had been digging  in some rotten wood when he came across a small colony of Western two-striped walking sticks.

These are no ordinary walking sticks. Aside from an elongated body, they don’t look much like sticks! They have two longitudinal stripes running down their backside, and they are pretty pudgy for a walking stick. The females can be about 3 to 4 inches in length and the males are much smaller. The males are often seen riding on the female’s back and are usually mistaken for a baby because of the size difference! Pairs usually stay connected after mating. The male has a much shorter lifespan than the female, so as a result the female is often seen dragging the males lifeless body after her wherever she goes!

These walking sticks are known by many other names, including musk mares because of the defensive fluid they secrete from the sides of their thorax. This milky substance has a foul odor and can irritate mucus membranes. They can aim a stream for up to 40 centimeters and will aim for the eyes. Needless to say, a shot in the eye will result in pain, temporary blindness, and other unpleasant consequences, but luckily the effects are not permanent! We came away with 3 males and 4 females, more than enough to display and start a colony with. Despite the nasty defense, they are interesting critters and the fluid is easy to avoid!

Bug Watching!
Tiger Swallowtail

Back on the path, we headed further in to the forest, not seeing much of anything and feeling bad about how parched everything looked. We were happy with what we had encountered so far, however.

The surprises kept coming!

We had not expected to see any butterflies whatsoever until a very large, dark colored butterfly came soaring over our heads, coming to light on a branch up ahead. As we got closer we saw a female tiger swallowtail hungrily sipping nectar from a buttonbush, which as it turns out, is a great nectar source if you’re interested in butterfly gardening!

What we saw was the dark form of the female Eastern tiger swallowtail. Males have yellow wings with 4 black tiger stripes, while the female can have yellow wings, like the male, or black wings, like the one we saw. Any sighting of this breathtaking butterfly is awesome!

We also came accross an injured hackberry tree with sap oozing from the wounds. The sap was attracting tawny emperors from all over the forest to take advantage. The butterflies did not scare away easily and allowed us to take many pictures of the spectacle. We were very pleased!

Bug Watching!
Tawny Emperors

Buprestid Beetle!

As we went farther, there was one thing on my mind, lubber grasshoppers! I knew from early trips to this park with my friend Laurie that we would reach a creek with a bridge over it. On the other side of that bridge we could possibly find tons of lubber grasshoppers to bring back with us!

A few years ago, in the same area, there were so many of them that we had to try hard not to step on them! But, that was a very wet summer and I did not have high hopes. As we went along, everyone had their eyes peeled! We got to the bridge and right before we crossed it Zac, our horticulturist, had something fly right into his head. It was not what we were looking for, but it was quite a find!

A red-legged buprestid beetle. Buprestids are known as metallic wood-boring beetles and are on of those families that has many absolutely breathtaking species of beetles. Metallic, colorful, jewels of nature. This was a spectacular species that is actually no too common in our area, bonus!

Bug Watching!
Buprestid Beatle

Lubber Grasshoppers: Found!

So, over the bridge we headed, not before seeing a couple of alligator gars in the creek! Not 5 minutes after we crossed the bridge did someone pipe up, “found a lubber,” “oh here’s another,” “I found one too!”

Oh my gosh, they were everywhere! We caught as many as we could until they all started to retreat into a huge poison ivy patch. They were actually eating the poison ivy! We already know that lubber grasshoppers have bright coloration to warn potential redators that they are poisonous. We also know that they get their poison from eating nasty plants in the wild (if you don’t know, read my post about lubber grasshoppers!), so seeing them eat that nasty poison ivy was not a surprise!

Bug Watching!
Lubber Grasshoppers

We came back with about a dozen which will live out the rest of their lives on display and teaching kids about bugs. They are very well cared for, in fact, totally spoiled! It was a great feeling to know that even though the weather has been harsh, we still have a hot spot for lubbers and other amazing native Texan insects!

We had a great adventure and a lot of fun together as a staff. We saw not only the insects we were hoping for, but also other wildlife such as birds, fish, other invertebrates, and I even saw a deer! No one else saw it and many of them thought I was crazy, but I definitely saw one!

It was fun for me to be able to teach our horticulture staff a little bit about the fine art of bug huntin! Later, we visited Moody Gardens in Galveston. The rainforest pyramid has recently been renovated and it’s really neat! They have a slew of different wildlife in there including, white faced saki monkeys, cotton top tamarins, macaws, sloths, and many other things. Not to mention the plants in their conservatory are absolutely gorgeous! I would definitely recommend a visit there.

Next for me is my annual conference in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. This is another favorite part of the summer for me. There’s nothing like bug nerds from around the country meeting in a lush insect habitat for a week. I can’t wait to tell you folks all about it!

Until next time, happy bug watching!

Photo From You: Insect Identification

Egyptian star cluster / Pentas lanceolata / 草山丹花(クササンタンカ)
Creative Commons License photo credit: TANAKA Juuyoh (田中十洋)

If you’re an avid, or even amateur butterfly gardener, you are probably familiar with pentas.

Pentas, also known as star clusters, are one of our favorite nectar sources for butterflies and hummingbirds. They have medium-dark green foliage with clusters of small 5-petal flowers that come in a variety of colors. I love them because they are very heat and drought tolerant! I try not to forget about watering my poor plants, but with 3 dogs, 2 turtles and a husband all needing my attention, they sometimes go by the wayside.

I was very surprised and pleased when, despite my neglect, my pentas grew tall and flowered often, providing yummy nectar for all of my butterfly, bee and fly visitors! If you’re familiar with this versatile plant, you may have seen our mystery bug for the month.


Picture from
Crosby, Texas

This picture (immediate right) was taken in Crosby, Texas. I immediately recognized it as a Tersa Sphinx caterpillar. Naturally, we have a lot of pentas here at the Butterfly Center and we have run into this caterpillar more than once!

I can tell it’s a sphinx moth caterpillar, also known as a hornworm, by the pointed protuberance  on its last segment. It stands out from other hornworms because it has a pair of eyespots on each abdominal segment, including one very large pair of eye spots on it’s first abdominal segment, similar to those on a spicebush swallowtail.

shade
Creative Commons License photo credit: lecates
The greenform,
showing eye-spots and horn

When the caterpillar feels threatened, it can retract it’s thorax into it’s abdomen, putting those eyespots in the face of a would-be predator in hopes to intimidate them.  They can be green, brown, or gray. After happily snacking on the leaves of pentas, firebush, buttonplant, or other similar woody plants, these caterpillars pupate close to the surface of the soil.

Adult moths fly starting at sunset and can often be mistaken for hummingbirds due to their large size and flight capabilities. Hawkmoths can hover next to flowers just like hummingbirds! These moths can be found all along the Gulf Coast and throughout most of the Eastern US. They reach far down through Mexico and into South America. They are not considered to be major pests and when we’ve found caterpillars there really hasn’t been major damage to our plants. They are just another cute caterpillar to observe and they’re very safe to touch and handle!

If you’re stumped by a creature in your garden, feel free to send in a photo. Or better yet, bring it in for us to see! We’re always happy to help with identification!

We have heard from a few folks that are over-run with caterpillars, grasshoppers, or other creepy crawlies. If this is happening to you, don’t kill them, donate them! We can sometimes use them for educational programs or display purposes! If you are interested in any of this, please send an e-mail to blogadmin@hmns.org.

Until next time, happy bug watching!

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!

Photo from You: Insect Identification

Last week we received a photo of a very bizarre looking insect from Melissa who lives in the Seattle area. I had an idea of what it was when I opened the file, but it was a bit of a head scratcher!

For the most part, all insects in a particular order share the same distinguishing characteristics and it’s easy (for me) to tell what group they belong to. Grasshoppers look like grasshoppers, butterflies like butterflies, wasps like wasps, etc. But there are some exceptions to the rule. Some moths mimic beetles, some flies mimic bees, and some insects just look like 3 different things at once! This was the case with the bug Melissa found.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

It is a very alien-like creature called a plume moth. Plume moths do not look like the typical moth or butterfly. But then again, since there are about 250,000 species (10 times the amount of butterflies) of highly variable insects known as moths, there really isn’t a typical moth.

At first glance, a plume moth resembles a crane fly. You know those large clumsy flies you see in the spring, whose legs fall off if you look at them wrong. They have very thin wings that are divided into lobes. The forewings typically consist of two lobes and the hindwings have 3.  At rest, many species hold their wings straight with the lobes folded together, making them look like a “T.” There are 154 species of these moths found in north America, making species identification very difficult and often requiring a microscope. The adults are quite inconsequential and can go relatively unnnoticed. They’re often mistaken for a bit of dead grass! This allows them to be easily overlooked by potential predators and most other things.

Luckily Melissa noticed this one enough to snap a picture so we could learn about this cool insect. The caterpillars are the most significant life stage and can be pests on some crops such as artichokes and ornamentals such as geraniums and snapdragons. On the other hand, they have been used as biological control to combat invasive plants such as West Indian lantana.

Photo by Melissa Mashock

Even though I’m an entomologist, there are a million described species of insects, most of which I’ve never seen. I always love the challenge of identifying different species that people find in their particular corners of the world. Then I can add another species to the list of ones I know about. And by reading, you can too!

I encourage everyone to spend some time outside observing the smaller things that are out there. If you find something that interests you, snap a picture, and send it in to blogadmin@hmns.org. We love to receive these kinds of queries! We’ll identify and feature your bug in our blog.

Until next time, happy bug watching!