Our first Friday Feeding Frenzy in photos: Join us at the Butterfly Center every Friday this summer!

Last Friday we launched our new summer program aimed at getting patrons involved in some of our behind-the-scenes, day-to-day maintenance of the Cockrell Butterfly Center: the Friday Feeding Frenzy!

Every Friday this summer, the Butterfly Center staff will feed their live animal collection in the view of our patrons, allowing you guys to learn a little bit more about how these creatures keep themselves fit and fierce.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Green tree pythons like the ones that live in the Butterfly Center are equipped with heat sensors that enable them to sense their prey. Like their counterpart in the Americas, the emerald tree boa, the python constricts its prey.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Our pythons are fed frozen mice (to kill any harmful germs and bacteria) that are warmed up to resemble live prey. The python above was captured just after he struck.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

A young crowd gathers to examine the millipede and centipedes that live in the Butterfly Center. While millipedes are harmless, the Vietnamese centipede is an aggressive, predatory arthropod that packs a powerful sting.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Although its name would imply that it has 100 legs, this centipede actually has far fewer. Still, it is fast, voracious and will eat anything smaller than itself — including small lizards and mammals.

Friday Feeding Frenzy at the Cockrell Butterfly Center

Above, a praying mantis rather brutally devours a live cricket.

It’s a pretty fabulous buggy buffet. And best of all, it’s totally FREE! All you need is a ticket for entrance to the Cockrell Butterfly Center. For more information, including a full schedule of feeding times, click here.

Look What I Found! Exotic insects in the Houston area

I know I tend to “toot the horns” of the exotic insects that we have here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center. They really are incredible and most people, including myself (for now at least),would not get the chance to see these animals without traveling to their individual countries of origin. I must say, though, that Texas, and especially Houston, has some pretty cool bugs! I’m always amazed to see what kinds will pop up. We often get phone calls from people who have found interesting bugs around their homes. Most of the time I suggest leaving them be. I definitely believe that animals are happier in their natural habitats and I hate to keep something in captivity just for the heck of it. Sometimes, however, someone will find something that is useful for display purposes or just too dang cool to pass up!

This happened to us twice last week! First, a gentleman brought a Giant Sonoran Centipede (AKA Giant Redheaded) that he found at Canyon Lake. I love Canyon Lake! My family had a house out there when I was a child and I have many fond memories. None of them include finding anything like this!!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

 This guy was a little camera shy, but all you’re missing is a very menacing red-orange head! These centipedes are very common in West Texas and the Southwestern United States; occasionally, they are found in the hill country and sometimes even close to Houston.  I think it’s very important to teach people the difference between centipedes and millipedes and what better example is there? Centipedes can be dangerous – especially this one. They are predators capable of injecting venom with their fangs. Most centipedes are harmless to people, but because of its size and potent venom, this one can do some damage. They are not particularly aggressive, just don’t try to handle them, ouch!

Later in the week, two men called and tried to describe what they had found on their front porch. Several things went through my mind, but as usual, I had to see it to get a positive identification. What they brought me was something I’d never seen before here in Texas.  I had, however, seen something similar in Arizona, so I had a pretty good idea of what it was.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

 Meet the Hardwood Stump Borer. At first glance, most people mistake it for a cockroach. It is similar in size, shape, and color, but this is a type of longhorn beetle. The eggs are laid in hardwoods such as oak and sycamore. The larvae develop inside the wood, eating and growing for about 3 to 4 years. The pinchers are not just for show and can deliver a painful bite! My co-worker saw one of these at her daughter’s swim meet recently as well, so you may get lucky and see one yourself!

If you ever see a mysterious, incredible, beautiful, or odd bug that you’ve never seen before, please give us a ring or shoot us an e-mail. Even we are sometimes amazed at what kinds of bugs can be found in our own backyards. Until next time, happy bug watching!

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.

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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.

Audubon Insectarium

Two weekends ago I went on my annual weird family adventure.  We decided to go to New Orleans this year for an Audubon filled weekend.  There were three adults, five teenagers and a five year old.  Seven of us drove the six hour drive, and I must say, it was very interesting.  I think we stopped 8 times for various things.  Our plan was to go to all the animal places there; the Audubon Insectarium, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and the Audubon Zoo.  One of the main reasons I was so excited to go was the brand new Insectarium.  My friend, Jayme, is the manager and he said he would show us around.  If you are a fan of the show Dirty Jobs you may have seen Jayme on the bug breeder episode.  The show was great and very informative, but Erin and I are still a little jealous and wish we had thought of the idea first.  The Insectarium just recently opened in June and Jayme was ready to show it off.  I felt the same way when our own Entomology Hall opened, so I totally understood his excitment.  My 15 year old niece wasn’t too keen on the idea of a huge hall full of bugs, but everyone else was at least a bit intrigued.

The Insectarium was beautiful, creepy, and entertaining all wrapped up in one big box.  If anyone is making a trip to New Orleans, this is a definite MUST SEE venue.  It is located in the French Quarter across from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  I think the coolest thing about the insectarium was that the huge main hall way was covered with painted bugs and enormous models of various arthropods.  

They have a room that shrinks you down to the size of a small soil dwelling insect.  When you enter the room, a giant centipede greets you.  As you walk through the room, an earthworm (not an arthropod, but an annelid) is waiting for you to hop on it’s back and smile for a picture.  In this room you can also see ants foraging in their tunnels and taking care of their babies (larvae).  At the end, a gigantic trap door spider pops out and can give you fright if it catches you off guard.  This room is one of many that have different themes. 

They also have a section dedicated to termites.  You can pick up a phone and listen to the termites munching on an old house and you can actually see live termites in the wall.  The Louisiana swamp section began with an old bait shop.  An employee dressed up as a fisherman showed us various critters that can be found in the dirt, a great hands on activity for all ages.  My sister’s favorite thing about this part was a wonderful display of fly fishing lures made from actual insect parts.  After the bait shop you step right into a swamp.  The huge tree in the middle of the room is surrounded by different aquatic insects and fish.  You can even pop your head up inside the middle of one of the tanks to immerse yourself into the world of diving beetles. 

A very interesting room that I’m sure most people steer away from was the bug cooking cafe.  When I was there they were making cricket pancakes and tempura grasshoppers.  My five year old niece was all smiles when she got to eat one; at least one of them takes after me a bit!  Another awesome room was the 4-D movie we got to watch.  It was an awards show hosted by a beetle.  One of the awards he presented was to a honey bee for all the work she does to help produce fruits and vegetables. We could actually feel her flying around us. 

I’m sure all of you are familiar with the love bugs we get here in Texas in the spring and fall.  Well, they get them there too.  They even have an informative movie about the love bugs playing inside of an actual Volkswagon Beetle.  

I found a Giant Moth!

I could go on forever about all the stuff they have there, but I will just let you take a trip to New Orelans to see if for yourself.  I spent about 2 hours there, but I spoke with a lady the other day that spent 5 hours there.  I probably could have spent more time had I not been with a large group of people that were hungry and ready to move on to the aquarium.  If you enjoy our Entomology Hall here, you should definitely check out the insect zoos and butterfly houses in other cities.  There are insect zoos and butterfly houses all over the U.S.  I was fortunate enough to visit the St. Louis Zoo’s Insectarium a few years ago and it was amazing.  Some of the cool things they have there are bullet ants and burying beetles.  They even have a program that is researching the endangered American Burying Beetle

In college, before I had this job, I went to Cincinnati, OH for the Entomological Society of America Conference.  I couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to check out the Cincinnati Zoo, which I knew had an insect zoo.  This was the first insect zoo I had ever seen, so I was pumped.  That was the moment when I decided that it would be so cool to work in a place like that.  I got to see beautiful purple beetles, honey pot ants, and giant walking sticks and I just fell in love with the whole scene.

Before you go on vacation, check out this website:  http://butterflywebsite.com/gardens/index.cfm to see if there is a butterfly house or insect zoo in the town you are visiting.  All the insect zoos around the country are different in many ways.  Some are enormous and some are very small, but we all have the same goal in mind.  We want people to love bugs as much as we do and understand how cool and important they are.