Being Natural: Nancy Greig

In 1994, Dr. Nancy Greig inherited what was “basically a hole in the ground.”

More than 21 years later, the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a world-renowned exhibition, and Greig’s vision is a major part of the success of both the CBC and the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

As Greig puts it, getting the job “was just lucky.” Before moving back to Texas, Greig was wrapping up a year of postdoctoral studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis where she was, in her words, “changing caterpillar diapers.”

Edited 3

Cockrell Butterfly Center Director Dr. Nancy Greig visits with a rice paper butterfly in the facility her efforts have made hugely popular.

“This professor I was working with was looking at the caterpillar fauna on three species of oak tree. After we collected them in the field it was my job to raise them in the lab so we could determine what species they were,” Greig said. “I had to get them fresh leaves and clean the containers out, so that’s why I called it changing caterpillar diapers. Pretty much you have to dump the ‘frass’ out every day.”

Greig’s background is a blend of tropical plant biology and entomology.  She did her graduate work at the University of Texas, Austin, conducting research in Costa Rican rainforests under the supervision of Dr. Larry Gilbert, who studies tropical butterflies.  Between receiving her Ph.D. and the postdoc position, Greig spent two more years in Costa Rica teaching a tropical ecology course, that was “like summer camp for graduate students – an amazing experience.”  She was back in Austin for a Christmas visit in 1993 when her UT advisor remembered he had recently received a call about a position at HMNS.

“I thought I was going to be a University professor or something, and I was expecting another year or two of postdocs,” Greig said. “But I got in touch with the museum and they wanted me to come to Houston for an interview. Two weeks later, they called in St. Louis and asked, ‘How fast can you be here?’”

Greig’s field experience in Costa Rica gave her a leg up on the job; during her field work and subsequent teaching, she had spent plenty of time getting intimately familiar with the neotropical rainforest environment the museum wanted to craft in Houston.

When Greig first arrived in Houston, the Cockrell Butterfly Center was still under construction.

“It was a hard-hat zone,” she said. “There were cables and ropes everywhere. Some of the cement planters were in place, but not much else. The metal struts were up but there was no glass.


Greig educates students about plants as well as insects. In nature, the two forms of life depend on each other.

“It was so bare when we first opened, so of course it’s grown up [since then]. At first the plants were so small,” Greig said. But despite the bareness, “the first year, we had a millon people come through the butterfly center. It was a big deal, and kind of a trial by fire.  I had never been on television or radio before, and we got plenty of press. I had to learn to talk in front of a camera!”

Her first duties were to help oversee the construction and work with the builders and the landscape architects.  She also had to hire staff, get the butterfly importation permits, and create the museum’s first entomology hall. This precursor to the current Brown Hall of Entomology contained many preserved specimens but had lots of text and no interactive displays.

“People would go through the butterfly center first and then go up there – and the energy level just died,” Greig said. “There were some great specimens and some good information, but it was a very quiet, somber space.”

After several years, Greig and the Exhibits department began planning a bigger, brighter, vibrant entomology hall. Along with a couple of museum board members, they visited museums and zoos all over the country to see what others had accomplished and how to adapt the best qualities into one fun, educational hall. The result has been well-received.

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Greig educates a student on butterfly identification at the CBC.

Gone were the static displays, replaced by interactive games, giant models and live arthropods. One of the biggest changes was to move the display cases closer to the ground, making the whole exhibit more kid-friendly and engaging.

The unveiling of the brand new Brown Hall of Entomology on July 1, 2007 was one of the highlights of Greig’s 22-year tenure as director, followed closely by the hysteria of Lois the corpse flower and “Cash for Cockroaches.”

In preparation for the opening of the new exhibit in 2007, the CBC offered to buy up to 1,000 cockroaches for 25 cents each from Houston residents to fill a feature of the hall, the Roach Dome. The public response was huge, and the story made the front page of the Houston Chronicle before jumping nationally and beyond with coverage from Reuters.

Lois similarly brought in a surge of media attention when the giant corpse flower showed hints of blooming in the summer of 2010. After being cared for and nurtured for years up in the greenhouses, Lois sprouted a slightly different stalk, sending the city of Houston into a three-week frenzy that culminated with her stinky bloom in July. Celebrity status was afforded to horticulturist Zac Stayton, a parody Twitter account was born, t-shirts and buttons were mass produced, and a documentary was made and released in the aftermath.

“It was so great for the museum; so great for Houston,” Greig said. “That is what the museum should be about. It was exciting and educational and fun. There was one woman who came over 30 times! At least once, sometimes twice a day!”

While Greig has always loved “creepy crawlies,” she has devoted her life to educating others about the positives bugs and arthropods provide to the world. She says that you can’t force that appreciation on people, but you can try to get through to them by asking them to imagine what the world would be like without them, among other tactics.

“I try to educate them with some fun stories and show that I’m not afraid. That there’s nothing to be afraid of. Seeing that someone can be totally comfortable with insects and spiders is important,” Greig said.

Nancy Greig Cockroaches

As an arthropod-lover, Greig believes all insects are important, and that even roaches are deserving of our love.

Greig herself is very enthusiastic about the evolution of many insects and their various adaptations for survival. The camouflage used by insects such as walking sticks and katydids really gets visitors thinking about how life got to this point, and Greig counts that as one of the must-sees of the Cockrell Butterfly Center. She is passionate about moving past the “creepy crawly” label as a result.

“It’s neat to be able to use the butterflies as the hook, the ambassadors, I would say, to bring people in, and then we help them to realize that bees and even cockroaches are important,” Greig added.

While Greig has always had a love of nature, she arrived at UT from Calgary ready to study linguistics. She says she took a circuitous route back to biology and that she is proof that “you can do really whatever you want to do.”

“It’s turned out to be really a perfect fit,” Greig said. “Running the Butterfly Center has been a great job for me. There are really not that many jobs like this. It was total serendipity.”

Visitors to the Cockrell Butterfly Center in October can see special plant life in the rainforest conservatory during the temporary exhibition, Savage Garden. And teachers hoping to meet Greig can mark their calendars for The Educator Event @HMNS Jan. 23, 2016, where she will give the keynote address. In addition, educators can book one of Greig’s Bugs On Wheels Outreach Programs, Monarchs or The Buzz About Bees.


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.

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

Eeeeeeeeeeewww, Roaches!!!!

In my line of work, I’ve come to know insects pretty well. I recognize the importance of each and every kind of insect and I love to teach the public about them. Insects help us infinitely more than they could ever harm us! The one poor soul that gets the most grief is a wonderful little organism known simply as the cockroach. Men squirm, women scream, and even some children turn up their nose at the mere thought of a cockroach! I spend a lot of my time here campaigning for these little guys and I’m here to clear up some misconceptions, and hopefully change some perceptions about these awesome insects!

Visitors of the Prayerful Sort
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Clearly Ambiguous

Let’s start with the basics; cockroaches are insects with 6 legs, 3 body parts, 1 pair of antennae, and sometimes, 2 pairs of wings. They belong to the order Blattodea. These insects are most closely related to termites and praying mantids which have been known as “specialized cockroaches.”

Did you know that there are about 4000 different species of cockroach worldwide? We’re used to seeing the brown ones, but they can be green, white, or even dark blue. Some can even have elaborate patterns with colors like red and orange. They live in almost every climate; however, they are mostly concentrated in tropical climates. Most roaches live in forests, making homes of trees, rotten logs and leaf litter. They spend their lives as scavengers and decomposers. They rid the world of decaying organic matter and replace it with nutrients that feed the soil and plants. They are one of our most important decomposers, and our existence depends on them! Sometimes, however, they can get a little too close to home.

Bush Cockroach
Creative Commons License photo credit:
Cyron a beautiful bush cockroach!

Out of the 4,000 different species of cockroach, about 4 or 5 have decided to invade our homes from time to time. Can you blame them? Natural habitat is declining faster than ever and we offer them great accomodations, complete with a free all-you-can-eat buffet! That huge, gigantic thing scurrying accross your floor is called the American Cockroach – and it’s probably the biggest bug in Texas. It’s commonly referred to as a water bug, palmetto bug, or tree roach, but the only scientifically correct name it has is Periplaneta americana.  They prefer to hang out in dark, warm, moist environments and that’s why you will usually only see them at night while they forage for food.

If you keep your house clean, well organized, and in good repair, you may see one of these roaches in your house from time to time. Do not panic, it probably wandered in from outside and it’s very unlikely that you have a heavy infestation. Now, if you keep your house dirty, cluttered, and falling apart, well, you are welcoming every roach in a mile radius.

Another familiar species of cockroach is the German Cockroach Blatella germanica. These roaches are very small, light brown, and have 2 longitudinal stripes just below the head. Unlike the American cockroach, German cockroaches are highly adapted to living only in human dwellings, completely dependent on the filth humans leave behind. So, if you see one of these roaches in your house, it is very possible that you do have a very serious infestation. Here are some common myths about roaches and the real truth behind them.

Roaches are dirty.

False! Roaches are obsessive compulsive about cleanliness! They spend most of their time resting, and the rest of their time cleaning themselves, much like a cat. Roaches are actually some of the cleanest animals around.

Roaches spread disease

Trufalse. This is a little less clear cut. Roaches themselves do not have diseases, but can transmit germs with their hairy legs and sticky feet. For example, if you leave residue from raw meat on your counter, it is possible a cockroach may walk through it and track it around, but if your counter is clean and disinfected, that roach will stay clean! There have actually been studies where a cockroach and a human finger touched the same dirty kitchen floor. They were each swabbed and the swab was smeared into a petri dish to be cultured. at the end of the study, the human finger produced several times the amount of bacteria the cockroach did.

Roaches can hurt you

False! Roaches are equipped with no more than a set of jaws for chewing. They are capable of biting, which would not hurt at all – but that’s really not their style; they’re more into running away. They have no stinging appendages or anything like that. They are harmless.

Roaches can live for two weeks with no head.

Ok, this one is actually true. The reason for this is that a roach has several brains throughout its body, not just one in its head. They are really just ganglia or bunches of nerve cells. The one in the cockroach’s head only controls its antennae and mouthparts. Remove the head, and it will still be able to control its legs which are equipped with millions of sensory receptors, allowing it to find its way quite well. Eventually, though, the insect will be overcome by dehydration and die.

I saw an albino cockroach!

False! It’s likely that the cockroach you saw is one that has just shed its skin. A freshly molted cockroach is white with black eyes, and very soft and vulnerable. After a few hours, its new skin will start to harden and grow darker, until it is the original color.

Cockroaches can give my child asthma

True. Unfortunately, a heavy infestation of cockroaches can cause asthma in allergen-sensitive individuals, especially children. If you have hundreds of cockroaches in your walls, the feces will build up and become airborne. This is all the more reason to keep your house clean!

Well, there you have it folks, the skinny on cockroaches. I hope that some of you may look at cockroaches in a new light and next time you see one – give it break! It’s not their fault they have a bad rap. If you still feel nauseous thinking of them, just make sure your house is sparkling clean. If we clean up after ourselves, the roaches don’t have to do it for us. Skip the poison, it’s bad for the environment and kills all of those wonderful bugs everyone loves to see. Until next time, happy bug watching!