The Sphinx Moth: A Work of Art

Today we have a special guest blog from Chad Erpelding, Assistant Professor of Art at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas.  He teaches 2D Design and Painting there.  This fall the Cockrell Butterfly Center is hosting an exhibit of some of his students’ paintings that were inspired by sphinx moths.  Here is what he has to say about the project.

The overlap between art and science is a subject rich with potential and currently being investigated by many artists.  Damien Hirst suspends animal specimens in large tanks of formaldehyde.  Olafur Eliasson, who is currently having a major survey of his work at the Dallas Museum of Art, explores weather systems and natural phenomena.  Mel Chin worked closely with a scientist in realizing his piece Revival Field, which uses plants to remove toxic metals from a polluted site.  So when Dr. William Godwin, entomologist at Stephen F. Austin State University and adjunct curator at HMNS, brought up the idea of a joint project between the Biology Department and the School of Art at SFA, I jumped at the opportunity.

We decided to organize a competition for the art students centered on sphinx moths (family Sphingidae), several members of which are found locally in Nacogdoches and throughout east Texas (see Nancy’s recent blog on these fascinating moths.)  Dr. Godwin gave a lecture on the characteristics and life cycle of sphinx moths, giving the students the base of knowledge needed to understand their subject.  From here, I stressed to the students the importance of finding the balance between accuracy towards the moths and the inventiveness that happens in the studio.  The restrictions we put on the entries were only on size and weight of the pieces themselves.  We wanted the students to have the freedom to explore their own interpretations and realize their creative impulses. 

I was thrilled with some of the pieces the students created. Carolyn Norton, a graduate student from Lufkin, won first place for her piece “Sonic Defense,” an ink drawing that follows the paths of a bat and moth in battle, including an explosion of scales – a trick that moths do to fool their predators mid-air. 

Margaret Pledger, a senior from Brenham, received second place for her “Pupa Ring,” a copper ring based loosely on the shapes of sphinx moth pupae.  Chad Hines, a graduate student from Temple, received third place for his “Sphingidae,” a drawing that simultaneously explores the patterns of the moths and the joys of making marks on paper. 

The truly fascinating part of this project for me was to see the many different directions that the artists took.  You never know from where inspiration will come.  While some of the students looked at the patterns and shapes of the moths, others were interested in their habits or specific characteristics.  A few explored broader cultural connections, using the moths as a metaphor for the human experience.  Whatever the source, I think this was a great opportunity for both the science and art communities to see how our fields can interact.  It encourages us to continue to see the world in new and awe-inspiring ways.

Please be sure to stop and take a look at these interesting works of art on your next visit to the Butterfly Center.  They are in the lower level (just around the corner from the mosquito display) and will remain on display until March, 2009.

Sphinx Moth art, on display in the lower level
of the Cockrell Butterfly Center.

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!

Before the Hurricane: Securing the HMNS Greenhouses

Red Beauty
Creative Commons License photo credit: jtloweryphotography

As many of you know, the greenhouses of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC) are located on the rooftop of the parking garage on the seventh floor.  Two days before Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, my volunteer Penny and I were busy preparing the greenhouses for the upcoming storm.  Because we are a USDA regulated facility, we must adhere to specific guidelines in the event of a disaster such as a hurricane. 

The first task at hand was to safely remove the Heliconius longwing butterflies from the rearing facility and transport them into the CBC lower-level basement where they were temporarily housed in 3’X4’ zippered/framed insectaries.  Penny helped out with the transport of the precious little ones and carefully placed a few nectar sources into the three separate insectaries along with a bowl of artificial nectar source. 

Next, we had to remove the 600 caterpillars which were all at different stages of growth to a pupation cage which we transported to the basement by way of my truck-bed.  To our dismay, the pupation cage would not fit through the newly repaired door frame on the seventh floor so we rolled it down the main hall of the museum by way of the main entrance handicapped ramp.  Once we had the pupation cage in place, we transferred the 600 caterpillars into the cage along with a feast of Passionflower vines for them to feed upon until the storm passed. 

We were so busy doing the transport and removal that our Staff Entomologist, Laurie, and Soni, our Assistant Conservatory Horticulturist, came up to the seventh floor to help out by watering the other plants within the greenhouses. Nancy, our CBC director, and Erin, our Insect Zoo Manager and Entomologist decided that because they lived close to the museum, they would make sure that the little ones housed in the basement would be tended to as soon as they could get into the museum district to do so.

passionfruit flower
Creative Commons License photo credit: Meme!

In the greenhouse area, we spent all day removing all the projectile objects from the exterior (wood, concrete blocks etc.).  We secured the plastic tables that usually hold plants to the white fence with newly purchased ratchet straps.  The greenhouse shade screens are set up on a pulley system so we rolled them all down and secured them with the straps. 

Inside the greenhouse, we pushed aside the mist tent where we house our seedlings to make way for the 700-plus plants that were outside that had to come inside until the storm passed.  We also had shelves of thousands of plastic plant flats and thousands of plastic pots which had to be pulled into the greenhouses so that they wouldn’t fly all over from the high winds.  We removed the shade cloth from the exterior so that it would not get ripped up in the wind.  We also had cans full of  Osmocote, a timed released fertilizer, bone and blood meal, perlitevermiculite, soil-mix and orchid medium that we transported into the greenhouse.

Whew… what a day!  We left feeling good about having secured the greenhouses and hoped that when we returned that the greenhouses would still be there.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: geocam20000

As I write this blog, there are still millions without electricity or water and lots of recovery is taking place in Houston and in my neighborhood, Katy.  The CBC greenhouses, I am happy to say, survived the winds and the rain.  Only one thing happened – two of the steel shade clothes decided to roll themselves backwards and ended up on the opposite side of the greenhouse but remained attached to the roof. 

Erin and Nancy cared for our babies in the dark basement with the aid of flashlights and for this I thank them.  Abraham, our groundskeeper, filled 55 gallon cans with water and Erin and Nancy hand watered the plants in the greenhouses.  There was no electricity in the museum until Wednesday afternoon – hence no elevator – so Abraham had to deliver the water to the seventh floor in the back of his truck.

Since then, we have returned the rearing pairs of longwing butterflies to the insectaries where as of yesterday, there was mating and egg-laying occurring – just as nature intended.   We hope that you are all faring well and wish only the best for you and your precious families.  If you do have a spot in your yard where a tree once stood, you may want to consider filling it with butterfly host plants and nectar plants not only for them, but also for the hummingbirds who will soon be migrating south and will stop in our yards to replenish their energy or to possibly build a nest. If you are able to, we hope you’ll join us for our Fall Plant Sale on Saturday, October 4 on the seventh floor of the parking garage, from 9 to 1 p.m. We would love to see you. 

Take Care…
Ory
 

Science Doesn’t Sleep (7.15.08)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: cygnus921

So here’s what went down after you logged off.

Float like a seabird: sting like a bee. Conservationists hope honeybees will help protect endangered seabirds in Japan from the crows that regularly attack them.

Truck drivers, construction workers, factories and other smog-producers in Beijing have been banned from operating in the city in advance of the Olympics, in effort to improve air quality during the games. But, will it work?

Entomologists at London’s Natural History museum may have discovered a new species to add to the 28 million currently classified there. Somewhere deep in the rainforest? Nope – in their very own garden.

Everything will (probably) get a whole lot better, according to the 2008 UN State of the Future report.

One thing Columbus did not bring to the New World: stomach ulcers.

Farms are going vertical: imagine skyscrapers developed to produce 30 stories of arable land.