Spring is just around the corner, and you know what that means – bugs, and lots of them! Last May, the Houston Zoo unveiled its Bug House with the new wombat exhibit as part of the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. With more than 30 different species of invertebrates living in the Bug House and less than a year old, our bug zookeepers are thrilled to educate the general public about these important species.
“I learned pretty early on that bug education stops at around the second grade, so at around eight years old, you’re no long being taught about bugs in school,” bug zookeeper and “bug guru” Julie LaTurner said. “I think part of the misperception that bugs are bad and gross kind of come from kids not learning about them. So I think the good thing about bug houses, especially now that more zoos have them, is that it breaks down that misperception. And we have to take on that role of the education from where it stopped.”
At first, people may seem squeamish or afraid at the very idea of bugs. However, bugs and spiders play important roles in our ecosystem! From decomposition of dead plants, pollinating our fruit and vegetables and even acting as “pest control” – we have a lot to be thankful for what invertebrates do for us!
“Bugs help break down vegetative matter,” LaTurner. “For example, 99 percent of the world’s cockroaches are ‘good.’ The ones we have out on exhibit are good cockroaches. If we didn’t have insects like cockroaches, we’d be up to our eyeballs in dead plant material lilke fruits and vegetables. Because they break down so much biomass, it in turn helps fertilize the soil so new plants can grow.”
People may think handling and caring for all the insects and arachnids comes as an easy task, but there is a lot of work that goes into feeding, breeding and housing these different kinds of species behind-the-scenes. For instance, almost all invertebrates (with the exception of species native to desert climates) need to have their enclosures misted daily to replicate humidity levels in the wild. Also, all the invertebrates have specific dietary needs since some are carnivorous and others are herbivores.
“We don’t really have a slow day in here,” LaTurner said. “So if we’re not feeding our herbivores, we have to feed our assassins and mantids. Back here, we have to hand mist a lot of these enclosures, and we have to clean the exhibits to make them look nice, such as cleaning tank fronts, watering plants inside the exhibits and changing out different parts of the exhibit like the dirt. We also have aquatic insects that need daily care.”
Because most of the insects at the Bug House only live up to about a year or two, carefully monitoring the breeding process is also a high priority for bug zookeepers. For example, for two beetles to successfully mate, a male and female need to be enclosed in their mini-habitats with plenty of layers of substrate, or dirt. Mating will not occur if the substrate is too shallow.
LaTurner said since the Bug House is still relatively new, the breeding program is not only a way to ensure and maintain a population of certain species the Zoo offers on exhibit, but also to someday have the ability to trade insects with other zoos in the future.
One way for people to actively help the insect population is to learn how to sustainably garden. To find out more information about sustainable gardening, check out one of our past blog posts for tips like using garlic and planting marigolds.
“A lot of times when people start seeing pests, like roaches and fire ants, they tend to use a broad spectrum of pesticides,” Kevin Hodge said, the curator for carnivores & Children’s Zoo. “Not only will it wipe out the nuisance pests, but it’ll wipe out the beneficial insects as well. So it’s all about learning how to live with them.”
Also, every time you visit the Houston Zoo you help save animals in the wild. Don’t forget to stop by the Bug House!