The Buzz on the Bug House

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.

Check out our cactus longhorn beetles, one of over 50 species featured at the Bug House!

“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.”

LaTurner handles a young giant wingless phasmid. There are 1.5 billion insects for every human!

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.

LaTurner hand-feeds this juvenile giant Asian mantid a cricket. Mantids are the only animals that can turn its head 360 degrees!

“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.

Rhino beetles are considered the strongest creatures in the world, with the ability to lift over 850 times its own weight! Pictured above is a male Hercules beetle, a type of rhino beetle.

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!

Houston Zoo Welcomes Painted Dog Conservationist from Zimbabwe!

It’s not a secret that one of the Houston Zoo’s main objectives is to spread both awareness and conservation for all its endangered or threatened species.

One of the species the Zoo closely works with is the African painted dog (also known as the African wild dog). In fact, our facilities team jumped on the opportunity to re-design the dogs’ tracking collar to include a specialized clip that further helps protect their necks from wired traps. Additionally, the tracking devices on the collar help researchers study and save these species, which are critically endangered. With a reported population of 482, it is no wonder the research team at Painted Dog Research Trust in Zimbabwe is so dedicated to saving the species.

MK from PDC at HZI-0005-5696 (1)

Field assistant Mkhalalwa Moyo, or “MK”, has 12 years of experience with the Painted Dog Conservation and recently came to Houston to collaborate with our team. On his first-ever trip to the United States, MK has spent his time in Houston learning new skills and enhancing his knowledge to help save the painted dogs back in Africa. For his first three days at the Zoo, MK worked closely with the veterinary staff and acquired new understanding on how to care for painted dogs. One of the things he learned was how to put the tracking collar on the dog when it is subdued. It is essential MK strengthens his understanding for animal care when he is assisting other researchers and providing medical care to wild painted dogs.

MK also spent two days in the welding shop with Jason Isenberg, welding and mechanics shop supervisor. By gaining solid understanding of construction, he will assist his research team at Painted Dog Research Trust and local communities with maintenance and building the local communities’ infrastructure. The research team is also dedicated to educate Zimbabwean graduate students, and the construction skills MK learns will help build sustainable facilities to provide hands-on fieldwork opportunities, mentoring, and financial support for the students.

MK from PDC at HZI-0029-5788

As an employee of Painted Dog Research Trust, and his love for nature, his main goal is to spread awareness, conservation, and education about painted dogs to the local communities.

“What we normally do is try to spread awareness to the people about conservation,” Moyo said. “That’s the only way we can try to promote the population of painted dogs. [If] People practice conservation then the population of painted dogs rises.”

MK from PDC at HZI-0014-5716 (1)

As the week comes to a close, MK will spend his last few days at the Zoo in personal exploration to gather as much information as he can to take back to the researchers in Zimbabwe. Click here to learn more about the African painted dog and how you can help!

Street Art & Conservation Collide

Conservationists are everywhere! Just like Houston based, self-taught artist Anat Ronen. Ronen uses recycled or “off-tint” paint when painting her enormous murals, including the gorilla-inspired mural she’s painting this week at Richard’s Antiques on 3701 Main St.

© Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams

Not only is recycled paint cheaper than purchasing virgin, brand-name paint, but buying recycled paint saves on disposal – in most cases, leftover or unused paint can still be used and causes unnecessary landfill waste when tossing in the trash. By purchasing or recycling unwanted paint, consumers can help save the environment. You should also donate your left-over water-based latex paint to your local civic or community group, or take your oil-based paint to the appropriate facilities like the City of Houston’s Westpark Consumer Recycling Center.

© Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams

Anat Ronen is one of five of Houston’s most talented street artists participating in covering local walls with murals inspired by the new gorillas coming to the Houston Zoo. The seven western lowland gorillas will inhabit an all-new, state-of-the-art exhibit which will open Memorial Day weekend.

© Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams

We encourage art lovers and animal enthusiasts to visit one of these sites! Click here to learn more about each artist.

Artists and mural locations;

Mr. D

Artist at Large Industries, 2119 Washington Ave.  

Anat Ronen

Richard’s Antiques, 3701 Main St  


Downtown Food Park, 1311 Leeland (corner of Leeland & Austin Streets)

Michael C. Rodriguez

Jenni’s Noodle House – The Heights, 602 East 20th Street

Nicky Davis

3100 Smith St.


Species Spotlight: Black Bear Cubs Willow and Belle

Our American black bear cubs, Willow and Belle, are anything but ordinary. In fact, they are not black at all! The Zoo received these orphaned cubs in December 2013 and initially weighed 40 pounds. However, carnivore keeper Stephanie Mantilla reported that Willow is 139 pounds, and Belle is 148 pounds. Some of their favorite foraging foods include grapes, bananas, avocados and hard boiled eggs! Needless to say, the girls adjust well to life at the Zoo.

Interestingly enough, the girls are often mistaken for grizzly cubs. American black bears are actually most similar to the Asian black bear, and are very different from grizzly bears based on size and profile. Grizzlies are much larger in size, and have an “angled” profile because their shoulder blades stick out; black bears are smaller framed and have a more “straight” profile due to their smaller shoulder blades. The shade of black bear fur even differs from region to region! Willow and Belle both came from California and Mantilla said black bears from that region have a cinnamon-colored coat. In warmer areas, their fur looks blacker because of the heat.


While black bears in general are listed as “least concern”, their conservation status differs depending on the state. Black bears in Louisiana and various parts of Texas are listed as endangered, and each individual state lists their own sub-species of black bears as endangered or not.

“There are different sub-species of black bears, like the Louisiana black bear,” Mantilla said. “Black bears are a little bit genetically isolated, so it determines whether or not if they’re endangered or not. But overall, black bears are the highest populated bear species in the world, and they’re doing pretty well.”

And while some may think hunting is the biggest threat to this species, Mantilla added that feeding bears actually causes the most harm to them. She said it is best to refrain from feeding wild bears because they are so intelligent, they will remember where to go to find more food.


Even though the black bear are listed as “least concern”, the Zoo is committed to bringing awareness and conservation efforts for all species living here. The Zoo will hold Bear Awareness Day on Saturday, April 4 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. All proceeds will go to the East Texas Black Bear Task Force, an organization dedicated to restoring the black bear’s historic range in east Texas through education, research and habitat management. The event will take place in front of the bear exhibits. Stop by and say hi to Willow and Belle!

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