Where Do My Bugs Come From? Part One

Probably the #1 question I get asked is: "Where do your bugs come from? Do you catch them yourself?" To answer this question, I recently did some research and put together a little pamphlet that tells a little about where my insects come from. I'd like to share that with you here, but first I'd like to also say that no, I do not catch the insects myself. I would never have the patience for that, and besides, almost none of the insects I use are even from the United States! The vast majority of my insects come from international insect farms. Some are farmed for food (yes, look for another blog post on that topic soon!) but most are farmed for the "scientific and artistic dried insect trade". The good news is that insect farming is usually a sustainable practice. I make every attempt to purchase my insects from responsible sources, so when you purchase an insect display from me, you are also helping to promote insect and native forest conservation. I am required to carry a U.S. Fish & Wildlife "Wildlife Import Permit" in order to import my specimans, so they are also regulated in that way. It is illegal for me to import insects that are endangered, and it is also illegal for me to import live insects. So, without further introduction, here is some material on insect farming from my pamphlet:

Why is butterfly farming a type of agriculture that promotes conservation as a whole?

Unlike most other types of agriculture in tropical countries which are dependent upon cleared forest for planting crops or grazing cattle, butterfly farming is very different because it requires intact forest. Because host plants are collected by the farmer for his/her use in rearing the larvae, the butterfly farm is dependent upon a parcel of land which is forested. In addition, butterfly farmers rear butterflies in captivity within the confines of an enclosure, thus putting no strain on the wild populations of butterflies.

Fact: The farming of butterflies actually increases native habitats and populations. It is even being used today to save some species from extinction.

Butterfly farming and ranching have demonstrated that butterflies can provide economic incentives to villagers and farmers who may have to decide where to harvest firewood or clear forest for agriculture. By offering supplemental income in exchange for preserving and enhancing butterfly habitats, many plant and animal species native to tropical rain forests will indirectly benefit. Today, successful commercial butterfly farming and ranching projects are operating in North, Central and South America, Uganda, Madagascar, China, Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia.
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund have included such projects in their conservation programs for countries with rich rainforest biodiversity, such as Indonesia. If carefully managed farming and ranching programs are introduced to areas with dwindling rain forests, economic incentives for conservation can play an important role in a transition to sustainable use of the earth's most diverse ecosystems.

Birdwing Butterflies in PNG: A Positive Example

Birdwings inhabit the sunny rainforest canopy, feeding on nectar-filled flowers growing many metres above ground level. The butterfly only comes to earth when the canopy dips into river channels or natural openings. The typical butterfly farm in PNG (Papua New Guinea) is a half-acre of land that was once a productive vegetable garden site previously cleared from the prime forest. The soil may be too depleted to grow corn or sweet potato but is fertile enough to sustain the vines needed for a butterfly garden.
The process is simple. First, plant a border of Poinsettia and Hibiscus. Within the flowering border transplant rows of aristolochia and other vines. The border acts to attract and feed the adult specimens who breed and lay eggs on the vines which provide ample food for the offspring. The larvae feed on the vines for four weeks, spin their chrysalis and spend four more weeks in metamorphosis. The farmer observes the food supply, notes the location of his/her caterpillars, and determines the maturation of the chrysalises. About 70 percent of the butterfly chrysalis crop can be harvested and brought into a protected hatching cage. The remaining 30 percent is left on the vine to regenerate and complete their natural life cycle (in the wild).
With the cultivated garden providing an over-abundance of food, and because human presence discourages natural predation, the population of free flight butterflies is greatly enhanced. The newly emerged caged butterflies are carefully killed, placed in paper envelopes and dried in the sun. When sufficient butterflies have been collected they are packaged and mailed to the Insect Farming and Trading Agency (IFTA) in Bulolo, Morobe Province. The IFTA inspects, sorts, labels and markets the specimens to buyers around the world. These orders generate US$400,000 for PNG annually. Dr. Peter Clark, Director of IFTA, believes the project re-inforces in villagers that "the environment can be used but not abused, and the forest can serve a good purpose for a longer period than it takes to chop it down. With the right tools [villagers] can make some money yet pass onto their children the same natural treasures they received from their parents."
Wild specimens of common butterflies are sometimes included in the scheme, but most are rejected due to damage sustained in the wild or during capture. Participants are encouraged to farm rather than hunt the butterflies. All Birdwing species are protected from capture in the wild; only individuals with inspected gardens are licensed to sell the rare Ornithoptera Paradisea,
Alexandrae, Goliath, Priamus Poseidon or Priamus Urvillanus butterflies.

First Vegetarian Spider Found!

Salticids (Jumping spiders) are my personal favorite spider, and how lovely to see them make the news for having a vegetarian species! Check out this link to Science Daily to read the full article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091012121331.htm

In summary, the spider lives in Central America among ant colonies. The ants are doing a sort of "farming" with Acacia trees, guarding them against predators whilst feeding on the plant's nectar. The jumping spiders sneak around the ant colony, stealing their food. The spiders are able to get around the ants because they are so much smarter than the ants. (Jumping spiders are quite advanced little guys; they are the only spider to see in color and they have excellent depth perception!)

I just love this cute picture of the new spider, Bagheera kiplingi.

Bugs and Winter

Have you ever wondered what happens to bugs in the winter? If most of them die off in cold temperatures, how does the next generation survive until spring? Also, do any adult insects survive the winter, and if so, how? Here are some answers from the Smithsonian Institution:

Where Do Insects Go in the Winter?
Insects have a variety of methods for surviving the coldness of winter.

Migration is one strategy for escaping the killing temperatures. The Monarch Butterfly is the foremost example of this maneuver, but other insects migrate into northern areas from the southern states in the Spring. Crop pests are the most obvious of these migrants.

Overwintering as Larvae. Many insects successfully pass the winter as immature larvae. The protection of heavy covers of leaf litter or similar shelters protect the woolly bear caterpillar, while other insects replace the water in their bodies with glycerol, a type of antifreeze! Some grubs simply burrow deeper into the soil to escape the cold.

Overwintering as Nymphs. Not many insects are active in the winter, but the nymphs of dragonflies, mayflies and stoneflies live in waters of ponds and streams, often beneath ice. They feed actively and grow all winter to emerge as adults in early spring.

Overwintering as Eggs. Lesser numbers of insects lay eggs which survive the winter. The most prominent insects in this category are Praying Mantids, and the destructive Corn Rootworms also engage in this strategy.

Overwintering as Pupae. Some insects overwinter in the pupal stage, then emerge as adults in the spring. Moths in the Silkworm Family, Saturniidae, may be found attached to food plant branches as pupae in the winter.

Hibernation as Adults. Many insects hibernate as adults. Lady bird beetles are a well-known example, and are sometimes seen in great numbers in the fall as they congregate at high elevations. Many large wasps seek shelter in the eaves and attics of houses or barns. Tree holes, leaf litter, and under logs and rocks are common shelters for overwintering adult insects. The Mourning Cloak Butterfly is usually the first butterfly that is noticed in the Spring, and this is because it hibernates in tree holes or other shelters during the winter. As in some insect larvae, it reduces the water content of its body, and builds up glycerol which acts as an antifreeze. Honey bees stay in hives during the winter, and form clusters when temperatures fall. They also are able to raise the temperature by vibrating wing muscles.

In general, insects are able to survive cold temperatures easiest when the temperatures are stable, not fluctuating through alternate thaws and freezes. Many insects can gain shelter and nourishment through the winter in a variety of micro-habitats. Among these niches are under the soil, inside the wood of logs and trees, and even in plant galls. One kind of fly is known by fishermen to be present in certain galls in winter, and the fly larvae are consequently used as fish-bait. Blankets of snow benefit insects by insulating the ground and keeping the temperature surprisingly constant. Honeybees have been studied during the winter and are found to remain semi-active in hollow trees through the generation of body heat. The consumption of up to 30 pounds of stored honey during the winter months makes this possible. Heat energy is produced by the oxidation of the honey, and circulated throughout the hive by the wing-fanning of worker bees. Insects that are inactive during the winter months undergo a state in which their growth, development, and activities are suspended temporarily, with a metabolic rate that is high enough to keep them alive. This dormant condition is termed diapause. In comparison, vertebrates undergo hibernation, during which they have minor activity and add tissues to their bodies.

Ceiling made of Beetles!

This ceiling truly is delightful! Entitled "Heaven of Delight", Belgian artist Jan Fabre has created "murals" out of Jewel Beetle elytra (the hard part of a beetle wing)! Over 1.5 million beetle wings have been used to cover the ceiling panels and chandelier in the Belgian Royal Palace. Although he had several full-time helpers, this work still took months to install!
I love what he has to say about the durability of beetle wings:
''The wing cases of the jewel beetles are made of chitin, one of the hardest, most imperishable materials we know. They consist of wafer-thin platelets that capture, reflect and transform light. Oil paint fades; the carapace will keep its original colors.''
This gives me a lot of hope that my own personal creations made with beetles will last for many years to come!
Apparently these beetle elytra come as a by-product of the Thai food industry. The rather large beetles are used as food, and the wings are thrown away!
I just love the originality and the beauty of this work! Enchanting!
To read more, here's an article from a few years back in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/04/arts/bits-of-bugs-glow-to-delight-a-queen.html?pagewanted=1