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6 Cool Insects You Can Raise at Home

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Don't let Mother Nature have all the fun!

1. Monarch Butterflies

Raising monarchs is super easy. If you don't have a patch of milkweed handy, order the plants online and plant them outside in clusters of three or more plants. Check the undersides of the leaves for eggs and tiny caterpillars. When you find a caterpillar, dig up the milkweed plant, wrap it in tulle netting from the fabric store so the caterpillar won't get away, and bring it inside to watch it develop. (You can order the caterpillars online, too.) It will eat like crazy for about ten days until it pupates. If you're raising more than one, you'll need additional milkweed plants. After the butterfly has emerged from the chrysalis, release it outside. Monarch Watch has detailed instructions about rearing monarchs, and you can order tags for your butterflies if you want to help track their migration.

2. Silkworms

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Silkworms need mulberry leaves to eat, or you can order powdered artificial silkworm chow online along with the eggs. I asked around until I found a friend who had raised silkworms before, and she gave me a batch of eggs to keep in my fridge during the winter. When the mulberry tree in my yard started leafing out, I removed the eggs from the fridge. They hatched about nine days later. They should start to spin cocoons in a few weeks. This site shows a nice set-up using plastic deli trays and toilet paper rolls.

3. Crickets

Flickr: Ivan Walsh

Remember the children's book, The Cricket in Times Square? Crickets are charming and have been kept as pets in China for hundreds of years. If you can't catch a cricket in your house or yard, most pet stores carry them as food for larger animals. You can order a little cricket cage online, or use a jar with holes punched in the top. Place a piece of damp sponge in there so they can stay hydrated, keep them in a warm spot, and feed them scraps of fruits and veggies. Voila. Pet cricket.

4. Ladybugs

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Whether you catch a ladybug yourself or order ladybug larvae from the internet, these are also pretty easy to care for indoors for a short time. Like crickets, adult ladybugs need a damp paper towel or sponge to drink from. Aphids are their favorite food, but if you're only keeping your ladybug for a few days it can get by on fruit. Tip: Milkweed tends to get covered in aphids. If you're already growing milkweed for your monarchs, bam. Ladybug food.

5. Black Swallowtail Butterflies

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These gorgeous creatures like to lay their eggs in common garden herbs, including parsley, dill, and fennel. If you want to try to observe their life cycle, plant a big clump of parsley in a pot and keep an eye out for caterpillars, which are green with yellow and black markings and just as beautiful as the mature butterflies. If you have cats, tie some tulle netting around the pot so the caterpillars won't get eaten or crawl away. The black swallowtail chrysalis looks like a piece of bark or a small stick, so they can be hard to spot. I haven't had terribly good success with these, but a friend of mine raises them successfully every year.

6. Praying Mantises

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These guys are crazy. Not only does the female often devour the male after mating, but the babies devour each other if given a chance. I bought a couple of praying mantis egg cases (they're about the size of a small marshmallow, and beige in color) at a garden fair once. I kept them in my garden shed and checked them regularly until I saw a million billion babies in the container, and then I set them free in my garden in hopes that they'd keep pests down. You can raise them in a small aquarium too, or buy a kid-oriented kit. Like betta fish, they need to be kept in separate containers to prevent a fight to the death. Other requirements: Sticks to climb on, and plenty of bugs to eat. This is a little involved for me, but if you're into carnivorous beasts, knock yourself out.

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Bite Helper
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technology
New Gadget Claims to De-Itch Your Mosquito Bites
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Bite Helper

Summer can be an itchy time for anyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors. Mosquitos are everywhere, and some people are particularly susceptible to their bites and the itching that comes with them. A new product aims to stop the suffering. Bite Helper, reviewed by Mashable, is designed to stop your bites from itching.

Place the pen-like device over your swollen bite and it will begin to emit heat and vibrations designed to quell the itch. It’s meant to increase blood flow around the area to alleviate your pain, heating your skin up to 120°F for up to 45 seconds. It’s the size of a thin tube of sunscreen and is battery powered.

Most dermatologists advise applying cold to alleviate itching from insect bites, so the question is: Will heating up your skin really work? Bite Helper hasn’t been clinically tested, so it’s hard to say for certain how effective it would be. There has been some research to suggest that heat can help increase blood flow in general, but decrease histamine-induced blood flow in the skin (part of the body’s normal response to allergens) and reduce itching overall. In a German study of wasp, mosquito, and bee stings, concentrated heat led to a significant improvement in symptoms, though the researchers focused mostly on pain reduction rather than itching.

Bite Helper’s technique "seems like a legitimate claim" when it comes to localized itching, Tasuku Akiyama, who studies the mechanisms of itching at the University of Miami, tells Mental Floss. "The increase in the blood flow may increase the rate of elimination of itch mediator from the area." However, before that happens, the heat might also make the itch a little worse in the short-term, he cautions. This seems to be borne out by user experience: While Mashable's reviewer found that using the device didn’t hurt at all, his daughter found it too hot to bear for more than a few seconds.

If the device does in fact relieve itching, though, a few seconds of pain may be worth it.

Bite Helper is $25 on Amazon.

[h/t Mashable]

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Animals
Could Imported Sperm Help Save America’s Bees?
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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

It might be time to call in some sexual backup for male American bees. Scientists have started impregnating domestic honeybees with foreign sperm in the hopes that enlarging the gene pool will give our bees a fighting chance.

These days, the bees need all the help they can get. Colonies across the globe are disappearing and dying off, partly due to the increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides and partly from a parasite called the varroa mite. The invasive mite first landed on American shores in 1987, and it's been spreading and sickening and devouring our bees ever since.

Part of the problem, researchers say, is that the American bee gene pool has gone stagnant. We stopped importing live honeybees in 1922, which means that all the bees we've got are inbred and, therefore, all alike. They lack the genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changing conditions or new threats. So when the mites come, they all get hit.

Many apiarists now rely on anti-mite pesticides to keep their charges safe. While these treatments may help keep the mites away, they aren't great for the bees, either—and the mites have begun to develop a resistance. But beekeepers feel like their hands are tied.

"I lost 40 percent of my colonies to varroa last fall," Matthew Shakespear of Olson's Honeybees told NPR. "I'm not taking any more chances. We've already done five treatments, compared with the two treatments we applied this time last year."

But there might be another way. Experts at the University of Washington have started to—how can we put this delicately?—manually encourage drones (male bees) in Europe and Asia to give up their sperm. All it takes is a little belly rub, and the drone, er, donates 1 microliter of fluid, or one-tenth of the amount needed to inseminate a queen bee.

"They're really accommodating," bee breeder and researcher Susan Cobey told NPR. 

It's hardly a painless procedure, but researcher Brandon Hopkins told Mental Floss it's no worse than sex in the wild. "In natural mating he uses pressure from muscles and hemolymph to evert [his genitals], (inflating it and forcing it to pop out)," Hopkins wrote in an email. "In the lab we apply pressure to the head and thorax to create similar pressure to cause the eversion. In both cases (naturally and artificially) the male dies from the process of mating."

So far, the scientists' attempts to crossbreed foreign and domestic bees have been successful. Within their test colonies, genetic diversity is up.

"This doesn't mean they are superior in performance to the other bees," Hopkins told NPR. "It means we have a better chance of finding rare and unique traits." Traits, Hopkins says, like genetic resistance to the varroa mites—a quality shared by donor bees in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Georgia.

Other beekeepers are opting for a more hands-off approach, introducing imported queens to their domestic hives. Shakespear bought his from Cobey, who reared them from bees she collected in Slovenia.

"Maybe these new genetics can deal with the varroa mites naturally," Shakespear said, "rather than having to rely on chemicals. It's time to start widening our gene pool."

[h/t The Salt]

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