What’s bugging Cayman

The Journal tackles its creepiest – and crawliest – story yet as it visits Grand Cayman’s insectariums. 

In cabinets in three corners of George Town in Grand Cayman sit hundreds of bugs. 

These insects are not buzzing or stinging, as most have pins stuck through them. They’re part of insectariums kept at the National Trust, the Department of Environment and the Mosquito Research and Control Unit. 

The three collections house a cross-section of the most common and rarest insects and arachnaids found in the Cayman Islands. 

The insectariums are a treasure trove of the bug kingdom – gorgeous butterflies with silken fire-coloured wings, shimmery jewel-coloured moths, giant beetles, scary spiders, green grasshoppers, huge dragonflies, and even a few non-insect finds like snakeskins at the National Trust, a stuffed Cayman parrot at the Department of Environment or a giant centipede at MRCU. 

Paul Watler, environmental programmes manager at the National Trust, said he’s never counted exactly how many insects are in the tall cabinet inside his office on South Church Street, but there are 20 cases and each contain a varying number of bugs. 

In one, moths with two-inch long bodies and a wing span of more than four inches nestle with smaller, more familiar looking moths. 

“This one was found in Hutland Road,” said Watler, reading an information tag on the biggest moth in the display case. He points to another moth, with shiny striped black and green wings, called Urania boisduvalii, found on the beach in Pease Bay after Hurricane Michelle passed through Cayman. “These are day-time flying moths,” he says of the insect that more closely resembles a gorgeous butterfly.  

One species of swallowtail butterfly in the National Trust collection, which despite its name does not have a tail, had not been seen in the Cayman Islands since the 1930s, but showed up again in 2007.  

Unlike in earlier days when people brought in samples of bugs they came across, nowadays, with the advent of camera phones, people tend to show National Trust staff pictures of insects they want to identify. 

“The other night, I was out and a guy showed me a picture of a bug on his iPhone. It turns out it was a water scorpion. They’re interesting creatures and we see them around now and again. Their back end is effectively a snorkel,” said Watler, as he removed another display case from the cabinet to show some water scorpions that had been collected. 

These fearsome looking bugs hang upside down in the water, with their rear end, through which they can breathe, sticking out into the air. “They eat little fish and other bugs in the water,” said Watler.  

It’s a creature Watler comes across occasionally and one that people sometimes approach him to ask what it is. “They’re not harmful to humans in any way but they’re fairly frightening looking,” he said of the black, two-inch long insect with big pincers in its head.  

Next he brings out a box of “things that sting” – wasps, bees and what looks like an enormous hornet that he calls a “mud wasp”. He described seeing a mud wasp on the Mastic Trail one day. “It was in a little hole in the mud, small enough that it looks almost as if a big raindrop would have made the hole. There was a grasshopper on the ground and next thing, the wasp was on it. It had already stung it to death,” he said. 

There is also a collection of beetles found throughout the Cayman Islands, including the scarab beetle and the three-inch long Stenodontes chevrolati, more commonly known as a longhorn beetle. 

At the Department of Environment, the department’s newest research officer Jess Harvey pulls out tray after tray of fascinating insects from an insectarium cabinet supplied by the Darwin Initiative. The collection is relatively new, as the department’s original insectarium was lost in 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. 

The DoE’s collection continues to grow as “sometimes people bring in cool critters they’ve never seen before or think would be good to have in our collection or that they want us to identify,” said Harvey. 

In one tray, all on its own, is a whip spider, also known as a tailless whip scorpion or an African cave spider, which looks fierce but is apparently harmless to humans as it has no means of inflicting a sting and has no venom. The spider leapt to fame and strengthened its bad rep after it featured in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, when Mad-eye Moody described it as “lethal” and then proceeded to torture the creature with a curse until Hermione begs him to stop. 

In another case, nestled among a collection of beautiful butterflies is a startlingly blue butterfly, which Harvey said was the “only one ever found in the Cayman Islands”. 

Like the National Trust, the Department of Environment also houses an impressive collection of moths, some of which are the size of small birds. Back at Harvey’s desk is a specimen of another large moth that she found and is preparing to add to the collection. 

 

It’s not all about bugs.  

The collection holds a perfectly preserved Cayman parrot, its feathers still a vibrant green and red. Harvey said it was donated to the DoE after someone found the intact, dead parrot and decided to stuff it. 

On a shelf above her desk are several glass jars containing other creatures that have been preserved, such as two species of invasive poisonous toads, scorpions and a blind snake. Nearby is the skull of a crocodile. 

“It’s always amazes me, the biodiversity here,” she said. 

While the Department of Environment and the National Trust deal with a huge variety of flora and fauna, the Mosquito Research and Control Unit naturally concentrates on just one insect – the mosquito.  

Laboratory technical Zoila Ebanks is the keeper of the MRCU’s insectarium and holds the only key to the attractive cherrywood cabinet that contains the largest collection of mosquitos in Cayman. 

Inside is the largest mosquito on island – the Psorphora ciliata – and also the smallest, the Uranotinia lowii. 

There are 25 species of mosquitos found on Grand Cayman and a sample of each one is kept at the MRCU building on Red Gate Road. “I recognise them by sight,” said Ebanks, who has worked at the MRCU for 30 years. 

She is also known as having the steadiest hands in the MRCU and can pin even the tiniest of mosquitos through its thorax to display in the case. 

While the majority of the MRCU collection involves mosquitos, that doesn’t stop people from bringing Ebanks other bugs to identify or to add to the displays. The collection also houses an alarmingly green grasshopper, a two-inch long water scorpion, also known as a water bug, a wolf spider and an array of butterflies and moths.  

While all the creatures in the three insectariums have been found in Cayman, some are not native to the Islands, but have been brought in with overseas cargo. 

Ebanks produced a glass jar of clear liquid, inside of which is an orange-coloured, coiled up centipede inside.  

The Scolopendra gigantea, also known as a Peruvian giant yellow-leg centipede or Amazonian giant centipede is one of the largest known centipedes in the world and is considered the only centipede that is capable of killing a human. 

“A construction worker from the South Sound area brought it in. He’d found it in some imported lumber,” said Ebanks. The jar also holds another insect not usually found in Cayman – a “house centipede”, a many-legged bug the size of a large spider. 

The insectariums are always expanding, so the next time you find a weird bug you can’t identify, there are at least three options in helping you find out what’s crawling on your wall. 

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