Remote Research: Single Bug Dad

Throughout the world, closures and lockdowns aimed to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted many people’s lives and work. As a global institution, the Missouri Botanical Garden does research around the world, making travel restrictions a major hindrance. The “stay at home” order means staff has lost access to the Garden’s herbarium and labs, too.

But of course, they’ve adapted. Some are using the time to catch up on data analysis. Others are completing manuscripts, which communicate the findings of their work, and floras, a descriptive list of plants in a particular region. And in more remote locations, like protected sites in Madagascar, conservation efforts go on.

“None of us are running out of stuff we can do,” says Jim Miller , Senior Vice President of Science and Conservation.  “Everybody’s got a laptop, we’re all able to work.”

Normally, at least three people are working behind the scenes at the Butterfly House to care for the living collection of plants and animals. In a pinch, one person can handle the horticulture and entomology work, but that’s a bit harder when you have more than 500 baby praying mantids hatch that need daily care.

That’s the situation Tad Yankoski faces right now at the Butterfly House, where he’s holding down the fort alone.

Before the pandemic swept St. Louis, the Butterfly House received 14 exotic mantis egg cases. The cases that held some rare species had been illegally shipped to the U.S., intercepted by the government, and sent to the Butterfly House, which has a permit to house any type of mantid.

The cases had between a dozen to 150 mantis each that had to be separated into small groups. The Butterfly House now has more than 100 containers of mantids that need daily care, including food and misting.

On top of caring for 500 new mantis babies, Yankoski has thousands of other mouths and mandibles to feed in the Butterfly House’s permanent collection of  cockroaches, beetles, ants, tarantulas, scorpions, millipedes, and of course, butterflies. Until last week, the Butterfly House was still receiving new shipments and Yankoski had about 100 butterflies to release each day.

“They don’t understand what a pandemic or a stay at home order is, and I have a duty to give them the best possible care regardless of what is happening in the world,” Yankoski says of the insects.

Of course, some parts of operations have changed. A project on breeding beetles, started by a spring intern, is on hold. Upcoming shipments of butterfly pupae are suspended for the time being. The whole Butterfly House staff is still looking into the future as much as possible, finalizing details for summer events, conducting remote interviews for summer interns, and sharing posts on social media to help visitors stay connected. 

“Our little lab is still very full with life, and that keeps me busy, shut down or not.”

Tad Yankoski

While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of our lives, the Garden’s critical work conserving plant life goes on. These efforts would not be possible without your support. Consider helping us continue our mission in these uncertain times by becoming a member or making a donation.

Catherine Martin
Public Information Officer

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