How to Properly Start and Maintain an Insect Collection

In this article, I introduce you to insect collecting and provide you with a brief introduction on how to properly start and maintain an insect collection. I will also walk you through the stages of collecting, preserving, and displaying specimens. 

Introduction:

For many, insect collecting is more than just a hobby. Many scientists have devoted their lives and careers to collecting and studying insects. These scientists are known as Entomologists. For those just starting out, collecting insects can be an extremely rewarding activity that will allow you to develop many new skills.

Many amateur entomologists have insect collections spanning decades. To scientists, insect collections are more than just beautiful pieces of art, they are a snapshot in time. As I will demonstrate, each insect of a collection must be labelled. These labels provide information about where the insect was collected and who collected it. Providing documentation such as a label is important because insects can provide information about the types of native plants and animals as well as what the environment may have looked like. The sad fact is that the forest you are collecting in today could be a shopping center in the future.

Often, amateur entomologists donate their personal collections to museums. If done properly, your insect collection will last a very long time and may be used as reference by entomologists of the future.

Don’t let the following steps scare you. Collecting and mounting insects is a skill that requires a lot of practice. If you mess up, there are plenty of bugs to go around. 

Collecting the Insect:

Methods of collecting:

If you are simply collecting insects from your back yard or at a friend’s house, I would recommend placing it in a suitable container and tossing it into the freezer. Freezing the insect is the quickest and best way of killing it, while making sure that it doesn’t injure itself by flapping or jumping around in the container.

You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to capture an insect, but a good Nylon Insect Net  will certainly make catching flying insects much easier. Another piece of useful equipment is a Heavy Duty Sweep Net. Sweep nets are used to capture insects dwelling in trees or shrubs. Use them by sweeping the net across the top of a shrub or through the leaves of a tree. These are more durable than insect nets and don’t have holes that will catch branches.

There are also quite of few of interesting insects that live in or on the water. To collect these, I recommend using an Aquatic Net. These kinds of nets are more durable and are more tolerate of scraping against objects.

What if I don’t have access to a freezer?

Use a “Kill” Jar– “Kill” jars are just what they sound like: They are used to kill an insect. You can make your own by pouring a small amount of Plaster of Paris into the bottom of a glass jar. Any jam, salsa, or condiment jar will do. Next, you will need a bottle of nail polish remover. The main ingredient, Ethyl Acetate, is what is actually used to kill the insect. Place several drops of the nail polish remover into the jar, enough so that the plaster absorbs it, but not so much that there is liquid on the bottom of the jar.

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Preserving the Insect:

Once your insect is thawed after being frozen, or dead after being in the kill jar, it is time to preserve it.

*Important: Make sure that your specimen is either freshly killed (using a kill jar) or recently thawed out. It is not possible to preserve old, dry, or brittle specimens because they may shatter when you insert your pin (as demonstrated below).

What you’ll need:

  • Styrofoam block (I like to use Styrofoam blocks used in packaging from things I purchase)
  • Insect pins: These are thin pins made specifically for mounting insects.

Below is an image from Bioquip.com illustrating typical insect pin sizes:1208B7-002-Pin-Sizes-Chart

Click the link to purchase your own: Insect Pins Size 00 (Can be used for slightly smaller insects) , Insect Pins Size 2 (What I recommend using. These will work for most insects.)

Pin Placement: Depending on the species of insect, the pin must be placed in a certain location. Generally, the pin is placed on the right side of the specimen. This is to ensure that all defining characters will be visible on one side of the insect.

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Using the pins and the Styrofoam block: The ultimate goal for this step will be to use pins to position the insect into a position of your choice. Usually, this is with the legs evenly elevated and spread out to the side of the body. *Once in position, the insect will need to be left alone for over a week in a box or drawer to avoid gathering dust. This will give the insect time to dry out so it will hold it’s position.

The first step is to place the pin through the insect. The easiest way to do this is to use the Styrofoam block. First, place the insect on the block so that it’s legs are spread out from its body. This makes it easier to put the pin through the insect. You may need to use pins to spread the legs out in a fashion similar to the butterfly image below to make the process easier. Once the pin is through the insect, make sure to leave enough room in order to grab the top of the pin. Usually, this means to leave about 13mm of space between the pin top and the insect. Make sure to make this consistent for all of your specimens.

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Once the pin is through the insect, mount the insect on the Styrofoam block. Spread the legs and any bent antennae into a position that looks appealing and natural. Don’t be afraid to use as many pins as you need.

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Butterflies: the wings will need to be spread out evenly. Professional entomologists use an Insect Mounting Board, but I will discuss using a Styrofoam block for beginner purposes (both methods are similar). Make sure that the pin is at the correct position, then flip the butterfly upside-down and push the head of the pin into the Styrofoam. Keep pushing until the butterfly’s back is just resting on the surface of the Styrofoam block. At this point, you will need to cut paper into very thin strips to hold the wings down against the block. As you can see in the image below, pins are used to fasten the paper strips against the wings. Again, use as many pins as you see fit. At this time, also use pins to position the antennae and legs in a neat position.

 

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Displaying the Insect:

As mentioned above, for your collection to be of any use in the future, each insect must be labeled correctly. What your insect label should look like:

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As you can see, these labels are extremely small. 

Each top-level label must contain the following:

Country: State: Address
Latitude & Longitude
Information about day, location, and time caught. (The more specific, the better)
Collected by:

As seen in the above image, I have included a taxonomy label (scientific classification). This label is not required. If you do wish to try your hand at identifying the insect, follow the format below:

Order:
Family:
Subfamily:

Making the labels:

  • Use a program like Excel to enter the information. This is an example of what your entries should look like:

Tips: Use size 4, Times New Roman font. Excel

  • Use a thick, durable card-stock paper and a laser-jet printer.

Maintaining your collection:

If not properly sealed and protected, dermestid beetles are guaranteed to seek out your collection and consume each specimen until there is nothing left. Dermestid beetles take a while to find their way into a collection, but can consume everything if given enough time. This has happened many times to me.

To prevent dermestid beetle attack, I have a few recommendations:

  • Freeze your collection boxes yearly. Leave them in the freezer for several days at a time to stop any infestation.
  • Use an insecticide. I have used moth balls and Hot Shot No-pest Strips. Make sure to replace them when no longer effective. Moth balls also have the potential to burn through the foam bottom of a collection box, so take that into consideration.

To purchase the tools mentioned in this article:

Most of the products listed below are made by Bioquip or Carolina Biological Supply. They make extremely durable equipment. Most colleges and universities use their products.

Questions about this process? Feel free to ask below or visit the Contact Us page to send us an email. Happy collecting!

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