BugCollectors.Com - How to Collect and Display Insects

Insects are Fascinating Creatures!

I believe that insects are the most fascinating creatures on Earth. They do amazing things and they look really cool too. Did you know that some species of ants raise livestock and grow crops, while others wage war and take prisoners as slaves? There is even an insect species from Peru whose head looks like a peanut!

Insect Collecting Never Gets Old.

The field of entomology is exciting and interesting. As a child I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD. I got bored really easily. I had trouble sitting still and focusing on the task at hand. This diagnosis has not changed much since I have become an adult. Operating a power plant, selling home improvements or selling real estate does not hold my attention like finding a really cool bug, and learning about how it lives. With over 900,000 known species of insects, boredom is less of a problem.

I first began collecting insects when I was 10 years old and in the years since, I have gained some of my most cherished memories. I have created this website in the hopes that others might find some of the joy that I have found in collecting insects and studying the fascinating field of entomology.

Killing the Specimen

Most insects can be killed with a "killing jar". A killing jar can be an empty plastic peanut butter jar with a cotton swab soaked in nail polish remover. Ethel Acetate is a chemical I prefer over nail polish remover since it kills much more quickly. Ethyl Acetate. is harder to find, but can be purchased at Insects4Sale.com.

In the case of butterflies and moths however, gently squeezing the thorax of the butterfly between your fingers while it is still in your butterfly net works well. A problem with squeezing the thorax is that it can damage the specimen and make it difficult to spread. I prefer to inject the thorax with acetone using a relaxing syringe. This kills the specimen immediately and minimizes damage. The butterfly/moth can be transferred to an envelope where it can be kept until transferring it to storage.

Storing Collected Specimens

I store Insect specimens for up to a week in the freezer, but even in the freezer they will dehydrate after time. Then I store un-mounted insects in an insect envelope with the collection data printed on it. Insects stored in this way will need to be relaxed or rehydrated prior to mounting. I also store un-mounted insects in specimen jars of 70% Ethyl alcohol. The alcohol jars will need to be topped off over time as the alcohol will evaporate over even with the lid on.

The Relaxing Chamber

Prior to pinning the specimens, they must be relaxed. Fresh specimens are usually relaxed already if you spread them right away.  If you store them for spreading later, or if you have purchased dried specimens, they will need to be relaxed. One method is using a relaxing chamber. A relaxing chamber is a container which has a very high humidity. The relaxing chamber would consist of the following: 

  1. A plastic (shoe box sized) box, with a top which fits tightly onto the lower portion.
  2. A sponge which is wetted, and located on the bottom of the plastic box.
  3. A wire mesh covering the sponge so that the butterflies do not actually get wet. Butterflies which get wet can get discolored.
  4. A paper towel covering the wire mesh.
  5. A "moth ball" (one is enough), which is kept inside the Relaxing Chamber to keep fungi and molds from growing inside.
  6. A wetted paper towel on the underside of the top of the box.

Specimens which are placed inside this relaxing chamber become pliable, and can be pinned without damaging the parts of the butterfly

The Relaxing Syringe

Another method is to use a relaxing syringe to relax specimens. Fill a 1 ml or ½ ml syringe with warm water. Then inject the warm water into the thorax of the butterfly or moth. For large beetles inject between the abdominal segments close to the thorax since the thick exoskeleton can damage my needle.

Appendage Relaxing Fluid

Appendage Relaxing Fluid is a good way to loose up dehydrated specimens prior to pinning. Just place a few drops on the joints and antennae, wait 5 to 10 minutes, and you are ready to go.

Pinning the Specimen

There are a number of sizes of pins (from 00 to 7) which are used in the process of pinning insects. I like Ento-Sphinx pins the best, but Asta ento pins are a less expensive alternative for the beginner or student. All of these pins are available through Insects4sale.com. on our supply page.  

Grasp the insect between the thumb and forefinger or lay it on a Styrofoam pad and press the pin gently but firmly just through exoskeleton. Pause and examine the angle of the pin. Will it poke through at a critical or inconvenient point on the insect's bottom? Will the insect be pinned at an unusual angle? If so, pull the pin back out slightly and reposition for the final push through. Be careful not to enlarge entry pin holes or to create too many holes. When completed examine the specimen again for desired pinning effect. Be careful not to prick fingers.

Proper pin positioning is very important. Insects are not all the same. Where a pin is inserted into the insect body may affect or damage a leg on the other side of the insect's body  Use the illustration to the below as a guide for where to insert pins in the various types of insects.

Butterfly mounting/spreading Board

A mounting/spreading board can be made of a number of different materials. The one I use is made of wood with balsa pinning surfaces  The mounting board needs a groove down the center which is about 3/8 inch across, and into which the body of the butterfly can sit while you are working on the wings.. The groove needs to be deep enough so that there is room for the pin so that the specimen can dry with the pin in the proper position. The mounting board should have about 150 degrees of angle from one surface to the other. A quality mounting board can be purchased from insects4sale.com on our supply page. 

Spreading The Specimen

With the use of some well-placed pins and thin paper strips, the butterflies wings can be held down and in the proper position to reduces movement until the insect has dried. Specimens are best spread when they are freshly caught. Once specimens have been spread and allowed to dry place them immediately into the collection to avoid accidents. Let the butterfly dry for at least 5 days before removing from the spreading board. 

With other insects such as beetles, bugs, bees, wasps etc.  I like to position them on a piece of closed cell foam like Styrofoam. The pins penetrate the foam sheet easily and let me position the legs, antennae, head, and body where I want them. 

Tweezers and other Equipment

You will also need a good quality pair of spade tipped tweezers so you handle the specimen while you are pinning it 

Maintaining Your Collection

Inside the insect display box you should place flakes of moth balls. This will discourage future infestations. I like to crush the mothballs and put them into a very small vial with tiny holes in the lid. I secure the vial to the inside lower corner of the display box.

Although mothballs are excellent for keeping out pests that would destroy your specimens, they do not kill pests already infested. You can tell a specimen is infested when a small pile of brown dust or fraz shows up under the specimen. In this case I remove the specimen and place it in the freezer for several days. This seems to kill the pests and I return the specimen to its display.