Insect collectors use a few simple tools and
supplies. Sweep and/or butterfly nets allow
you to capture flying insects in their
natural habitat. Pit-fall traps can be used
to collect insects that crawl along the
This is part 1 of a two part series on
making an insect collection. We'll first
cover some basic tools for capturing specimens in
good condition, then look at ways to Prepare
and Display an Insect Collection. The
information is geared mostly for kids, with
adult supervision, but will work for
gardeners as well that might want to make a
Please note - the following
describes some procedures that may be dangerous
if done carelessly. Children should only
perform these activities with adult
insects with sweep nets. Photo by Jack
The tools of the insect collector are
pretty simple and inexpensive. Your collecting kit
- insect (butterfly & sweep) nets
- magnifier (hand lens)
- insect killing jars
- vials, alcohol, index cards, pencil
- plastic cups and propylene glycol-based
- insect field guide(s)
Wards Natural Scientific is a good
source of insect collecting and curating supplies.
They sell insect nets, insect pins of all sizes,
display boxes, Cornell drawers, unit trays,
spreading boards, vials, ethyl acetate, and so
Insect nets come in different sizes and fabric weights
depending on the intended use. Sweep nets
are made of heavier fabric and are used to sweep
through vegetation. Butterfly nets are made of light
weight fabric and are used to snatch flying insects
out of the air. Nets can be homemade, if you have
some sewing skills, or can be purchased online.
Insects caught in the net can be placed
directly into a killing jar (see below) by either
inserting the jar into the net and capturing the
specimen against the net cloth or by trapping the
specimen at the bottom of the net and placing this
end into the jar and screwing on the lid.
A hand lens magnifier should be standard
equipment for every insect collector and gardener.
Get one that is 10x power, or less, and a large
diameter -- 3/4" or larger. Magnifications over 10x
are difficult to use (see Using
a Hand Lens).
Making an insect killing jar
Killing jars are used to kill insect
specimens in the field when no freezer is available.
The best way to kill an insect specimen is to put it
in a freezer overnight. Freezing preserves colors
and delicate parts that might otherwise be broken.
Once thawed the specimen can be pinned. If you are
out in the field, with no freezer handy, the next
best way is to use a killing jar.
Wrap a wide-mouth glass jar (~8 oz) in
clear packing tape so if the glass breaks it won't
shatter. The jar should have a tight-sealing lid.
Mix up some Plaster-of-Paris (available from paint
stores) to the consistency of a milkshake. Cover the
bottom of the jar to about 3/4" with plaster, allow
to harden. Place a few drops of ethyl acetate
(some nail polish removers are nearly 100%
ethyl acetate, check the label, don't
use those made from acetone) on the plaster and add
a square of tissue paper to absorb excess moisture.
This is the basic killing jar. Insects placed inside
the jar will quickly die because of the vapors. The
jar will need to be periodically recharged with
(4 dram) filled with alcohol can be used for small
or delicate insects. Ethyl alcohol (70%) is the best
preservative but may be difficult to find (140 proof
gin and vodka are 70% ethyl alcohol). Rubbing
alcohol (70% isopropyl alcohol) can be substituted.
Rubbing alcohol tends to harden specimens making
them more difficult to handle later. Collecting
information such as date and location should be
written on a small piece of index card, in
pencil, and placed inside the vial.
Pencil lead will not wash off in alcohol.
Making a pitfall trap -- Pitfall traps are a great way to
collect insects that crawl around at ground level,
often coming out only at night. You'll need some
propylene glycol-based antifreeze like Sierra
brand antifreeze. Do not use antifreeze
that contains ethylene glycol because it
is poisonous to wildlife and pets.
Get some 8 oz plastic cups. Dig a pit deep
enough to bury the cup up to the rim. Pour about an
inch of antifreeze (diluted 50% with water) into the
cup and fashion a cover that allows crawling insects
to enter the trap but excludes entry from above. A
small plastic plate supported by rocks, and weighted
down with a rock, makes a good cover. Check the trap
at least once a week. Antifreeze can be re-used
after straining out the specimens. Transfer
specimens to a labeled vial of alcohol.
Collect, Collect, Collect
Collect from as many different habitats as
possible. You'll find different insects in a grassy
meadow compared to the forest, for example. Or, you
might restrict collecting to one habitat but vary it
over time, by season for example. Also, don't forget
to take along your camera to document the habitat.
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