Insect Collecting

- Preserving & Displaying Insects -

Summary: Large insects are generally pinned and displayed in boxes whereas small, fragile specimens are usually preserved in alcohol. A label should be attached to every specimen that includes collection data such as location and date, and a second label for the scientific name once that determination is made.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

This is the second part of a two part series on making an insect collection. I'll describe some basic tools and techniques for preserving and displaying insects. This is intended mostly for kids, with adult supervision, but will work for gardeners as well who wish to make a reference collection. See Capturing Insect Specimens deals with methods and materials for catching insects in good condition.

Collecting insects

Please note - the following describes some procedures that may be dangerous if done carelessly. Children should only perform these activities with adult supervision.

cabbage butterfly

Pinned cabbage butterfly. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr, USGS,

Making an insect collection

The basic tools for displaying your collection are pretty simple and inexpensive:

  • foam-bottom display box or drawer
  • insect pins
  • spreading board and unit trays
  • index cards and pencil or fine tip permanent ink pen for making labels
  • insect field guide(s)

Displaying your insect collection

Insect collections are usually stored in display boxes or "drawers" that are fitted with foam bottoms that accept insect pins (below). Display boxes can be as inexpensive as a shoebox or as involved as a museum quality "Cornell drawer". Museum drawers are made of wood with a tight-fitting glass top. They are made to a specific size so that they fit into a case that can be tightly sealed. Many amateur collectors simply stack drawers instead of putting them in a case.

Insect pins hold the specimen as well as support tags on which Collecting Data is written. Insect pins are available in different sizes. Number 3 pins are are good standard size to have on hand. Smaller sizes (2-000) are difficult to use because they are easily bent.

Spreading boards are devices used to pin moths and butterflies and other insects with large, delicate wings. The insect's body is placed in the groove of the board and the wings are spread over the boards. Wings are held in place with strips of paper until dry.

Unit trays are small open-top boxes that fit inside display drawers and are used to organize specimens. Unit trays also have a soft, foam bottom that easily accepts insect pins. A typical setup might be something like 25 unit trays (3"x3-1/2") per drawer. Unit trays come in a variety of sizes.

Curating your insect collection

A hand lens should be standard equipment for every insect collector and gardener. Get one that is 10x or less and as large as possible in diameter - 3/4" or larger. Magnifications over 10x are difficult to use. The hand lens will be useful as a substitute for a stereo-microscope when preparing and identifying specimens (see Using a Hand Lens).

Collections of dried insects can be damaged by dermestid beetles, and other insects, that use the collection as food. This is serious concern in museums world-wide and until recently the same ingredients used in mothballs were used in museums to ward off damaging insects. Most insect museums today still have the very distinctive odor of mothballs. Mothballs are no longer used because of the hazard they pose for museum workers. Now, many museums use cold treatments to sanitize drawers.

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