Grab your net and head outside to make a beautiful insect collection with the tips in this article, plus download our free insect pinning instructions.
Late summer is a wonderful time to start making an insect collection! Many insects have gone through their stages of metamorphosis and emerged as adults. Even though insects all have six legs and three main body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen), the variety of shapes, colors, and sizes is astonishing. Insects include butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, praying mantises, beetles, dragonflies, and bees, plus many more. There are close to one million identified species, and many more to be discovered!
You can make a simple insect collection without a lot of fancy equipment, but these are the supplies that will be most useful:
>> Download our free Insect Pinning Instructions (PDF) for an in-depth, illustrated guide to relaxing, spreading, pinning, and mounting insects.
Insects are abundant in many different habitats. Try looking for them...
...around water. Look for dragonflies in the air, water striders on the surface, and different kinds of water beetles on plants growing in the water. Use a fish net and/or a turkey baster to collect insects out of the water. Also look around mud puddles - lots of insects, including butterflies, will drink from them to gain necessary minerals.
...in the ground. Dig at the base of trees or plants where you have seen caterpillars before--you may find the pupae of moths in cocoons. Lift up stones or boards to find beetles or non-insects like sow bugs, spiders, and centipedes.
...on plants. Flowers attract lots of different insects, including bees and butterflies. Plants also provide homes to ladybugs, caterpillars, leafhoppers, and many more. Look for leaves that have been eaten; there's a good chance you'll be able to find the insect who did the damage. Also check for beetles underneath loose bark on trees or around stumps. (Woodpiles are a great place to find hidden insects, too.)
...near lights. At night insects will often congregate around streetlights or porch lights.
To catch small insects, gently sweep your net back and forth through the top edge of tall grass, then take a look at what you have caught. You can also use this method by a pond to catch insects near the surface of the water. To catch insects in the water you might want a fish net.
When trying to capture a larger insect or butterfly with a net, move slowly until you are in range. Position the net under the insect, then swing your net upward and turn the handle so that the net flips over and the captured insect cannot escape. If you bring the net over the insect and down to the ground, raise the end of it so that the insect can fly to the top, then stick a container under the net and carefully move your insect down into it.
To keep a butterfly from beating its wings against the sides of a container and damaging them, you can "stun" it by pinching the thorax (the middle part of the body) with your thumbnail. This may take some practice to get right, but once you're able to do it well you can carry stunned butterflies safely in glassine envelopes with their wings folded together.
For all insects that you want to keep in a collection, the easiest way to kill them is to use a killing jar. You can make one of these by putting cotton balls soaked in rubbing alcohol or ethyl acetate (a more hazardous chemical - use caution!) into a glass jar. For best results, though, use ethyl acetate in a killing jar made for the purpose. The ethyl acetate will work more quickly than rubbing alcohol and the jar has a plaster cartridge to soak up the fluid so the insects don't get wet.
Don't leave the insect in the killing jar too long. Use forceps, if you have them, to carefully take it out. Either pin the insect immediately (see steps below) or store it in a glassine envelope until you are ready for the next step.
If your specimen seems too rigid to pin easily, you can make a relaxing jar by setting a damp rag inside an airtight plastic container. Set the insect inside, cover it with 2-3 damp (not dripping) paper towels and close the lid. Keep the cloth and paper towel damp, until the specimen is softened, which will take 2-3 days for most insects. (Fuller instructions for relaxing specimens are in our Insect Pinning Instructions pdf.)
If you do not have a killing jar right now, or have caught many insects at one time, you can also try freezing one for several days in a small airtight plastic container, which works best for small crawling insects. This method takes longer, and is unreliable for large insects and butterflies.
To make sure your insects dry in the right position for display, use a spreading board and insect pins. (You can make your own spreading board with strips of cardboard.) For large winged insects like butterflies, carefully insert a pin through the right side of the thorax by gently pinching the thorax to spread the wings enough to pin it. Place the insect's body in the groove on the board - it varies in width for different-sized insects. Gently press the wings down so they lie spread out flat, then put a thin strip of paper over each wing and pin the ends of the strip to the board. The drying process may take up to two weeks for your insect. Once the specimen has dried, remove the paper strips, but don't try to remove the pin through the thorax! Use that pin to mount it in a display case.
Since insects can be beautiful or strange or scary-looking, it's fun to make a collection just for display. But if you're making a collection for school or researching which insects live in your area, you'll want to take the extra step to identify the specimens you collect. Take notes of where you found each insect (such as what plant it was on) while you're out collecting, and then use an identification guide when you get home to find the scientific and common names. Write or print out a small tag (card stock or other thin cardboard works well) with the name, and attach it to the pin that you use to hold down your insect. You may also want to list the date and place where you found the insect.
- There are 12,000 different kinds of beetles in the United States alone. Out of all the creatures on the planet, one in five is a beetle.
- The monarch butterfly, though so small, can fly amazing distances! Monarchs commonly migrate from the northern states or Canada, all the way to Mexico - a distance of over 2,000 miles!
- A cockroach can live up to two weeks without food, and as much as a week without water. If this strange insect loses its head, it can still crawl around until it dies from not being able to drink.
Visit this fascinating NOVA site about bees and learn how they communicate with each other, organize their hive, and gather food.
Get a "bug's-eye view" with these amazing close-up pictures of compound eyes.
Explore the world of ants with this photo gallery from the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.