Make an Insect Collection

In this article, older kids will learn how to catch, kill, and mount live insects for a collection. Younger kids can learn about insects in the article Insect Investigations for Pre K -2.

Watch this video to see a variety of tools used in making an insect collection.

From an itty-bitty bed bug to a massive atlas moth, the world of insects is crawling (and flying!) with different specimens to discover. Making an insect collection is one of the best ways to learn about insects, as you’ll observe them up-close.

What You Need:

 

Consider the complete Deluxe Insect Collecting Kit, which contains all items necessary to make an insect collection from the insects you catch.

Finding and Catching Insects

Spring or summer is a wonderful time to start making an insect collection! By late summer 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.

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.

using an insect net

When searching for insects outside, look on flowers, in gardens, on decaying leaves, and through the air. If looking for insects in a field, use the sweep method: Carefully swing your net through the top edge of the grass and see what you catch in the end of your net.

When attempting to catch an individual bug with a net, move slowly until you are in range. Position the net under the insect, then swing your net upward and quickly turn the handle so that the net flops over its ring 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 closed top, then stick a container (a killing jar, if you intend to preserve the insect in a collection) 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.

Observing and Identifying Insects

There are about a million insect species of all different colors, shapes, and sizes! However, despite the many differences, all insects share a few basic characteristics:

  • Exoskeleton – Rather than bones inside their bodies, insects have a hard protective covering on the outside.
  • Antennae– Insects usually have one pair of antennae on their head used for touching and smelling.
  • Three body divisions – Insect bodies are divided into the head (with its eyes, mouth, and antennae), the thorax (where its legs and wings are), and the abdomen.
  • Six legs – All insects have six legs attached to their thorax.

You’ll likely find “bugs” that don’t have all these characteristics—like spiders and ticks, which have eight legs, and millipedes, which have many, many more. It’s up to you whether or not to include these bugs in your insect collection.

When observing a live insect specimen that you intend to release later, carefully put it in the Deluxe Bug Magnifier. Is its body soft or armor-covered? What are its antennae like and how does it use them? Based on its mouth, can you tell its eating habits? Does the specimen walk jerkily or quickly? If it has wings, what does its flight look like? Use these features to help you identify the insect, using a high-quality guide book.

Using a Killing Jar

First, charge the jar by adding a capful of ethyl acetate to the plaster cartridge in the bottom. Then put your insect in and quickly close the lid. After a few minutes, the insect should be dead, but you may wait a half hour before removal to be sure. Insects left in the jar for a day or more may become too soggy and wet to use. Use forceps, if you have them, to carefully take a specimen out of the killing jar. Either pin the insect immediately (see steps below) or store it in a glassine envelope until you are ready for the next step.

You may dispatch several small insects in the jar at once. But kill larger insects and butterflies separately so they don’t damage each other.

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.

  Here’s a handy, printable guide that explains How to Pin and Spread Butterflies and Other  Insects for Display.

How to Use a Spreading Board

using an insect spreading board

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.

Identifying and Labeling Insects

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.