How to Start Collecting Insects the Humane Way

Insect collection, a practice that dates back centuries, serves as both a hobby and a crucial scientific endeavor.

By collecting insects, enthusiasts and researchers can gain insights into the vast diversity of species, their behaviors, and their roles in various ecosystems.

However, as with any practice that involves living organisms, it’s essential to approach insect collection with a sense of responsibility.

Ethical concerns arise when collecting insects, especially regarding the methods used to capture and preserve them.

Ensuring that these methods are as humane as possible is not only an ethical obligation but also ensures the integrity of the specimens collected.

In this article, we would like to share some best practices with regard to collecting and preserving insects.

Understanding Insects

Insects, belonging to the class Insecta, are among the most diverse groups of animals on Earth. 

Their bodies are typically divided into three main parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen.

The head houses vital sensory organs, including eyes and antennae, which serve as organs of touch, taste, smell, and hearing.

The thorax, the middle section, is where the legs and, if present, wings are attached. All insects possess six legs, distinguishing them from other arthropods.

The abdomen contains essential internal organs, including those for digestion and reproduction.

Beyond their anatomical features, insects play pivotal roles in ecosystems. They contribute to processes like pollination, decomposition, and serve as a food source for various animals.

Their interactions with plants, other animals, and even the physical environment help maintain ecological balance.

Understanding the importance of insects underscores the need for ethical collection practices, ensuring their continued contribution to our ecosystems.

How to Start Collecting Insects the Humane Way: Preparing for a Collection

Before embarking on the journey of insect collection, it’s imperative to be well-equipped with the right tools and materials.

These tools not only facilitate the collection process but also ensure that the specimens are handled and preserved correctly.

  • Insect Net: An essential tool for any collector, the insect net aids in capturing flying or swiftly moving insects. The net’s design allows for a swift motion to enclose the insect without causing harm.
  • Killing Jar: Once an insect is captured, it needs to be preserved. A killing jar is a container used to humanely euthanize insects. The jar’s interior typically contains a substance that releases fumes to euthanize the insect quickly.
  • Ethyl Acetate: This is the substance often used in killing jars. When introduced into the jar, ethyl acetate releases fumes that act swiftly, ensuring that the insect does not suffer.
  • Observation Jar: Before preserving an insect, it might be necessary to observe it closely. An observation jar, often transparent, allows for a detailed examination of the insect without touching or harming it.
  • Insect Field Guide: Identification is a crucial aspect of insect collection. An insect field guide provides detailed information, often with illustrations, about various insect species, assisting in the accurate identification of collected specimens.
Source: Thomas QuineCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Forceps: Handling insects, especially smaller ones, requires precision. Forceps, resembling tweezers, allow for the gentle handling and positioning of insects without causing damage.
  • Pinning Block: Once euthanized, insects are often pinned for display. A pinning block ensures that the pin is inserted at the correct height, giving a uniform appearance to the displayed collection.
  • Spreading Board: For insects with wings, like butterflies, a spreading board is used. It helps in positioning the wings symmetrically and holding them in place until they dry. This ensures that the insect’s natural beauty is preserved in the display.
  • Insect Pins: These are specialized pins used to mount insects onto display boards. They are thin, sharp, and rust-resistant, ensuring that the insect remains undamaged and the display lasts longer.
  • Display Case: Once pinned, insects are placed in display cases. These cases protect the specimens from dust, moisture, and potential damage. They also provide an organized way to showcase the collection.

Equipped with these tools and materials, collectors can ensure that their insect collection process is efficient, ethical, and results in a well-preserved display.

Finding and Catching Insects

Collecting insects requires a strategic approach, understanding their habitats, behaviors, and the best times to find them. Here’s a detailed guide on when and where to look for insects:

Best Times and Seasons for Insect Collection

Spring and summer are particularly fruitful for insect collection. By late summer, many insects have completed their metamorphosis and emerged as adults.

The warmer temperatures and longer daylight hours increase insect activity, making them more visible and accessible.

Habitats and Techniques for Finding Insects

Around Water

Insects such as dragonflies can often be seen flying around water bodies. Water striders glide on the water’s surface, while various water beetles can be found on aquatic plants.

Tools like fish nets or turkey basters can be used to collect insects from the water.

Additionally, mud puddles attract numerous insects, including butterflies, which drink from them to obtain essential minerals.

In the Ground

The soil is home to various insects. Digging at the base of trees or plants where caterpillars have been spotted might reveal moth pupae in cocoons.

Lifting stones or boards can uncover beetles and other creatures like sow bugs, spiders, and centipedes.

On Plants

Plants, especially flowers, attract a plethora of insects. Bees, butterflies, ladybugs, caterpillars, and leafhoppers are just a few examples.

Observing plants with signs of being eaten can lead to the discovery of the responsible insect. Beetles, for instance, can be found beneath loose tree bark or around stumps.

Source: MaurobioCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Near Lights

Many insects are attracted to light. During the night, areas around streetlights or porch lights become hotspots for various insects.

When searching for insects, it’s essential to be observant and patient.

Employing the sweep method, where one swings a net through the top edge of grass, can be effective in fields.

For individual insects, approach slowly, position the net beneath the insect, and then swiftly capture it.

Understanding these habitats and techniques ensures a more successful and enriching insect collection experience.

Humane Methods of Collection

Collecting insects requires a balance between scientific curiosity and ethical responsibility. Ensuring that the methods used are humane is paramount. Here are some of the most accepted methods:

Using a Killing Jar with Ethyl Acetate

A killing jar is a tool designed to euthanize insects swiftly and humanely. The jar contains a substance that releases fumes when exposed to the air.

Ethyl acetate is commonly used for this purpose.

When an insect is placed inside a killing jar charged with ethyl acetate, it is exposed to the fumes, leading to a quick and painless death.

Freezing as an Alternative Method

Freezing is another method that can be used to euthanize insects humanely. The insect is placed in a small, airtight plastic container and then put in a freezer.

This method is especially effective for small, crawling insects. However, it takes longer than using a killing jar and might not be as reliable for larger insects or butterflies.

Using Bugs that are Already Dead

Collecting insects that have already died naturally or due to accidental causes, such as roadkill or those found on car grills, is another humane method.

We’ve mentioned a bit more about this in the reader’s letters section below.

This approach ensures no additional harm is caused to insects for the sake of collection. 

However, it’s essential to ensure that the specimens are still in good condition for display or study.

Car grill closeup from our archives

The Ethics of Killing Insects for Collection

The act of killing insects for collection purposes has long been a topic of ethical debate.

While insect collection provides valuable scientific data and educational insights, it’s essential to approach the practice with a sense of responsibility and respect for life.

  • Scientific Value vs. Ethical Responsibility: While insect collection has contributed significantly to our understanding of biodiversity, ecology, and other scientific fields, it’s crucial to weigh the scientific value against the ethical implications of killing living organisms.
  • Humane Euthanasia: If euthanizing insects is deemed necessary, it should be done in the most humane way possible, ensuring minimal suffering.
  • Promotion of Live Observations: With advancements in technology, live observations and non-lethal methods of study are becoming more feasible. Promoting these methods can reduce the need for lethal collection.
  • Educational Awareness: It’s essential to educate collectors, especially young enthusiasts, about the ethical considerations of insect collection. This awareness can lead to more responsible and humane practices in the future. Source

In conclusion, while insect collection has its merits, it’s imperative to approach the practice with an ethical mindset, prioritizing the well-being of the insects and the ecosystems they inhabit.

Preserving and Displaying Insects

Once insects have been collected, the next step is to preserve and display them in a manner that maintains their natural appearance and provides valuable information about each specimen. 

Proper preservation ensures that the specimens remain intact and can be studied or admired for years to come.

Pinning Insects for Display

Pinning is a traditional method used to display insects, especially larger ones. The process involves inserting a specialized insect pin through the thorax (middle part) of the insect.

This not only holds the insect in place but also allows for easy handling without touching the specimen directly.

The height at which the insect is pinned is crucial for a uniform appearance, and a pinning block can assist in achieving this consistency.

Using a Spreading Board for Winged Insects

Winged insects, such as butterflies and moths, require special attention to ensure their wings are displayed symmetrically.

A spreading board is used for this purpose. The insect is placed on the board, and its wings are gently spread out and held in position using strips of paper or thin card.

The wings are then allowed to dry in this position, which can take up to two weeks. Once dried, the insect can be removed from the board and placed in a display case.

Labeling Insects with Relevant Information

Proper labeling is essential for any insect collection. Each label should provide pertinent information about the specimen, such as its common and scientific names.

Additionally, details about where and when the insect was collected, the habitat it was found in, and any other relevant observations can be included.

These labels not only provide context for the collection but also serve as valuable data for scientific studies.

Typically, the label is attached to the pin used to mount the insect, ensuring that the information remains with the specimen.

Remember, preserving and displaying insects requires careful attention to detail and a commitment to maintaining the integrity of each specimen.

Proper techniques and labeling ensure that the collection serves as both an educational tool and a testament to the incredible diversity of the insect world.

Addressing Common Questions

How to Humanely Collect Insects?

Collecting insects humanely is of utmost importance to ensure minimal suffering. Utilizing a killing jar with ethyl acetate provides a swift and painless method of euthanasia.

Alternatively, freezing insects is another humane method, especially effective for smaller insects.

Additionally, opting to collect insects that have already died naturally, such as those found as roadkill or on car grills, ensures no harm is done for the sake of collection.

What is the Process of Collecting Insect Samples?

The collection process begins with identifying suitable habitats and using tools like insect nets to capture specimens.

Once captured, insects can be observed in observation jars before being humanely euthanized for preservation.

Proper tools, such as forceps, are used to handle and position insects, ensuring their natural appearance is maintained.

How to Start Bug Taxidermy?

Bug taxidermy involves preparing and preserving insects for display. The process starts with euthanizing the insect humanely.

Once the insect is dead, it’s pinned to a spreading board (for winged insects) to ensure the wings dry symmetrically.

The insect is then left to dry for a period, after which it can be displayed in a case. Proper labeling with relevant information is crucial for a comprehensive display.

What are the Techniques Used in Insect Collection and Preservation?

Various techniques are employed in insect collection and preservation.

These include pinning for display, using spreading boards for winged insects, and employing killing jars for humane euthanasia.

Preservation also involves ensuring insects are kept in conditions that prevent decay, such as in airtight display cases that protect against moisture and other potential damage.

Conclusion

Insect collection, a practice rooted in both scientific exploration and personal fascination, offers a window into the diverse world of these tiny creatures.

From understanding their anatomy and significance in ecosystems to the tools and techniques essential for collection, the journey is both enlightening and intricate.

Ethical considerations, especially the humane treatment of insects, stand at the forefront of this endeavor.

With the right tools, such as insect nets, killing jars, and spreading boards, collectors can ensure the preservation of specimens in their most natural state.

We hope we have addressed some of the common questions and concerns that will ensure that both novices and seasoned collectors approach the practice with knowledge and responsibility.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about collecting insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Cure fo Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia cure! (at least for me)
Dear Bugman,
I just want to share an effective “arachnophobia” cure to anyone who is very afraid of spiders. I used to be repulsed by all spiders “squish first, ask questions later” was my motto. One day I stumbled across my very first black widow in the corner of my garage.

My husband almost finished it right then and there but being an elementary teacher, I saw a glorious teaching opportunity. We captured it in a large jar with air holes and also threw a small branch in with it. I took it to school to show kids what a true black widow really looks like.

The spider built a web on the branch and the students took turns catching flies for her to eat. We kept that spider alive for weeks and I found myself watching it a lot, being fascinated by its movements and behavior. Something happened to me during that time.

I am no longer afraid of spiders, I actually let some reside in my home. (Though the larger “wolfies” as we call them, are placed gently outdoors. I love to find new spiders in my garden, and my hunt for the identification of some “huntsmen Spiders, or Banana Spiders that I found in my storage shed led me to your site. Keep up the great work!
Thanks,
Gina

Hi Gina,,
Thank you for the wonderful letter, though we doubt many of our readers will try taking your cure.

Letter 2 – Kindness to Arthropods

Thank you so much for this site!
I found it incredibly refreshing to come across a site so vehemently against the unnecessary killing of insects and other arthropods. In my house it’s a RULE that you don’t kill spiders etc . And an unwelcome critter is put out gently , as long as the weather is warm enough.

I recently went to a Christmas party where the host had captured a Western Conifer Seed Bug, that had come into there house. Their kids didn’t care for it lol, so I wound up taking it home and set him up in a habitat until warmer weather when he can be set free.

Thanks to your site I was able to properly identify him. It’s great how you’re working to enlighten people about the wonderful benefits of arthropods. Here are some photos of my son and I hanging out with some little critters. Thanks again for your wonderful site!
Sincerely,
Lark

Hi Lark,
Now it is our turn to thank you for the gracious letter, but sadly, none of your photos attached.

Letter 3 – Feeding Spiders

What biologists do for fun…
Hello!
First off I have to compliment you on your wonderful website! What a great resource for experienced entomologists and beginners alike. I especially love how your answer to how to remove insects from a house is to “capture and remove them” 🙂 A google search to find out the type of scarab my boyfriend and I saw today (which turned out to be a rainbow scarab, unfortunately being devoured by fire ants…grrrr) brought us to your site.

I thought you might enjoy a story that might give you a good laugh! While working for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California, my coworker and I lived in field housing. Being out in the middle of nowhere and on an old dairy, naturally we had a lot of anthropod residents in our house, including what I just call “house spiders” (We also had at least 4 gorgeous female black widow spiders residing on the outside of our house until the entire house was sprayed for cinch bugs which naturally killed EVERYTHING…grrr again!).

One of my coworker and I’s activities that we enjoyed was to stun houseflies and then “feed the pet spiders” It never ceases to amaze me watching how a spider catches its prey. In our tv room we had 3 spiders that shared adjoining webs made over the flourescent light. On one particular night we fed these 3 spiders and watched them battle over the flies.

The best part was when the 2 largest spiders were fighting over a fly, the smallest spider snuck in and stole the fly! Yeay for the underdog! I hope you enjoyed the anecdote! Keep up the great work!
A new fan,
Katie

Letter 4 – Dispelling Fear

We Love Your Site!
Dear What’s That Bug-
My children and I wanted to drop you a quick note to say how much we are enjoying your site. We found it while searching the internet for pictures of bugs for a class project. We now make a point of stopping in to see your new additions!

I think it has made my children less afraid of bugs in general, which is a good thing!
We especially enjoyed the picture of the red and gray spider today. My kids think he looks like a little stuffed animal. We never realized spiders had such expressive faces!
Thanks again for all your work and the time and effort you must put into this truly amazing site.
Candace, Reagan & Stuart
Rhode Island..

Letter 5 – Insect Collection Quandary

Subject: insect collecting for the squeamish
July 14, 2016 5:46 pm
Hi,
I’ve always been facinated by insects and recently I’ve noticed my son taking an interest too I want to encourage/develop it by starting an insect collection.
However, I’m not keen on the idea of killing them.

I come across many different insects already dead & was wondering if there’s any reason I couldn’t use these specimins instead, and if you knew of or was aware of any information based on collecting already dead insects.

Bit of an odd quetion, I realise, but hopefully you can help me.
Kind regards,
Jess
Signature: Jessica Hanlon

Car Grill Road Kill
Car Grill Road Kill

Dear Jess,
Your letter has been in the back of our mind for a few days now.  Though we do support insect collections as an educational experience, the sad state is that many school project insect collections are not maintained and they are quickly forgotten after the grade has been allocated. 

We have a wonderful letter in our archives from Nancy that recounts her school collection that was assembled strictly from insects on a car grill, and we are illustrating your query with an awesome Car Grill Road Kill image we received many years back.  We think creating a collection from already dead insects is a marvelous way to reconcile your reservations. 

We also believe that a truly interested youngster can develop a real appreciation for the natural world by beginning a true “capture” collection.  You might enjoy this posting as well from Susanne where we support starting a collection and we do not believe an insect collection is Unnecessary Carnage.  Doing a photo collection is another possibility for folks who do not want to kill and pin insects.

Hi,
Thanks for your reply. It definitely encouraged me to just give it a go.
My 10 year old sister my son and myself went on a hunt round the house today for dead bugs, and although some of them were quite elderly corpses by the time they were manhandled by children it has proved to be an activity that kept them both entertained for hours.

Tomorrow we’ll be trying to identify some of them. Here’s a section of our ‘bug collection for the squeamish’.

Insect Collection for the Squeemish
Insect Collection for the Squeamish

Dear Jess,
That is one impressive collection you have assembled in a very short space of time.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

3 thoughts on “How to Start Collecting Insects the Humane Way”

  1. My love of insects started about 10 years ago when I got a digital camera with a really good macro setting. Even though I’m very much an amateur, I love photographing insects and my efforts to sneak up on them and get close enough for a really good shot have led me to observe them more carefully and learn about their behavior.

    I’d definitely second the suggestion of a photo collection as an alternative to killing insects. You don’t have to buy a really expensive camera with thousands of dollars worth of extra lenses and equipment–a decent quality point-and-shoot camera with good macro focusing capabilities could give you and your son a lot of fun experiences learning about bugs.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for the comment Susan. It was much more refreshing for us than the two previous rant comments we just received, approved and did not comment upon.

      Reply
  2. My love of insects started about 10 years ago when I got a digital camera with a really good macro setting. Even though I’m very much an amateur, I love photographing insects and my efforts to sneak up on them and get close enough for a really good shot have led me to observe them more carefully and learn about their behavior.

    I’d definitely second the suggestion of a photo collection as an alternative to killing insects. You don’t have to buy a really expensive camera with thousands of dollars worth of extra lenses and equipment–a decent quality point-and-shoot camera with good macro focusing capabilities could give you and your son a lot of fun experiences learning about bugs.

    Reply

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