How to Make an Insect Collection

Vickie Smith  |  9/20/2016 8:08:21 PM

Butterfly in an insect collection.

Have you ever chased butterflies or caught a ladybug to get a closer look at them? If so, you’ve been attracted by the largest group of animals on earth – insects! There are over one million different kinds! Some insects you have to catch with an insect net while others come to you using lights, etc.

Insects are small creatures, arthropods, with a hard covering (the skeleton) over the body. This hard cover helps protect the soft, inside parts of the insect’s body. It will also provides places for its muscles to be attached so the insects can move.

Insects' bodies are divided into three main parts, the head, the thorax, and the abdomen. The head has eyes, a mouth, and antennae (feelers.) The middle part is the thorax. It has the legs and wings attached. The part in the rear is the abdomen. It contains the stomach and other digestive organs. Reproductive organs are also in the abdomen.

Insects have six legs (three pairs.) One pair is attached to each segment of the thorax. If the adult has wings, they are attached to the thorax. Insects are the only class of arthropods that have wings. Insects have two (one pair) antennae. The antennae are on the front of the head. They are often called “feelers.” Antennae serve as organs of touch, taste, smell and hearing. 

Creating an insect collection can be an interesting project for 4-H youth. Each insect collected will belong to a particular group called an order. This is the system used in grouping insects. You will need to place your insects in the orders in which they belong in your collection. All insects in an order look similar in some way.

Now since you have learned a little bit about insects, you can go out and start collecting insects to put in collection. You can read below about how to make a killing jar and how to put your insects into your collection.

Making a killing jar

The purpose of an insect killing jar is to kill insects quickly so they do not get broken. The size of the jar depends on the size and kind of insects collected. For butterflies and months, a wide mouth pint mayonnaise or pickle jar with a screw cap is satisfactory. Never mix other insects in the same killing jar with your butterflies and moths. They can be easily damaged by beetles, wasps, and other hardier insects. A smaller wide mouth jar can be used for collecting other insects. Make several jars at a time so you will always have extras if they get broken.

Materials needed for preparing the killing jar:

1. Several jars of different sizes fitted with a jar ring and tight lid or cork stopper.

2. Plaster of paris.

3. Water.

4. Ethyl acetate, fingernail polish remover or other material which contains ethyl acetate.

Mix eight heaping teaspoons of plaster of paris with five teaspoons of water in a disposable cup. This should make a paste about as thick as a milk shake. Stir the mixture until smooth. Pour or spoon the mixture into the jars ¾ inch or one inch deep. Tap the killing jars against the ground so the plaster of paris makes a smooth surface. With the cap off the jars, let the plaster of paris set for several days until it is thoroughly dry. When dry, the plaster of paris becomes paper white. When the plaster of paris is thoroughly set, pour as much killing agent (see number 4 above) into the killing jar as will be absorbed by the plaster of paris. Pour out any excess liquid, and cap the jar immediately. To reduce the danger of breathing the fumes, go outdoors to fill the killing jar. Always keep the jar tightly covered except when placing insects in the jar or taking them out. If the jar is not tightly covered, the killing agent evaporates rapidly.

Pinning insects

You may get insect pins from college bookstores. Check your local leader for the nearest source of supply. Do not use sewing pins. They will rust and soon ruin what may be valuable specimens. Pins come in several sizes, but No. 2 and No. 3 are found the most useful.

Any insect that is large enough to support a pin without breaking or becoming damaged may be pinned directly through the body. Insert the pin through the part of the body described below.

1. Bees, wasps, fillies, etc: pin the thorax between bases of forewings and to right of middle line.

2. True bugs: pin through the scutellum, the triangular area between the bases of the wings.

3. Grasshoppers, crickets, etc: pin through the prothorax or “saddle” to the right of the center line.

4. Beetles: pin through the fore part of the right wing cover near the center line.

5. Butterflies, moths, dragonflies, etc.: pin through center of thorax between the bases of fore wings.

Three-eighths of an inch of the pin should extend above the insect. This will allow you to handle the specimen after pinning. Use a pinning block to measure this distance.

Make a pinning block

Medium and larger insects should be pinned vertically through the body, using the pinning block to set the height of the insect on the pin. A simple temporary pinning block may by made of corrugated cardboard. A more permanent pinning block can be made from wood.

How to card point small insects

1. Select heavy paper such as index cards, for cutting out card points.

2. Cut points. The points should be about 3/8 inch long.

3. Stick a pin through the base of the card point and push it up on the pin to about ¼ inch from the top of the pin. Use a pinning block to get uniform height of the points.

4. With a pair of tweezers, bend the tip of the card point down.

5. Put a tiny drop of glue on end of the card point. Press it gently against the underneath right side of the insect. Clear fingernail polish or any clear drying glue may be used. Be sure the insect is not at an angle. This takes practice.

Block spreading board

Materials Needed:

1. Block of soft wood or plastic foam about 6 x 6x 2 inches.

2. A hand saw or pocket knife.

Saw or cut a wide groove across the block. The groove should be about ½ inch wide and ½ inch deep. This makes a slot for the body of the insect to rest in when spreading. You may wish to make three or four of these blocks (some with broad and some with narrow slots) for spreading small or large butterflies or moths.

Spreading butterfly wings

1. Stick an insect pin through the center of the thorax or a freshly killed butterfly so that 1/4th of the pin is exposed above the thorax. If it is already dried, use the relaxing instructions.  Make sure the insect does not tip from side to side or from front to back of the pin.

2. Push the pin straight down the center of the slot of your pinning board until the outstretched wings are just level with the surface of the pinning board.

3. Insert the insect pin lightly in each front wing near the front margin and just behind one of the heavy wing veins. Move the front wings gently until the hind margin of the front wings are in a straight line, at right angles to the body.

4. With a pin placed behind a heavy vein in the hind wing, move each hind wing forward until the gap between the front wing and hind wing is closed to just a notch.

5. Cut some narrow strips of paper, and lay them over the wings. Pin them in place as shown. Remove the other pins that are through the wings. Hold the paper strips in place so they do not go through the wings. They should be close to them to keep enough pressure on the wings to prevent their slipping gout of place. Some entomologists use transparent papers so they can see if the wings have slipped out of place while the specimen is drying. Paper that is too thin will not give enough pressure on the wings. If the abdomen tends to sag, prop up with pins until it dries. Pins can also be used to keep the antennae in place while the specimen dries. Depending on the moisture in the air, the specimen should remain on the board from four to eight days.

Note: As you gain more practice with spreading butterflies, you will want to use a method which does not puncture the wings with pins. This method is shown in some insect books.

Labeling insects

The most important label is one that tells where, when, and by whom the insect was collected. Every pinned insect should have this label. Remember, a specimen without a date, place, collector label is practically worthless. The “where found” and “common names” labels may also be added if you know this information. Place labels at the desired height on the pin by a pinning block.  See attachment below for insect collection labels.

Glass top display case

Materials needed for a glass top display case, 18 x 24 inches:

1. One piece of Masonite or ¼ in plywood for bottom- 18 x 24 inches.

2. Two side pieces of pine, ¾  x 3 x 24 inches.

3. One end pieces of pine, ¾ x 3 x 16 inches.

4. One end pieces of pine, ¾ x 3 1/8 x 16 inches.

5. One pieces of plastic foam for pinning floor,  16 x 22 inches.

6. One piece of window glass 1/8 inch thick, 17 x 23 inches.

Note: both sides and one end of your box will be grooved to receive glass top.

Rules for Achievement Day

a. Any member may participate.

b. Submit a mounted collection of insects according to Publication 1611 or 2447.

c. Must have at least 25 specimens in order to qualify, but you can have more

d. Exhibit must be submitted in March or April (prior to Achievement Day).

e. Scoring: 1 point per insect; 3 points per order represented; 25 points for organization and

appearance. 25 points for condition of insects.

1. Each insect shall have a collector’s label showing place collected (town, city, etc.) the date collected and name of the collector. This label shall be centered on the pin ½ inch from the bottom of the case and be readable from the left side of the specimen.

2. Specimens shall also be label with their common names if they have one. This label shall be placed beneath the specimen flat on the bottom of the case with the pin through the center and be readable from the left side of the specimen.

3. Shall be grouped by orders.

4. Specimens shall be positioned so that they are facing forward when the case horizontal.

5. The name, parish, age, and 4-H club of the exhibitor shall be displayed on the outside of the glass in the lower right hand corner of the case.

 Taken from “You and Nature,” a 4-H project book published in 1998 (#2447) by the LSU AgCenter.

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