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Handling Insects

Handling insects properly can protect against possible bites or stings, as well as prevent damage to the fragile specimens. It is best to carry a pair of forceps (specialized tweezers, 4 to 5 inches long, Figure 6) to handle butterflies, moths, and other delicate and small insects. Fine-pointed tips allow you to handle even very tiny insects. To prevent losing or misplacing forceps and to keep them handy, attach them to a loop of string or yarn and wear them around your neck. Handle very small insects with a small paintbrush.

Left to thrash around in a net or killing jar, butterflies and moths often break wing tips or rub the scales from their wings, ruining the specimen. This can be prevented by immobilizing the insect immediately after you catch it. Through the cloth of the insect net, grasp the body of the moth or butterfly with wings up. Squeeze the sides of the thorax quite vigorously with the thumb and forefinger for 2 to 3 seconds. This paralyzes the specimens temporarily so the net can be opened and the specimen lifted out without danger of damage or escape. With a little experience, one learns to apply sufficient pressure to paralyze the insect without squashing it.

Avoid touching the wings of butterflies or moths with fingers unless it is absolutely necessary. Scales that provide the color patterns and the beauty of a moth or butterfly rub off very easily when handled leaving a less-than-perfect specimen for a collection.

Insects collected near home can be killed quickly and safely by transferring them to small bottles or boxes and placing them in a freezer for 1 to 3 hours. In addition to not having to worry about killing jars, one major advantage to this method is that the insects may be stored in a freezer for extended periods of time without the risk of the specimens drying out or decomposing until the collector is ready to mount them.

Kill Jar

A killing jar also may be used for killing collected insects. Most collectors like to have at least two such jars - one large enough for butterflies and moths and another for beetles and other small insects.

To make a killing jar at home, select a heavy glass jar (1 pint to 1 quart in size) with a large mouth and a screw cap (Figure 7). Do not use plastic jars. Pour approximately 1 inch of wet plaster of Paris (more for larger jars) into the bottom of the jar. Let it harden, then thoroughly dry the jar in an oven set on warm. After removing it from the oven, saturate the dry plaster of Paris with ethyl acetate (available in many drug stores) and pour off any excess liquid that does not immediately soak in. Put the screw cap on the jar. Place a prominent label on the jar: "POISON - ETHYL ACETATE." The jar is now ready for use. Keep the jar tightly capped when not in use to extend the effectiveness of the ethyl acetate. When the jar loses its killing strength, dry it out and recharge it (re-saturate with ethyl acetate).

Always keep a piece of clean, crumpled paper toweling or facial tissue in each jar to absorb moisture and keep the specimens from being damaged. An experienced insect collector makes it a habit to mount and label all specimens within a few hours after they are caught. Insects left in the killing jar for more than a day become too soft and, thus, ruined, and those taken out but not soon pinned become too brittle to handle. With experience, a collector will learn to leave specimens in the jar long enough to make sure they are dead, but not long enough to ruin them.

Do not waste time putting damaged or mutilated specimens in the killing jar. Most insects are so plentiful that there is no reason to spend time and energy trying to mount and label less-than-perfect specimens.

Purdue Extension Entomology, 901 West State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907 USA, (765) 494-4554

Department of Entomology | College of Agriculture | Extension

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