Fly fishing

Collecting Insects: Tricks of the Trade

New to bug collecting? Whether you’re a beginning entomology student or a hobbyist exploring your own backyard, graduate entomology student Elizabeth Bellow offers an introduction to the tools and tactics of collecting a variety of insects and arthropods. For example, Malaise traps are an easy and passive way to collect a variety of insects. (It’s also important to wear proper gear like the permethrin-treated suit, as shown by Bello here.)

By Elisabeth Bello

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series provided by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other articles by and for entomology students Here has entomology today.

Elizabeth Bello

Elizabeth Bello

Humans have most likely collected insects since the beginning of our civilizations. Our earliest records indicate that Chinese civilizations used silkworms in 4700 BC, honey bees in the 5th century, and scale insects in the 13th century. Insects have been collected for a multitude of reasons, from food production to the creation of dyes to scientific study. This trend continues today, and many more people have become involved in collecting insects, not just for science, but as a hobby, and even for art.

Perhaps the most avid insect collectors are, you guessed it, entomologists. As with most things, collecting insects is a skill that can be learned and perfected over time, but at first it can be quite difficult. In this article, I’ll outline some tips and advice on how, when, and where to collect bugs as well as a few other things to keep in mind while you’re in the process of collecting.

Know your bugs

The first step is to figure out which insects you are trying to collect and why. Are you taking your first entomology course and need to create a collection of insects? Are you a researcher who needs to find this pollinator species for your study? Are you a hobbyist looking for big flashy beetles to display? Knowing what to look for will help you know how to collect what you need. Researching the life history of your insects will tell you what they eat, where to find them, when to find them, and most likely the best way to capture them. Bugs are pretty much everywhere, so if you’re looking to catch anything and everything, you shouldn’t have a problem; but, if you’re looking for something specific, you’ll need to adapt your hunting strategy and gear.

Know your gear

There are two main types of insect collection: active and passive. Active collection requires more energy and physical effort to capture insects, while passive collection often involves traps that can be checked and monitored regularly.

For active collection, the three most popular tools are nets, sheets and vacuum cleaners. Nets can come in a wide variety, including aerial light mesh nets for collecting flying insects, aquatic mesh nets for collecting aquatic insects (this is often associated with the use of a white-bottomed container in which to place the insects for easy visibility) and sweeping nets. , which are made of stronger fabric to sweep insects from vegetation. Flap leaves are used by placing a leaf under vegetation and shaking or disturbing the plant above to capture falling insects. Vacuum cleaners are another popular collection tool and can be electric or manual. They are perfect for sucking up small insects from natural and artificial surfaces.

black light trap

Black light traps like the one pictured here are a great way to collect or photograph nocturnal insects.

The traps involved in passive collection will also depend on the insect you are looking for. Malaise traps will capture a wide variety of insects, while funnel traps baited with specific pheromones may aim to collect a particular species of beetle, for example. Pitfall traps are another common trap and involve placing a container filled with soapy water in the ground, low to the ground. This will catch any insects that fall into it but will need to be periodically replaced, especially if it rains. Blacklight or UV traps are designed to attract nocturnal insects, but require a little more work in that they require the use of a vacuum cleaner or a net to collect the insects out of the trap.

Another important thing to remember is that traps can also be baited, which will greatly improve your success. Mosquitoes, for example, are attracted to carbon dioxide, so their traps will often be baited with dry ice. Berlese funnels aren’t exactly traps, but are a very effective tool used to extract arthropods from soil and leaf litter samples and can easily be made at home with common supplies. Please note that there are many, many more bug traps than I mentioned here.

In addition to what you use to collect bugs, you will need different equipment to store your bugs. That means jars, containers, and lots of them in all different sizes, plus something to carry them around. I’ve seen people recommend multi-pocket cargo pants, fly fishing vests, backpacks, and fanny packs. For soft-bodied or aquatic insects, you will need ethanol in an airtight container; for Lepidoptera, you will need wax envelopes; and, for most other insects, plastic or glass containers will do. I particularly like to reuse 33 millimeter film cartridges as a storage container. Many entomologists will also often bring a kill jar, which is a glass jar outfitted with either hardened plaster or acetone-soaked cotton balls at the bottom. Be careful when using acetone, as it can disrupt the color of your insects and damage plastic materials.

If you are collecting insects for research purposes, a handheld GPS or smartphone will come in handy to record your location. It is also essential that you write down your collection information as soon as possible, as a freezer full of unlabeled specimens is virtually useless, and I can guarantee you will never remember when or where you got them.

Know your surroundings

Knowing where you collect will influence not only which bugs you can catch, but also what other gear you might need. If you’re looking for harsh or rocky landscapes, you might want knee and elbow pads. If you are in a hot and arid environment you will need protective clothing, sunscreen and plenty of water. On the other hand, if you are in a humid environment, you will need waterproof clothing.

Plus, you’ll want to know if you can even collect there. Is it private or public land? Do you need a permit? Are you going to be in the woods during hunting season? These are all important details to understand when planning your collection trip. Finally, knowing your surroundings will help you identify potential hazards you may face.

Know the Hazards

tape pen

Rolling duct tape around an enclosure will lighten your load and be useful for removing ticks, broken equipment, or other emergencies.

The three main hazards to your health when collecting bugs fall into the categories of weather, wildlife, and terrain. Always, always plan the weather and keep an eye out for any signs of a rapidly approaching thunderstorm. It’s also good to keep in mind that the weather can negatively affect your gear and more delicate electronics.

When it comes to wildlife, we are often a bigger threat to wildlife than to ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we’re invincible. Preparing for unexpected wildlife encounters could include wearing bug spray, leech socks or boot gaiters, or it could mean carrying a pocket knife or bear spray. Remember that if you’re out in the wild, you’re invading their space, not the other way around, so it’s important to be respectful.

Just like the weather, the terrain will also influence what you wear. A good pair of shoes that suits the occasion can make all the difference in the world, and wearing long pants instead of shorts can save your legs from scratching and exposing themselves to poisonous plants. Also, be sure to keep in mind any obstacles you might face while collecting. Depending on where and for how long you’re collecting, it might not be a bad idea to bring emergency supplies and let at least one other person know your route details. A great tip I learned from a friend of mine is to wrap some duct tape around a pen. It is much lighter than carrying an entire roll and can be used in many different ways, including removing ticks or repairing tears in clothing and equipment.

A note on the ethics of collecting

Although insect collecting has many benefits, the consequences can also be many. Many entomologists see the value of collecting insects for research, monitoring, and recording purposes, but some people are against it and their point of view is just as valid. We need to ask ourselves about the ethics of collecting insects: are we having a negative impact on insect populations? Are we contributing to the steady decline of biodiversity? Is it fair or right of us to take the life of another living creature? How can we improve our collection practices to minimize our negative impacts and maximize benefits? “The Insect Collectors’ Code”, a fantastic article by Carolyn Trietsch and Andrew R. Deans in the Fall 2018 issue of American entomologistdiscusses these points and is well worth the read.

A note from the author

Finally, some of the content for this article was collected from users on Twitter, and there is additional information that I was unable to include in this article. You can find more tips and tricks of the trade in the replies to this tweet below.

Elizabeth Bello is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the representative for the Physiology, Biochemistry, and Toxicology Section on the Student Affairs Committee of the Entomological Society of America. Twitter: @ insects247. E-mail: [email protected].