Collecting Insects: Preserving Insects in Hand Sanitizer

Entomologists on Twitter got all excited last week when a tutorial for preserving insects in hand sanitizer was passed around.  As a teacher and an entomologist who does a lot of aquatic insect outreach activities, I was very excited to learn about this method!  Aquatic insects are typically stored in glass vials filled with alcohol, which unfortunately means the insects all sink to the bottom.  It’s then really hard to position them so that you can see particular features.  If you want a good look at the insect, you usually have to take it out of the vial and put it in a dish of alcohol.  This all makes insects in vials hard to use in outreach activities.  However, the hand sanitizer method featured photos of insects suspended in the middle of vials.  No sinking to the bottom, no turning the vial over and over and over trying to get the insect flipped over just right to get a close look at a particular piece.  They’re supposed to be durable too.  I decided I had to try it – and it totally worked!

I love this method, so I wanted to share it here.  While it is probably not a great way to preserve insects for research (I’m sure there are things in hand sanitizer that are not so great for, say, genetic analyses), it is perfect for display specimens.  I think this is going to work especially well with kids, those cute little destroyer of specimens in vials.  :)

Hand Sanitizer StepThings You’ll Need:

  • clear hand sanitizer
  • vials (clean – can be ordered online in a variety of styles, search for “glass screwtop vial” or visit Bioquip)
  • insects – dry or preserved in alcohol (fresh supposedly don’t work well)
  • forceps or toothpick/wooden skewer
  • eye dropper or pipet with bulb
  • small saucepan
  • stove or hot plate

Instructions:

You’ve gathered your gear, so let’s get started!  First, pour or pump hand sanitizer into the vial, filling about 2/3 full:

Hand Sanitizer Step 2I overfilled mine when I was taking the photos – you definitely want to leave more space at the top!  Next, put a bug in the vial and press into the hand sanitizer using forceps or a toothpick:

Hand Sanitizer Step 3Don’t worry too much about the exact position at the moment.  Just get them into the gel.  Notice how many air bubbles are in the vial with the bugs:

Hand Sanitizer Step 4That defeats the purpose of creating gorgeous display bugs!  The original tutorial spoke of a few different ways to get the bubbles out, but I followed their preferred method and boiled my vials.  This has the dual purpose of getting the air bubbles out of the gel surrounding the bug and removing the air bubbles from inside the bug if you are using dry specimens.  Fill a saucepan with about 1 inch of water (water should come about halfway up the side of the vials) and place the open vials upright on the bottom of the pan:

Hand Sanitizer Step 5Carefully bring the water to a gentle simmer, taking care not to let the vials fall over.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes or until most of the bubbles are gone.  NOTE: Be very careful that no hand sanitizer comes into contact with the burner or any open flames or it will burst into flames!  ANOTHER NOTE: Unless you want little glass-shard-and-alcohol-gel bombs simmering on your stove, be sure to leave the lids off.  The gel inside the vial will boil, so this is where over-filling the vials like I did becomes a problem.  It’s not the end of the world if they boil over, but it does give you extra work later.   After the bubbles are gone (there may be some large bubbles coming up from the bottom – don’t worry about those too much for now), carefully remove the vials from the water.  Your vials should look like this:

Hand Sanitizer Step 6No bubbles!  Now position your insects in the gel as you would like for them to be displayed:

Hand Sanitizer Step 8You can be as picky as you want during this stage!  The insects will become soft as they boil in the hand sanitizer, so you can position legs and antennae and other parts relatively easily at this stage, even if you used dry insects.  I didn’t care so much about the exact position of the body parts, so I just put them in the center of the vials where they were easy to look at.  If there are any remaining bubbles, remove them with an eye dropper or pipet with a bulb:

Hand Sanitizer Step 7Next, you need to fill up the rest of the vial.  Leaving air at the top of the vial will eventually result in air bubbles working their way into the gel.  I also learned through trial and error that putting cold hand sanitizer on top of hot sanitizer results in a WHOLE lot of bubbles!  Let the vials cool to about room temperature, then add more hand sanitizer:

Hand Sanitizer Step 9

To avoid getting bubbles later, you don’t want to leave any headspace above the gel.  Fill your vials a little overfull so that some hand sanitizer will squish out when you put the lid on:

Hand Sanitizer Step 10If there are bubbles in the gel after you top off the vials, remove them with the pipet or eye dropper as described above.  Then, screw on the lids!:

Hand Sanitizer Step 11Wipe the excess hand sanitizer off the glass around the lid.  Then, if your vials boiled over like some of mine did, run them under some hot water for a few seconds and wipe the vials with a soft cloth until all the gel remnants are gone and the glass is clear.

Voila!  You now have some spiffy insects suspended in the center of a vial, perfect for displaying, taking to outreach events, showing to your colleagues, letting little kids look at, giving as gifts to your entomologist friends, etc.  The insects will remain in place, regardless of how you hold the vials:

Hand Sanitizer FinalI think these are going to be fabulous for my outreach events!   The insects are a hundred times easier to deal with when suspended in the alcohol gel than when left in vials of alcohol.  You can also see all the parts rather well, even if the bug is pretty far from the edges of the glass.  I can think of two downsides though.  One is that, though this method is easy to do, it is a bit fiddly and thus takes some patience and time.  The two vials I created for the photos together took about 45 minutes.  Second, depending on the style of lid on your vials, you may need to check the hand sanitizer levels inside the vial now and again.  I will be checking my display vials often so that I don’t get bubbles.  Because bubbles are bad.  At least if you’re a compulsive perfectionist about this sort of thing like I am…  :)

Because you can suspend things inside the gel, you can do some fun things with your vials.  Maybe try layering several morphs of the same species in one vial.  I’m thinking of creating some life cycles vials that will demonstrate how my water bugs develop from an egg into adults.  You could layer a whole bunch of insects in one really big container and use it as a home decor item.  Okay, okay.  I’m probably the only person in the world who would ever do that, but I would love it!  Still, there are lots of possibilities.  Play around and have fun!

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Print, save, or e mail this tutorial in PDF format!  Click on this link and the PDF will appear in a new tab or window.  Also, the original tutorial has more images of completed vials, including some vials containing several specimens.  Enjoy!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

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66 thoughts on “Collecting Insects: Preserving Insects in Hand Sanitizer

  1. This is great! Thanks so much for sharing your tips. I have grandchildren that are fascinated by insects but I fear every time I let them look at my collection and they point their little fingers at the pinned specimens. Now I have a way to let them have hands on.

    BTW, I remember years ago in an intro zoology lab we had fruit flies from various genetic crosses mounted in glycerol-filled plate-like containers so students could examine and count the different mutant phenotypes. It wasn’t a very popular exercise, but the bugs were easily observed and didn’t fly away. I think they were sandwiched between two plexiglass sheets in a circular opening. To be clearer: you need three 3 in. by 3 in. pieces of 1/4 in. plexiglass. Using a hole saw, cut a circular disk out of one of the pieces. Glue this piece flat onto one of the other pieces, fill the cavity with glycerine, add the flies, then glue the remaining piece on top. You now have a fly sandwich that can be placed under a dissecting scope. I suspect that there will be trouble with air bubbles, but the principle is like what you’ve described with the hand sanitizer.

    • The glycerol plates sound like a good technique, if a bit cumbersome! And I can totally understand your hesitation to share you insect collection with the kiddos. I’m working with 7 years olds this semester and they need to put their hands on EVERYTHING! Plus, they don’t really get the concept of fragile when it comes to insect specimens. I think this hand sanitizer method will prove to be an excellent one for use with kids because it contains no chemicals except those that scads of parents already slather their children with and it makes the specimens easy to see. Hope it works out for you!

  2. My boyfriend thinks I’m a creep because I saved a bunch of the wasps that died in our house last summer (when we were completely taken over by them). I don’t know why – I just know theres something awesome I could do with them. This is awesome, thanks.

    • Ha ha! At least you don’t have half of your freezer devoted to insects the way most entomologists do! I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with saving a few dead insects for a project down the line.

  3. This looks interesting.
    By chance, the latest issue of CICINDELA has a paper by Matt Brust that talks about embedding insects in resin blocks. He’s made examples of quite a few species of tiger beetles for use in his teaching. He got the idea when he found some blocks that he estimates are at least 85 years old, and the specimens inside are still perfect (just the resin is slightly yellowed). Anyway, interesting stuff.

    • I think resin blocks would be a better, but liquid resin tends to be really toxic and can be hard to work with so I wouldn’t want to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have some heavy duty respiratory safety gear and the proper skin protection. I’ve mounted specimens in resin before and it’s a major pain. More power to the people who are willing to put in the time and effort to do it well!

  4. I just tried this method using a Cicindela I had that was a few years old. It floated to the top during the simmer stage, but I was able to reposition it once the sanitzer had cooled. I did get a few bubbles around the bug doing this, but it works!! I was able to use my hand lens to see the fantastic colors. It would be very easy for young childen to see bugs this way. Thanks!!

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  7. just seaching for this very thing, have had a delivery of pest insects and stages in dry viles and thought they wouldn’t last long at work with my fellow pesters trying to look at them , this is a great idea and thanks for sharing it will be off to buy some hand gel tommrow .

  8. thanks for that !
    I have been playing about with this tonight and found that the viles i had are a little small to heat up in the pan they kept falling over , so what i have done is found that if you syringe the gel up and slowly fill the vile up you only get a few air bubbles which you can then syringe out.
    keep the syringe above the gel as you are filling it and the air pop’s out .
    what a great thread thanks for sharing it with us.

    s goodrum

  9. Thanks for The information on preserving insects. I am collecting information for some school kids that are going to be making a required insect collection this year. Some may want to use the sanitizer method. I am posting a link to your site. I have also come up with a crude kill jar system that eliminates the problems of transferring the insect to the kill jar. It has work well for me killing the insects without removing them from the net. I don’t know of anyone who has used such a system. The kill Jar can also be used to catch insects because the alcohol is in the cup. The whole system is a Marked 16 oz cup with a paper towel in the bottom soaked in alcohol with a upside down eight ounce freeze dried folgers jar with holes drilled in the lid. The jar and cup seal together as if they were made for that purpose.
    It can be seen on my site.

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  11. This is wonderful! But if someone could help me with a bit of an issue, I’d very much appreciate it. :(

    I’ve been wanting to preserve a few Araneus Diadematus, along with other kinds of spiders. I keep them to observe them, until they pass at the end of summer.

    It says in the article that you can’t put fresh specimens directly into the hand sanitizer. BUT, spiders, at least the large bodied orb weavers, tend to shrivel terribly!
    That being said, how will I keep the spiders from shriveling before I put them into the gel?
    And for how long would I have to wait before actually transferring them into it?

    I’m sorry for so many questions! And again, thank you so much for this article!

    • You could soak your spiders in alcohol (ethyl or isopropanol) for a few weeks to replace the water in your specimens before preserving them in the gel. That’s what I do with my aquatic insects and it works well!

  12. Hey, great blog! I tried your steps and they worked great. However I purchased plastic instead of glas vials. Instead of boiling to get rid of bubbles, I unscrewed the cap of the sanitizer and poured it SLOWLY as opposed to pumping it. This cut down the bubbles by A LOT! Thanks for the grey tips!

  13. Hi there,
    I’m working on a farm this summer and we have been collecting and freezing insects and other bugs that we find out in the gardens with the hopes of preserving them. The farm does lots of programs with the elementary school kids in town and I feel like this could be a more useful way to preserve these tiny creatures. We have just been catching the insects and putting them directly into this tupperware we keep in the freezer. What steps do we have to take from here before the beginning of your instructions? What do we have to do to them up to filling the vials with hand sanitizer in terms of drying or preserving otherwise?

    Thanks so much for this wonderful idea!
    Erica

    • You shouldn’t need to do much and just dropping them right into the gel after defrosting them should work. If you want to be extra sure it’s going to work and your bugs don’t rot inside the gel, you can place all of your bugs in a jar and cover them in alcohol (rubbing alcohol is fine), let them sit in there for several days, and then add the bugs to the gel. That way they’re already full of alcohol when you put them in, and replacing water with alcohol in your samples is part of why this procedure works so well.

      Hope that helps!

  14. what reason is there for a black widow i captured, froze, and then placed into the gel system described above, to change colors, to a kind of grey, or faded black?
    Thanks for your ideas:)

    • Hmmm… I’m not sure! There’s a chance that either the freezing or the alcohol damaged the proteins in the exoskeleton, but I’ve never heard of anything like that before. Granted, I’ve never tried this technique with spiders before either so I really don’t know how to answer this!

    • Oh wow, I have no idea! Are they normally stored in alcohol or formaldehyde? If alcohol, it might work. If it’s formaldehyde, it’s probably best to leave them where they are rather than moving them into alcohol as it’s a weaker preservative.

      • No they are not in any type of solution, ii have mice bought from petco and I have everything ready to preserve them in hand Sanitizer and Ijust need to know if it will work

        • I wouldn’t put them straight into the hand sanitizer, and I’m not sure it would work at all with mammals regardless. If you want to try it, I would soak the mice in alcohol for a long time, a couple of weeks or more, to make sure the preservative has completely saturated the tissues, before you try to put it in the hand sanitizer. That way you can also see if the alcohol in the hand sanitizer has any hope of keeping the specimen preserved. I’m not convinced it’s going to be enough for a mammal. Insects just don’t have as much tissue, nor is it on the outside, so I can see this going horribly, horribly wrong…

  15. I am so glad I can finaly found a way to preserve insect. But I was wonder how big of a vial I may need for a praying Mantis? I found it in my garden dead, 2 days ago, do I also have to put in in alcohol?

    • You can either dry the specimen out completely (just leave it out for a week or two) or soak it in alcohol for a few days. Either method should work! As for the size of vial… I don’t know! Might be better off with a jar rather than a vial for something that big.

    • I don’t know! Maybe, though insects are kinda special in that they have exoskeletons, so there’s little to discolor or fade on the outside of their bodies. Might be worth trying, but use a three leafer to test it out to be sure it works!

  16. Very cool article! I’m curious, have you heard there’s a difference between preserving insects in 70% alcohol vs. 90%? I was told many years ago the 90% solution is too strong and eventually washes out the insects’ color.

    • 70% is used for sterilysing equipment as the 30% water is required to allow the ethanol to permeate the bacterial cell membrane.

            • It is about sterilisation standards. When sterilising equipment and surgery tables 70% is used as it is more eficient.It comes down to COTTE. Concentration, organism, time, temperature and environment. These are the varables to control when killing things. 95% will work but 70% works better. A coleague had a still for making ethanol. There was condensation happening and dripping down the inside of the chamber causing a concentration gradient from 100% to less and a bacterial colony developed along that gradient and evloved ethanol resistance at the high percentages. Kinda cool really.

              The 30% water makes the ethanol transfer across the membranes better. Insects can be, of course, preserved by drying but this leaves them stiff and brittle.

    • Yes! Which one you use depends on what you want to do with the insect after it’s preserved. If you’re preserving DNA, the higher alcohol content in the 95% ethanol is important for proper preservation of the genetic material. However, it can also “burn” specimens at that high a concentration and lessen their aesthetic value to some extent. I’ve also learned firsthand that some things look TERRIBLE after you put them in alcohol, even at lower concentrations. For aquatic insects, I’ve found that 95% works well when you first preserve them because aquatics have so much water in and on them that they dilute the alcohol as they’re preserved. You end up with something less than 70% when preserving aquatics in 70%, so I’ve taken to putting 95% ethanol in my whirl pacs when I collect and then 70% in my vials when I add my specimens to my collection. That said, I honestly use the two interchangeably. I probably shouldn’t, but whatever alcohol I have on hand is better than no alcohol when it comes time to deal with specimens. I personally care less about the aesthetic value of my collection than the preservation of the locality information and identifiable structures, neither of which depends much on the concentration of the alcohol that is used for the things I work with. Scientists have been known to use even crazier preservatives in a pinch, when nothing else is available: Everclear, vodka, grain alcohol, and other high proof liquors have enough ethanol to work when you can’t get your hands on ethanol or isopropanol.

  17. I really like this method of preserving insects and have used this method on blowflies and larva in my forensics class.

    I do have a question:
    I first place the maggots in alcohol for several days before putting them in hand sanitizer. However, after several months, some of the maggots discolor and appear to decompose somewhat.

    Do you have any suggestions as to how to better preserve the softer larva stages so that they don’t discolor or decompose after several months?
    thanks.
    Patti Nolan Bertino

    • You know, I’m having the same problem with my soft bodied things! I don’t have a solution, unfortunately. It definitely seems to work better on things with a hard exoskeleton, and I suspect that the hand sanitizer doesn’t have enough alcohol to preserve the softer things sufficiently. I’m tempted to try embedding them in the gel without boiling them and simply tapping the bubbles out so I can preserve the alcohol content as well as possible. And please do let me know if you discover any solutions!

  18. I am working with ‘stink bugs and wasps’ and want to make a diorama with them…They are dead and naturally dried so I just want them to last in the picture. can you make a suggestion?

    • I can imagine! That would be a fantastic experience to have. Even if you don’t get to see them often, that was, I hope, something that was wonderful enough to make up for not getting to see them often.

  19. Thanks for this! I moved out to the country, and trust me, there are bugs EVERYWHERE! Some off them are really unique, like the shoe sized moth I found in my living room after my cat stopped using it as a toy. And now I can show them off to my friends and they’ll be able to get a closer look! I could’t thank you enough for this!

    • I’ve had a few of my specimens in the hand sanitizer for nearly 3 years now with no change in the appearance of the specimen. I suspect it will last quite some time, but the method remains untested in the long term.

  20. Ok… I’m simmering the tell in my jar, but I seem to be making bubbles they rise from the bottom and accumulate mid range…
    Hurry I’m pulling my hair out !

    Greg

    • Sorry for the delayed response – been out of town and then crazy buzy with work. The bubbles are normal though! Once it cools, they’ll all rise to the top and you’ll be left with lovely, largely bubble-free gel.

      • I have had good success with using a pipette to withdraw the bubbles. I found that using the heat sometimes caused a loss of alcohol. If there are only a few bubbles, the pipette works well.
        Be sure to buy the type of hand sanitzer with the least amount of bubbles.
        Patti Nolan Bertino

  21. Hello, I am very knew to all of this. I found a dead cicada on my porch and saved it so I could preserve it. I wasn’t sure what o do with it so I put it in a Tupperware container in the fridge. since then i’ve found another cicada, a beautiful moth, a butterfly, a couple beetles,and an old wasp nest. i was wondering if this would work with the butterfly, moth, and wasp nest?

    • I’ll admit that I haven’t ever tried this with anything bearing scales, so I’m not sure! I am also unsure about the wasp nest. Sorry I can’t be more help – all I can recommend is that you try it one something similar and see how it goes before you try it on something you care about.

  22. I have a dragonfly that I would like to preserve and I have never preserved an insect before. If I freeze it, would I then be able to place it in the hand sanitizer? Do I need to do anything else to it? How long should I freeze it for? Any help is much appreciated. I have a fascination with taking pics of insects and spiders (https://www.flickr.com/photos/advertisingwv) and I would love to start a collection. My wife is also teaching 4th grade and it would be a great tool for her to have access to these when they are studying insects. Thank you for your time!

    • Dragonflies are a bear when it comes to preserving their colors! They fade like crazy, almost no matter what you try, and I would bet that the hand sanitizer would do the same thing. I can’t say that I’ve ever tried to do an adult dragonfly, but it shouldn’t damage the specimen’s structure to preserve it in sanitizer. I’d recommend that you soak it in rubbing alcohol for a few weeks before you do the sanitizer bit (that dehydrates the specimen and prevents water from leeching out into the gel), but I suspect it will work just fine if you do.

      Of course, if you can get your hands on another specimen that you don’t care about to try it out, that’s going to be your best bet. I wouldn’t test it out on a prized specimen you can’t live without!

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