Collecting Insects: Scanning Insects

Last Monday I posted a tutorial for scanning dragonflies using a flatbed scanner that is based on a technique created by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell of Texas A&M University.  The technique works fabulously for dragonflies and allows you to document your odonates in life-like color before you either add them to your collection (and watch them fade to a dull brown over a few weeks) or release them back into the area where you collected them.  Easy peasy and the images look wonderful!

What makes this technique even more fantastic is that you can use it for other insects too!  I’ve scanned most of the dragonflies and terrestrial insects I’ve collected over the last few years and the results are pretty amazing.  The technique for most insects is nearly identical to dragonfly scanning (see the post linked above if you haven’t already read it) and is similarly easy to use.  You start with the same materials: scanner, mousepads with holes cut in them (or foamcore), specimens, and image software.  It’s also useful to have one of those cans of compressed air for dusting electronics.  Get the scanner ready to go by flopping the mousepad(s) on the scanner glass:

I scan my dragonflies live because the colors change very quickly after they die, but I scan nearly everything else after it’s spent some time in my kill jar.  I personally find dead insects easier to work with and I’m putting everything I scan into my collection anyway, but you can certainly scan your insects live by following the dragonfly technique.  Just remember that the insects need to be well chilled and you need to work quickly when you work with live insects to avoid their reviving before you’ve finished scanning!

Once you get the scanner set up and you have your specimens (live or dead), you’re ready to scan.  If you’re working with dead specimens, it’s a good idea to give them a good dusting with the can of air, especially if you’ve ever put any butterflies or moths into your kill jar.  The scales get on everything and will show in your images, so dust your specimens well to ensure clean images.  Place the insect on the scanner glass within the hole in the mousepad, position the body parts as you like, and carefully place the lid down, just as described for the dragonflies.  Then make the scan!  If you’re using live insects, remember that you need to balance your desired image quality with a quick scanning time to avoid reviving your insects during scanning.  You’ll need to play around with your scanner to figure out what works best for you.  If you’re working with dead insects, you can boost the resolution as high as you wish because your insect won’t go anywhere while you’re scanning.

Once you have the image, you’ll probably want to touch it up using Photoshop or some other image manipulation software.  As I mentioned last week, I adjust the levels so that the background is pretty close to white and crop out extra space and any bits of mousepad that are showing, but otherwise leave most things alone.

I think the results are pretty snazzy!  This is a mayfly that a friend sent to me from Missouri after a big emergence:



The specimen arrived fairly tattered, but I scanned it anyway.  I love the colors!

This one is a soldier beetle (family Cantharidae, Chauliognathus sp.) that I collected in the Santa Catalina Mountains:

soldier beetle

Soldier beetle

I did not dust this beetle, so you can still see butterfly scales on its back.

This bug is a leaf footed bug (family Coreidae, Leptoglossus sp.):

leaf footed bug

Leaf footed bug

I love the detail on this bug!  It’s got amazing hind legs and a stylish Charlie Brown-style stripe across its back.  Gorgeous!  Plus, it is a fairly thick bug, but nearly all of it is in focus.  The depth of field on scanners is surprisingly high!

Another gorgeous insect, a spider hunting wasp (family Pompilidae):

spider hunting wasp

Spider hunting wasp

I usually scan the top and the bottom of my insects so I have good images of both sides when I’m done.  This is obviously the view from the bottom.

And finally, a stink bug (family Pentatomidae):

stink bug

Stink bug

Apart from the glorious green color of this stink bug, I love that you can see the spiracles along the sides of the abdomen.  As a scientist who is very interested in insect respiration, I was thrilled that they showed up so well in this image!

Overall, I think the quality of insect images that you can make using a scanner is quite good.  The depth of field is sufficient to scan some reasonably large insects with great clarity and the white background gives the image the same sort of look you get using a camera with a macro lens and a white box.  I have both, but I can honestly say that scanning is faster and easier than hauling out all of my equipment to take a white box photo and the image quality is nearly as good.

I’d like to finish up here by pointing out that one of my favorite insect artists, Joseph Scheer, has created some truly spectacular images of moths using a super high-resolution scanner.  If you haven’t ever seen his traveling exhibit (you can view the program for his 2006 exhibit at the University of Arizona here), I highly recommend his book Night Visions.  It’s stunning!  Also, Alex Wild recently posted a scan of a cicada wing as part of his Thrifty Thursday series on  I think it’s very beautiful, so I hope you’ll check it out!   And, if any of you have images of insects that you’ve scanned available online, please feel free to leave a link below.  I’d love to see what other people have come up with!


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