Making a Kick Net by Hand

Kick nets are great tools for collecting insects in streams.  They consist of a rectangular sheet of netting that’s supported on either side with poles.  They typically require two people to operate, one person who holds the net upright in the water with the bottom edge of the net laying against the streambed and a second person who “kicks” by stirring up all of the substrate with his/her feet.   The insects that are dislodged drift downstream into the net.  Kick nets of varying quality are available commercially and if you want to use a kick net to do research, you’ll be better off buying a well made one that you can use for a long time.  However, if you are collecting for fun, doing educational programs, or simply want to explore a stream, a handmade kick net will do just fine.

There are several ways to make kick nets, including simply stapling screen to a pair of dowels with a staple gun, but I like one that’s just a little more complicated to make.  I find they come apart less easily and don’t require quite such frequent repairs.  To make it, you’ll need the following:

  • Window screen. The kick nets pictured in this tutorial were made from a roll of 36” x 25 foot screen, which you can purchase at a hardware store and will make several nets.  I recommend the 48” screen if your water is more than a foot deep.
  • Two wooden dowels – I use 1/2″ x 36” dowels. If you are working in deeper water, get 48” dowels instead. Any diameter dowel will work, but I recommend something between about 1/2 inch and 3/4 inch.  Anything smaller is easy to break and anything wider is needlessly heavy.
  • Two thumbtacks (optional)
  • Scissors
  • Sewing machine or needle for hand sewing
  • Thread – I recommend nylon thread for longevity

Kick net supplies

Sewing machin

I have been sewing since I was about 8 years old, so I use a sewing machine to make my nets.  You can do the exact same thing I describe here stitching by hand – it just won’t be as quick to make.

Step 1.  Cut a rectangle of screen.  I cut 2 foot sections from my roll, so my pieces were 36” (the width of the roll) by 24”.  I use the width of the roll of screen as the width of my net, so the length I cut from the roll is the final height of my net.  The nets I make are 34 inches across and 24 inches high when complete.

Screen rectangle

Step 2.  Fold over about 1” along one of the shorter edges (make it closer to 1 1/2  inches if you’ve got a 3/4 inch dowel).  Pin if needed.  Stitch in place about 1/4 inch from the raw edge.  If using a sewing machine, backstitch at both ends.

Stitching a dowel pocket

Step 3.  Stitch across the tube you made about 1/4 inch from one end.  Stitch back and forth a few times for a strong seam.

Stitching along the bottom

Step 4.  Repeat on the other end of the netting, folding over about 1 inch, sewing 1/4 inch from the raw edge, and stitching across the bottom of the tube.  Make sure the “bottom” on both ends of the net are the same!  The final product should look like this:

Stitched rectangle

Step 5.  Insert dowels into the pockets you made.

Inserting dowel

Inserted dowel

Step 6.  If you want to be able to remove the dowels easily when not in use, you’re done.  This makes it easier to fold up and put away.  However, it makes the kick net harder to use as you have to hold the net in place in the stream and also hold the dowels in place in the pockets.  I like to add a couple of thumbtacks to hold the net in place during use.  Press them part way in with your thumb and then hammer them in the rest of the way.

thumbtack in place

The final net should look like this:

Final net

To make your kick net easy to carry, roll the net along one of the dowels and secure in place with a twist tie or other fastener:

rolled net

It takes me about 15 minutes to make one of these nets with a sewing machine and they cost about $4 altogether.  Considering how much the professional kick nets cost, I much prefer making a new one of these when one breaks than laying out the cash for a new pro net.

Good luck and here’s hoping you find many interesting things with your net!

pile of kick nets

You can download a printable version of this tutorial on my Educational Materials page.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

My Blacklighting Rig

Imagine this.  You and some buddies pack a bunch of stuff into a truck or SUV or Subaru and head off into the wild for the night.  You carry with you some snacks, perhaps an adult beverage or two, a headlamp (because it’s going to be dark out there!), and some gear.  When you arrive at some place that’s truly out in the middle of nowhere, you set up some sort of frame, drape a white sheet over it, and shine some lights on it.  Then you wait.  You spend the next several hours drinking your adult beverages, lounging in camp chairs, and exclaiming with glee that “Citheronia splendans” or some other spectacular insect just showed up on the sheet.  Woo!  Some people sit and talk, others stalk the sheets obsessively with collecting jars or glassine envelopes, and still others collect photographs only.  Maybe you stay overnight, or maybe you pack up about 2am and drive back to town.  Either way, you’ve just experienced a beloved pastime/collecting technique of entomologists everywhere: blacklighting.

I love blacklighting!  I was hooked on it from my very first blacklighting trip.  You’ll see things at lights at night that you might never see anywhere else.  But, lugging a bunch of lights and associated equipment into the field is a pain.  After observing dozens of rigs utilized by a variety of entomologists and blacklighting extensively myself, I set out to design a portable, collapsible blacklighting rig that didn’t require a generator (those things are heavy and often very loud) and I could set up and break down within a few minutes.  Today I’m going to share what I came up with.

First, let’s talk about surfaces.  Blacklighting rigs usually have some sort of white surface on which you shine your lights.  That surfaces reflects the light and glows, but it also gives the insects something to hold onto when they arrive.  Most entomologists I know rely on white bedsheets.  I buy mine from Goodwill because you can walk out with a big pile of sheets for less than the price of a single new one.  A hot wash with bleach and you’ve got a cheap, clean sheet to use for your rig! My favorite sheet cost $3.

Once you’ve got some sort of white surface to project your lights onto, you need a frame to hold it upright.  Now if you live in a place that has a lot of trees, you can get away with simply using a rope and a handful of strong clothespins or binder clips: tie the rope between the trees, clip the sheet to the line, and use rocks or tent stakes to pin the bottom down.  I started blacklighting in Arizona, however, and trees are too far apart to make that work.  I currently work at a prairie field station and have similar issues if I want to blacklight anywhere outside the forested area.  There are some great collapsible, freestanding blacklighting rigs available through companies like Bioquip that you can fold up and carry in a backpack.  They are shockingly (and I think unnecessarily) expensive – I refuse to buy a $150+ blacklighting sheet!  You can make your own rig with a similar design with a few king sized white sheets, though you need to have some sewing skills and some cannibalized tent poles from an old dome tent to make one.  I’ll be honest: I made one like that and I wasn’t ever happy with it (too short, too small), so I decided to come up with something else.  I eventually built my current rig out of PVC pipes:

Blacklight rig with UV

This rig required three 10 foot pipes (I used 2 inch diameter pipes, though I’m going with 1 inch next time), two elbow connectors, two t connectors, four threaded end connectors, and four threaded caps to fit inside the end connectors, the latter two only so I wouldn’t get dirt and/or water in the pipes that sit against the ground.  For my bases, I cut four short pipe sections of equal length (about 2.5 feet) and used PVC joint compound to fix two of them permanently into the ends of each t connector, then glued the end connectors onto the opposite ends and screwed in the caps.  I glued the two elbow connectors to the ends of the pipe that was going to run across the top, and voila: my stand was ready!  When I want to set my blacklight frame up, all I have to do is thread my sheet over the horizontal top pipe, push one end of the upright pipes into the t connectors, push the other into the elbow joints on the top pipe, and the frame’s in place!  I cut a little hole in the center of my sheet and wrap a nylon cord around the top pipe a couple of times and stake the ends into the ground on either side of the frame to keep it from blowing over in the wind.  I don’t have a photo of the sheet I currently use with this frame, but I trimmed the width to match the frame, added a few grommets along the sides, and use small pieces of nylon cord or tiny bungee cords to attach the sheet to the vertical pipes and keep it taut.  The whole thing takes just a few minutes to set up, and I can easily carry my little bunch of 5 pipes and the sheet with a velcro strap/handle I got at a hardware store.  The frame cost about $20 altogether, including the joint compound.  That means my whole frame with the sheet cost less than $25 – a WHOLE lot cheaper than the $150+ portable models!

Now let’s talk lights!  I experimented with a lot of lights and I alternate between two styles.  If I’m close to a building and have access to power (e.g., in my backyard), I use a CFL blacklight bulb (they’re about $7) and a clamp style lamp with a aluminum reflector that I hang from a shepherd’s crook and plug into an outlet:

Blacklight rig with CFL

In more remote areas, I usually use a portable jump starter as my power source and plug in a DC powered blacklight bulb from Bioquip, which is what you see in the image at the top.  I can get a good 8 hours of run time from a single charge of the jump starter, which I think is pretty good given the ease of using it and minimal weight.  Sometimes I’ll get a little more fancy in the field and use two of the clamp lamps, each with a CFL blacklight bulb, plug them into a multi-socket extension cord, and plug that into my portable jump starter via a power inverter.  It requires a little more gear, so more to carry, and the jump starter battery doesn’t last quite as long, but you can get some really excellent light for about half a night that way.

A lot of people who blacklight to collect things for research favor mercury vapor lights, but I do not have one.  They’re painfully bright for me, can’t get wet (they tend to explode when cool water hits the massively hot glass!), are a burn and fire risk, and they use more power.  If I ever decide to take a mercury vapor light into the field with me, I will break down and buy a real generator, but it certainly won’t be as portable as my current rig.

The things I like most about my rig are that I can carry the pipes in one hand, the jump starter in the other, and the rest in a backpack and walk a pretty good ways with everything, so it’s very portable.  The lights stay on a long time because they draw a very small amount of power, whether I use the CFLs or the UV light, and that’s great.  I get a pretty good diversity of insects coming to this rig, regardless of where I’ve set it up, so I know it is reasonably attractive to a lot of night active insects.  I can set this baby up anywhere – it’s free standing and battery powered.  The main downside is that it’s not sturdy enough to withstand high winds and blows over if the winds pick up.  Of course, you don’t get a whole lot of insects on very windy nights anyway, so I think it’s a small price to pay to have a lightweight, portable rig I can easily chuck in my car and take with me anywhere I want to go.

There are endless variations on blacklighting rigs and setups, so this might not be the best solution for everyone, but it works for me.  Anyone want to share some alternative setups so that we can all learn from each other and steal each other’s ideas?  I’d love to see/hear about what other people are using to attract insects at night – leave ideas in the comments!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

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!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Collecting Insects: Scanning Dragonflies

If you have ever collected dragonflies, you know how annoying they can be to add to a collection.  Apart from the fact that they’re hard to catch in the first place and take up a ton of space in your collection if you pin them, they are notorious for losing their colors.  If you don’t treat a dragonfly specimen properly the colors WILL fade dramatically.  You can preserve the colors to some extent by soaking dragonfly specimens in acetone, but I personally like to avoid using toxic chemicals when I can.  Thankfully, there’s another method you can use to ensure near perfect, long-lasting color preservation that doesn’t use toxic chemicals.  Instead, it uses this:

The method of scanning dragonflies that I use was originally developed by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell of Texas A&M University and is described in limited detail on their website,  While I don’t follow their method exactly, my adaptations have worked quite well for my purposes.  I’d like to pass along my method here, but please note that Mitchell and Lasswell’s complete method is a lot better in many circumstances.  If you want to learn more about it, they detail their process in their excellent and beautiful book A Dazzle of Dragonflies.  I highly recommend this book for any dragonfly lover, but it’s an excellent source of additional information about scanning dragonflies if you want to go further than what I present here.

Things You’ll Need:

  • A computer, preferably one with a big hard drive, a fast processor, and a lot of RAM
  • A flatbed scanner.  Personally, I’ve found that the compact scanners that use low light LEDs produce inferior images because they just don’t produce enough light.  I use a scanner like the one in the image above, though a few models older, and I’ve been reasonably happy with it.  The faster the scan speed, the better!
  • Image processing software.  I use Adobe Photoshop CS4 currently.
  • A couple of thick mousepads.  If you can’t find thick mousepads (I’ve had a hard time the last few times I’ve gone out looking for them), you can either a) buy several and stack them or b) buy a piece of foamcore board and cut it to size.
  • A refrigerator
  • Dragonfly specimens

Making Scans:

You’ll be scanning the dragonflies live, so the scans need to be as quick as possible to work.  Get everything up and running before you collect your dragonflies!  Follow the directions for installing the scanner and any software you use.  Prepare the mousepads for use by cutting out the center so that you create a hole big enough to fit the largest dragonfly in your area into the space with ample room to spare all the way around.  I cut my mousepads like these…


One of the 3 thin mousepads I use to scan dragonflies

…but I wouldn’t do it this way again because the holes aren’t quite big enough for the really large dragonflies in my area.  One larger hole in the center would work much better.  If you use foam core, cut three 8×10 inch pieces and then remove the center as described for the mousepads.  You need the mousepads/foamcore for two reasons.  First, these materials keep the scanner lid from crushing the dragonfly as you scan it.  Second, the frame around the hole prevents light from escaping out the sides of the scanner and produces a sharper, higher quality image.

Once you have your mousepad/foamcore, scanner, and software ready to go, collect your dragonflies.  Place the dragonflies into individual bags as you collect to protect them.  If you’re going to be out collecting a long time, it’s best to place the bags in a cooler with ice to cool the dragonflies down.  You want the dragonflies to be alive when you scan them, so minimize their sun exposure and keep them cool!

When you return home, place the dragonflies in the refrigerator and let them cool for 2-24 hours.  Just before you want to start scanning, place the mousepad(s)/foamcore on the scanner glass:

scanner with mousepad

My dragonfly scanning setup

If you have several pieces, stack enough of them so that the dragonfly will not stick out past the upper surface at all or it will be crushed.  Choose a dragonfly that is no longer moving from those in the fridge and remove it from the bag.  Place the dragonfly in the center of the mousepad so that its wings lay flat against the glass:

dragonfly on scanner

Dragonfly on scanner

Position the legs and body as you like.  Then put the lid down carefully and scan the dragonfly!  The heat from the lights will start to revive the dragonfly, so you need to balance your need for detail with your need for speed.  I scan my dragonflies at 1800 dpi, which is high enough to generate large images while low enough that the entire scan only takes about 15 seconds.  The faster the scan the better!  Play around with your equipment and figure out the right balance for your setup.

After you scan the back of the dragonfly, quickly flip the lid up and reposition the dragonfly to scan the side.  To do this, carefully fold the wings up over the dragonfly’s body and then lay the bug onto the glass, positioning the body parts according to your preferences, like this:

Pantala hymenaea male side view

Pantala hymenaea male, side view

I like to keep the tips of the wings pointed toward the far end of the scanner so that I don’t accidentally crush the wings as I close the lid.  Then scan as described above.

At this point, you can either release the dragonfly (if you live close to the area where you collected it), return it to the collection site, or dispatch the dragonfly and add it to your collection.  Regardless, you’ll have a high quality image that preserves the colors and other details of the dragonfly forever.   By scanning both the back and the side, you also capture enough detail that you can identify many of your dragonflies without the physical specimen.

I send my scanned images directly to Photoshop and then crop out any extra space around the dragonfly.  The colors are often off a bit, so the Levels adjustment tool comes in very handy for quickly adjusting the colors to match those you see in life.  Alex Wild has already described the process I use with the levels tool in a blog post, so I recommend that you visit his post for more information on how to use this fabulous tool!  If everything goes well, the final image should look something like this:

Pantala hymenaea male

Pantala hymenaea male

I save my images with the name and sex of the species as the file name and organize them into folders that include the location and the date.  That way, I can remember all the important details about the images later.  You could also include the information on the image itself by adding text with a text tool.  That way the locality data, date, species, and sex are always attached to the image.

Because I don’t like to soak my dragonflies in acetone, I scan nearly every dragonfly in my collection as they are incorporated so that I can remember what the colors looked like while they were still alive.  I do not, however, spend a lot of time getting everything perfectly lined up in my images.  If you aim to produce images for print documents or other purposes that require better images, I recommend that you get Mitchell and Lasswell’s book and follow their more complex, complete method.  Their full method will help ensure that the dragonflies in your images look as nice as possible.

I love scanning dragonflies!  It helps me preserve colors in an insect that fades more horribly than you’d ever expect and it’s quick and easy to do.  It’s also fun to build a collection of dragonfly images as you build your specimen collection.  Thank you Mitchell and Lasswell for making your scanning method available to the world so that dragonfly enthusiasts and scientists like me can benefit from your brilliance!


Want a printable copy of this post?  Please click here!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

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


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!


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!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: Five of my favorite experiences with insects

speakIf you can’t tell from reading my blog posts, I am a bit of a storyteller at heart.  I tell people about my experiences with insects in story form most of the time.  Partly, I think it makes the things I’m interested in more palatable to people who aren’t insect lovers and helps me relate to “normal” people, but partly it’s because that’s how I store information in my head.  I experience something, immediately turn it into a story, and pack it away into some dark corner in the basement of my brain for storage.  When a story finds its way back up to the surface, it’s in a format ready to share with others!  Today I’m going to tell five short stories about my experiences with insects.  I hope you enjoy them!


Collecting Dragonflies

My sister and I were very active in 4-H as kids.  In high school, my favorite project was entomology (go figure) and I collected all the time.  I quickly captured nearly everything in my neighborhood, but I was 14 when I started and my range was limited by my inability to drive.  Enter my dad, the man who took his two daughters mineral collecting or fishing or camping nearly every weekend since we’d been born.  He drove me to the mountains (1.5 hours away) and collected minerals while I collected bugs.  He drove me to the river (an hour away) and fished while I collected.  After 4 or 5 of these trips, he started taking more of an interest in what I was doing and soon we were going on trips specifically so I could find insects.


My dad, watching bugs and birds.

I collected my first dragonfly in a mountain meadow far from water and we were both enthralled by it.  It was very hard to catch, but it was also amazingly beautiful.  I knew I needed to catch some more.  So, my dad found a lake an hour away and off we went!  I was so happy with my haul on the first trip (10 species!) that my dad took me back a few weekends later.  And again.  And again!  There wasn’t much he could do at the lake, so he’d watch the dragonflies while I hunted and we’d talk about the bugs we saw all the way home.  I loved those trips!  I was already sure I wanted to be an entomologist at that point, but my dad’s dedication to my hobby and his interest in the subject I loved really sealed the deal.


The bee.

The Bee Incident

Ah, the bee incident.  My dad, sister, and I went to visit family in Seattle one summer when I was an undergrad.  We made the two-day drive from Colorado, had a great time in Seattle, and were driving back through Wyoming when my dad started to get tired.  My dad’s always been a bit strange about being The Driver on road trips and he did not relinquish that role willingly.  Being next oldest and therefore the next most experienced driver in the car, the duty of driving was assigned to me.  I took the wheel and after backseat driving for a little while and making it abundantly clear that my driving made him incredibly nervous, my dad fell asleep in the back.

I think I drove about 15 minutes when a bug flew in through the window and slammed into my shoulder at 75 mph+.  I was startled that the bug had hit me, so I asked my sister what it was.  She looked over at my shoulder and all but screamed, “It’s a HUGE BEE!!!!!!!!”  For some reason her reaction struck me as incredibly funny (guess I unconsciously knew it was dead), so I started laughing.  This made my sister laugh too.  Of course, my dad snapped back awake, realized the driving duties were in the hands of a person who was laughing uncontrollably, and insisted I pull over.  I was crammed into the back seat for the rest of the day, but at least I ended up with a really awesome bumblebee for my collection!  I still have it, and I laugh a little every time I see it.

Photinus pyralis

Photinus pyralis firefly. Photo by Yikrazuul from Photinus_pyralis_Firefly_4.jpg.

Catching Lightning Bugs

I spent half my childhood in Arizona and half in Colorado and neither place has fireflies that light up.  Luckily, I got to see lightning bugs every year when my mom took us to visit the relatives in the midwest.  My sister and I loved them!  Like most kids, we’d run around the yard collecting them and putting them into jars.  My aunt would poke holes in the lids for us and we’d take our glowing jars to bed with us, staring at the beetles until we fell asleep.  Of course we’d wake up with a jar full of dead bugs the next morning, but that never seemed to detract from the magic of the experience.  :)

Roach in a Hotel Room

When I decided to move to Arizona for grad school, I asked my sister and my mom if they wanted to keep me company on an apartment hunting trip before I moved.  The morning after we checked into our hotel, I was brushing my teeth when I noticed a huge roach on the wall.  They don’t bother me much, but I told my sister and my mom it was there because I knew it would bother them.  My sister insisted I squash it, so I went back in with a magazine ready to do battle with the roach.


A roach similar to the one in the story. I sadly couldn't the photo my sister took of me crawling around on the floor with my butt in the air while I hunted the roach with the room in shambles!

I didn’t grow up around roaches, so I didn’t know how freaking hard it is to kill a them.  I was woefully unprepared!  As I halfheartedly swatted at it with the magazine, it leaped off the wall and scurried out of the bathroom, straight onto the bed I was sharing with my sister.  Needless to say, she was less than thrilled with this development.  So, I chased it around the room for 5 or 10 minutes, ransacking the furniture and our belongings in the process while my mom and sister yelled advice from the other room.  I thought I had the roach cornered at one point, but it escaped – and ran straight into a little hole in the bottom of the mattress!  Out of better options, I slammed the mattress back down onto the box spring and told my sister that although the roach was now INSIDE the bed, it couldn’t get out.  I had no idea if this was true or not, but I wasn’t ripping apart the mattress to get it either.  Thankfully, she accepted this argument (reluctantly) and the roach didn’t show its roachy little face again.

My Sister’s Cricket Presentation

My stories s0 far make my sister out to be seriously entomophobic.  That’s really not true.  She is certainly not as fond of insects as I am and she does have some of the more normal insect phobias (stinging insects, jumping insects, roaches), but she’s taken a few entomology courses, did several research projects with insects for classes in college, and won second place in the state Science Olympiad insect ID event in high school.  She’s pretty good with bugs!  She’s now an educational park ranger who works with K-12 students and is making good use of her entomological skills by helping the Park Service personnel identify some of the insects they find and doing insect presentations for kids.  I end up watching a lot of her interpretive programs or tagging along when she leads educational nature walks for school groups, so I know that she talks about insects a lot.


My sister, doing one of her nature hike presentations in Yellowstone.

One of my happiest moments as an entomologist came on a trip to visit my sis in Yellowstone and I watched her evening program for kids.  She talked about some of the nocturnal animals in Yellowstone and ended by discussing crickets.  Crickets fall into that jumping insect category she’s particularly disturbed by, so I was thrilled to see her up there entertaining and educating a bunch of little kids as she talked about how crickets make sound to attract mates.  It makes me very happy to know that my little sister is teaching people about insects and helping kids understand the important roles that they play in the environment, just like me!


These stories always make me happy when I think of them and remind me that I am on the right path in my life.  In an ideal world, I think everyone would have at least five happiness-inducing insect stories to share!  Sadly, this is probably not the case for most people, but I’ll bet it is for the people who read this blog.  Anyone want to share an insect story that makes them happy?  They might be about people you’ve taught or interacted with, insects that you came in contact with, something an insect did that you found funny/bizarre/magical – anything!  I would LOVE to read some of your stories, so feel free to share in the comments below.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

I loved going on those trips!  I’d spent my whole life tagging along after my parents on their outdoor adventures, but these trips were about my interest and mycollection.

Collecting Insects: A Net for Collecting Aquatic Insects

It’s been too long since I last posted a tutorial for my Insect Collections series, so today I’m going to share my best secret for collecting aquatic insects.  A lot of people overlook aquatic insects when they work on their collections.  It’s a shame really – there are some fantastic insects in water if you take a few minutes to look!  I think part of the problem is that most people think you need to have fancy nets that cost $60+ or other special, expensive equipment to collect in water.  This couldn’t be further from the truth!  Today I’m going to show you how to make and use a reasonably sized, easy-to-carry aquatic net for collecting insects in water, one that my advisor recommended to me when I started grad school.  Are you ready for this complicated design?  Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth to prepare your mind for the complicated steps this tutorial is going to involve.  Ready?  Then gather the things you need:

Essential Equipment

soup strainer

Essential equipment

  • one sturdy all metal kitchen strainer, preferably stainless steel.  (A solid frame around the basket is essential, so make sure that part isn’t going to collapse or separate from the handle if you put a little pressure on it.)

Whew!  Are you tired yet?  And if you want to be REALLY fancy, then you’ll want these things as well:

Optional Equipment

strainer extras

Optional equipment

  • metal rod, stick, dowel, etc (my metal rod came from Bioquip and cost around $8, but anything long and roundish that’s reasonably comfy to hold will do.  Avoid things that might give you splinters!)
  • duct tape (any project worth its salt involves duct tape, so you know this is gonna be good!) or waterproof tape

Okay, you’ve gathered your equipment.  Now let’s put the net together (here comes the complicated step):


soup strainer

Completed net. (Note: the duct tape on the handle is there to identify this as my strainer when I'm out with my students on field trips. It has no other function.)

Congratulations!  You now have a really great little net for catching aquatic insects!

I’ll admit that people scoff at my soup strainers and I get laughed at when I strap several of them onto my fishing vest.  Granted, I do look like some sort of deranged Kitchen Rambo stomping around in streams and ponds.  However, regardless of how dorky you look as you strain a pond or stream, soup strainers make fantastic aquatic insect nets!  For one thing, they’re cheap.  Look for sales and you can frequently get all metal strainers for less than $10 at stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Ross.  Cheap is good.  If one breaks, simply chuck it in the recycling bin and start using a new one.  If you lose it, who cares?  The metal mesh also doesn’t get ripped the way aquatic nets do, so they’re super durable.  Soup strainers are lightweight, so you can carry several with ease.  I have a carabiner hooked onto my fishing vest that I loop through a couple of strainers when I’m out in the field.  And, they’re easy to use.  Trust me – it’s hard to beat a soup strainer for collecting aquatic insects.  I have a fancy aquatic D-net and I hardly ever use it.  Instead, I use my soup strainers.

There are 2 downsides to using soup strainers though.  One is that the mesh size is large, so sometimes it is best to use the more expensive “official” aquatic insect net, especially if it is important to know the number or diversity of insects you pull out of the water.  The other downside to soup strainers is that they’re short, so you have to get your hands wet to use them.  That’s not so bad if you live in AZ and the water rarely gets down below 40 degrees.  I lived in Colorado for a long time though, so I know there are places and times of the year when you really don’t want to stick your hands in the water.  That’s where the optional equipment comes in!  Here comes another complicated step.  Cut off a 12-15  inch long piece of duct tape and tape the handle of your strainer to your longish, roundish, pole-like object:

strainer with extension

Strainer with extension

Tada!  Now you’ve got yourself a nice long handle that keeps you well away from the water and allows you to collect in deeper water without getting wet.  You’ll need to replace the tape occasionally, but you’ll get a lot of use out of your MacGyver’ed soup strainer before you do.  If you spring for a more expensive roll of waterproof tape, it will last a lot longer.

Using your strainer is easy!  In a stream, hold your strainer in the water so that it is downstream of the area you wish to sample.  Stir the substrate up, either with your other hand, your foot, or with the front edge of the strainer.  Let the loose material flow into the strainer bowl, pull the strainer out of the water, quickly sift through the material in your net, and pluck the insects out!  (I recommend using feather forceps for handling aquatics as a lot of them are very soft-bodied and you don’t want to crush them.)  Dump whatever’s left back in the stream.  You’ll use a similar substrate-stirring technique in ponds, but you’ll have to sweep the net through the stuff you stir up because there’s no flow.  If you get a bunch of muck in your strainer, simply hold your strainer at the surface, half in the water and half above the water, and swish it gently back and forth.  The silt and other small debris will flow out of the strainer and leave the bigger things behind.

I know, I know.  It sounds completely stupid.  But it works!  I’ve handed soup strainers to well over 100 people in the last few years and I’ve won a lot of converts.  It’s amazing what you can collect with them.  Considering the price, the ease of transport, and the ease of use, you can’t go wrong.  I use mine all the time!

Me collecting in Florida Canyon

Me collecting in Florida Canyon with my trusty soup strainer!

Happy collecting!


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.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010