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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Net

The first year I taught the insect behavior lab at my school, I planned a dragonfly field trip so we could study territoriality.  We spent part of a morning at one of Tucson’s urban lakes, and at one point all I could see of any of my students was this:


Dragonfly hunting

A few seconds later the student nearly flung himself into the lake trying to catch a darner.  Sadly, I didn’t get that on camera…  :)


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

Field Stories: Scary Situations

(The post I planned to do today is taking longer than I expected, so it won’t get posted until next Monday.  In the meantime, I give you the following field stories!)

I believe that all entomologists have some sort of horror story from time spent in the field.  I’ve already shared my centipede story and my giant water bug attack story, but I have oh so many more!  Today I’m going to share a few scary stories from my deep treasure trove of memories.

field site

The desert around my field site

Drug Dealers

I live in Southern Arizona.  If you know anything about this area, you know that it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to wander around in the desert.  I don’t worry about the illegals crossing the desert.  Give them some water and they will be so grateful they’ll name children after you!  But the drug dealers…  That’s an entirely different matter.  One of my field sites is in a prime drug running area.  The area is absolutely crawling with Border Patrol agents, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.  Every time I go out to that field site, I hope I don’t see anyone.  I never go alone.  I carry a gun with me.  It’s scary being out there at the best of times, but one time there was this ominous black truck parked along the little dirt road you take to get to the pond.  A really nice truck.  The kind of truck you wouldn’t ever see on a tiny little overgrown ranch road for legitimate reasons.  There was a guy sitting in it.  My companion and I drove past and collected water bug eggs anyway (I would have turned around if it were up to me, but I wasn’t driving), and we were totally on edge the entire time.  We stopped and listened carefully every time we heard a car (extra stressful considering there is a busy dirt road obscured by a small hill just on the other side of the pond!) and prepared to shoot our way out if necessary.  It was incredibly stressful.  It’s hard to convey the fear I felt!  The experience made me so much more cautious than I’d ever been in the past though, so I suppose some good came out of it.


I don’t see many snakes for someone who spends time outdoors in Arizona.  I’ve only seen a total of 9 snakes over the 18 years I’ve lived in Tucson!  The most exciting snake was one I was lucky to see.  I was out sampling a creek in the Rincon Mountains for a project I was doing for one of my jobs.  At one of the sites, there were steep banks on either side of the creek and limited places where it was easy to climb out.  My coworkers and I were just about done sampling and realized we needed to ask our boss a question, so I headed toward the car to get my cell.  I walked up the bank the same way I always did, using this perfect little foothold in the bank to take the last step up to level ground.  I was I just about to slam my foot down on the foothold for that last step when I happened to look down and see this:



My foot was 3 or 4 inches from the snake when I saw it, so it was a huge challenge to change my momentum sufficiently that I didn’t come crashing down on top of it with my sandaled foot!  I jerked my entire body backwards as hard as I could and essentially launched myself back down the bank toward the creek.  I landed on my knees about 10 feet away and just sat there shaking for a few minutes.  I had nasty bruises.  I was in pain.  But I didn’t get bitten!  And then I used a different foothold, ran to the car, got the phone and a camera, and snapped some photos of the rattler.  What can I say?  I’m a biologist.  That’s what we do.  :)

Dead Bodies in the Lake

the lake

The Lake

Most of you probably know that I worked at an urban lake in Tucson once a week for most of three years.  The lake is in a crappy neighborhood, so we saw lots of crazy things.  Before we started working there, my coworker and I were told that someone once found a dead body in the lake.  We couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Every time we got the anchor stuck on something, we’d worry just a little that it might be a dead body.  Then one week they found a dead body in the lake 6 hours after we finished sampling.  The presence of an actual dead body in the lake made pulling one up with the anchor seem so much more possible!  What if we had been there?  What if we had found it?  Was it in the lake while we were sampling?  The idea disturbed our other coworker so badly that the next time he got the anchor stuck on something, he made me promise that we would quit sampling immediately if it was a dead body.  I have never seen anyone look so relieved to pull up a lawn chair covered in algae and mud!  Poor guy.  He probably still worries about finding a body in the lake…


At one point, my advisor decided that we should collect some special water scorpions that we have in Arizona in the genus Curicta.  We headed to Ramsey Canyon, a lovely little canyon run by the Nature Conservancy, to try to find some:

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon. Image source:

We talked to the people in the visitor’s center when we arrived and they warned us that there had been a bear in the area that day, hanging out around the ponds we were intending to collect.  We promised we’d keep an eye out for it and headed into the canyon with a volunteer as our guide.  As we walked up the hill, a couple came down saying, “There’s a bear!  There’s a bear!”  They pointed up the hill and practically ran toward the visitor’s center.  A minute later, a family told us that they’d just seen a bear and pointed up the hill as they rushed past us on their way out of the canyon.  When we get to the pond and prepared to collect, we fully expected the bear to wander in at any moment.  Guess who had to take her eyes off the surroundings and get into the pond to collect?  Me!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared collecting in my life!  I kept looking up to make sure the bear wasn’t coming, which made collecting very difficult.  And then I didn’t catch any of the bugs we wanted!  Nor did I ever see the bear!  Total bust.  The canyon was gorgeous though, and the threat of the bear made it so much more zesty.  As a result, I now remember that adventure rather fondly!

Ah, the joys of bug collecting in Arizona!  I’m sure some of you have some great stories like these.  I’d love to hear them if you want to share them in the comments!


I’m giving away another aquatic insect mug!  If you haven’t done so already, you can enter here.


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

Collecting in Arivaipa

Arivaipa near first road crossing

Arivaipa near first road crossing

This year, one of my good friends and I decided that we were going to avoid all of the Black Friday nonsense in our city by going on an insect collecting trip.  We were originally planning to go to Sycamore Canyon, an area we’ve both been to many times near Arizona’s border with Mexico.  However, my friend is a fish scientist (ichthyologist for those of you don’t know) and happens to have access to a protected stream where I’ve never been able to collect.  She was granted permission for us to collect from the stream in exchange for our sharing our findings with the land managers.  So, we packed up my tiny SUV bright and early on Black Friday and drove 3 hours to the eastern end of Arivaipa Creek.

Arivaipa is this wonderfully magical place that people have told me about since I arrived in Arizona.  I’m always told stories about it in hushed tones like the place is sacred.  Naturally, I’ve been dying to go.  And Arivaipa really is a special place.  For one, it has flowing water year round, uncommon for small streams in southern Arizona these days.  For another, the creek is relatively clean with minimal runoff from roads and no sewage effluent.  There may be some contamination by heavy metals from nearby mines, but the creek is largely unimpaired.  It is also home to several native fish species, an increasingly rare quality in Arizona.  Because is a sort of last-of-it’s-kind type of place, access to the canyon and the creek is restricted by the Bureau of Land Management.  You can only hike in the Canyon with a permit and you have to cross Nature Conservancy land to get there, so you have to have double permission to enter.  Only 50 people are allowed in the Canyon each day, so getting to go there is a real treat.  And getting permission to collect aquatic insects from a relatively pristine Sonoran Desert stream there is even better!

Arivaipa Creek looking toward the canyon

Arivaipa Creek looking toward the canyon

We couldn’t have asked for a better day!  It was supposed to be very cold in Tucson (it was supposed to get down to 26 degrees that night, which is positively frigid by Tucson standards), so we were a little worried it was going to be uncomfortably cool and we prepared for the worst.  We lucked out and stepped out of the car to a bright, perfectly warm, gorgeous day!  We both strapped on some impeccably clean waders and hauled a bunch of gear to the stream.  we were pleasantly surprised the water wasn’t as cold as we’d expected.  (Granted, I was still happy I was wearing my wool socks under my waders!)  We each strapped on some gear, grabbed our strainers (best aquatic insect  nets ever!), and waded into the stream.

Arivaipa Creek looking upstream

Arivaipa Creek looking upstream

We spent the next 4 hours wandering around in the stream hunched over, peering into the water and dipping our strainers into the creek in an attempt to collect as many different insects as we could.  We were surveying the stream for the land managers after all!  Due to the perfectly warm weather, there were clouds of adult mayflies swarming over the stream and I managed to catch a few of them with my strainer.  We pulled several things out of the water that I’d expected to find in in Arivaipa Creek, things I knew other people had collected there.  We didn’t get any specimens of other things that I was surprised were absent.  My friend and I both had to be back in the early evening, so we couldn’t hike too far downstream.  Thus, we missed out on some of the insects that are typically only found in Arivaipa Canyon, a 10 mile stretch of stream flowing between high, steep rock cliffs, or further downstream.  That’s where all the hellgrammites are.  Sadly we didn’t find a single specimen in the section of the stream where we were collecting.  We did collect some exciting things though!  We were feeling quite pleased with our day by the time we headed back home.  Great day!

(AND, we stopped to the The Thing on the way home.  I’ve been driving past this roadside attraction in Arizona nearly my entire life and I’ve never seen it.  Since we had some time to kill, we stopped, paid our $1, and saw The Thing.  I’ve known what it is since I was a kid, but it was high time I actually visited!)


Vials of insects collected from Arivaipa.

The following week, we sorted through all of our bugs, removed them from the debris (we “picked” them), separated the insects into groups according to genus, and identified them to the genus level.  In all, I collected 23 genera, including water bugs, water scorpions, several caddisflies, lots of beetles (including crawling water beetles – family Haliplidae – my favorite aquatic beetles), and some damselflies.  The most exciting find of the day for me was collecting two different genera of dixid flies in one stream, something I’ve never experienced before.  My friend also caught a beetle I’ve never caught on any of my many Arizona collecting trips, a marsh beetle (family Scirtidae).  Overall I think we collected about 30 different insect species.  That’s pretty good considering we only sampled a very tiny section of the stream during late fall/early winter!

My collecting trip to Arivaipa made me really happy.  Rather than sitting around at home avoiding shopping, I got outside, visited a beautiful place that I’d never been, collected a bunch of great insects, and spent most of a day talking to a good friend.  We got some really great bugs, saw The Thing.  I got to drive through the creek several times where it crossed the road.  (I have a secret dream to be a stunt driver for truck commercials, so I LOVE driving through rivers!)  Much better than spending the day hiding in the house!  Now, where to go next year…


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