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

The Economics of Insect Collections


As part of the insect systematics class I TAed this semester, the students were required to put an insect collection together.  It was a lot of fun helping them collect their insects by leading collecting trips and watching them curate their collections throughout the semester!  I also got to help grade the collections for the class, the first time I’ve graded non-aquatic collections.  I loved it!

The requirements for the collections were quite reasonable – not exactly easy, but certainly not hard if you put some effort into collecting early in the semester when the insects were still abundantly available.  However, regardless of how much you collect, it’s common to discover last minute that you’re missing an order or you never collected that family you could have sworn you’d collected.  Thus, the students eventually started to trade insects with one another.  As the deadline for the collections grew nearer, I noticed that more and more trades were taking place.  So, I organized an official trading session.  Students could bring their extra specimens (properly labeled) to the classroom an hour before lab and trade them with their classmates for things they needed.


Much to my surprise, nearly every student showed up an hour before class to trade insects!  Most of them had gone through their collections and knew what they had and what they still needed.  Most had a box of their “extras” that they traveled around the room with, hawking their wares in an attempt to procure something better.  They all traded away quite happily and most people ended the trading session with all of the things they needed to complete their collections.  I considered the event a success!

What really fascinated me about the trading session, as an outside observer who wasn’t participating in the actual trading, was the little economy that evolved.   The insects being traded had no value beyond the boost to a trader’s grade they represented, but a whole value system spontaneously developed nonetheless.  Different insects definitely had different values.  Furthermore, the value of these insects changed over the hour of the trading session and according to supply and demand.  Allow me to share what I observed.  From most valuable to least valuable, the initial value system worked like this:

1. Insects that are not found in Arizona.  These insects, regardless of how many were available, were worth the most.  For example, we do not have scorpionflies in Arizona, but one of the students had his brother collect about 30 of them in another state and send them to him in the mail.  The student with the scorpionflies could trade for nearly anything he might want because the only way the other students could get them was through him.  They were thus very valuable.

Alaus zunianus

2. Spectacular looking, rare insects.  People loved the showy insects and they were worth a lot – but only if there weren’t a whole lot of them in the room.  The students with the big showy beetles were able to trade for better things than the students who only had common things to trade.

3. Insects from orders that were hard to find in southern Arizona. Very few of the students were able to collect earwigs.  (I don’t care what anyone says – they’re just not that easy to find in AZ!)  Earwigs are also in their own order of insects.  Thus, the students all wanted earwigs.  Only one or two students had extra earwigs though.  Therefore, earwigs were worth a lot in trade.  Earwigs, stoneflies, fleas, lice, walking sticks – anything that was hard to find or hard to collect in our part of the state was worth a lot in trade.

damselfly adult

4. Insects that are normally common, but weren’t collected by many people in the class. This, I think, was based solely on scarcity.  If the supply had been high, no one would have cared about these.  The fact that only a few people had particular families made them worth more.  For example, hardly anyone seemed to have collected narrow winged damselflies.  They’re very easy to collect and there’s no reason people shouldn’t have them in their collections, but they were largely overlooked.   Thus, their value increased – but only this year and with this group of students.  The insects falling in this group would vary from year to year for sure.

crane fly top view

5. Common insects. Common insects weren’t worth as much as a lot of other things.  However, you could sometimes trade several common insects for a better insect if the recipient didn’t have the families they represented in their collections already.

6.  Things from laboratory cultures.  If someone on campus raised it in the lab or mass collected it in an agricultural field, the insect was virtually worthless, even if it was something that no one in the class would have in their collection if a student hadn’t brought them in.

This initial value system changed throughout the trading session.  At the beginning of the session, people tended to make the biggest, best trades.  That’s when one student traded a scorpionfly to a student for a rare, showy fly and another student traded her extra earwig for a webspinner that she just didn’t seem to be able to collect during the semester.  Later in the class, people started to trade the less valuable things.  Maybe an insect was common, but you didn’t have it in your collection yet either.  It was thus worth trading one of your lesser insects for at that point – or maybe 2 of your insects for three of that other student’s insects.  And then at the end of the session, it became a sort of free-for-all.  People started giving away the worthless things.  A student might have been the only person who brought whiteflies into the class, but he had tons, more than enough for everyone to have one.  No one was willing to trade for those because he had so many.  He eventually gave them away to everyone who wanted them without expecting anything in return.

I LOVE insect behavior.  It’s my very favorite science and something I intend to do for the rest of my life.  That said, I find people almost as fascinating as insects.  The fact that entire mini-economies rise and fall in something as simple as an insect trading session just blows my mind!  I had actually planned to trade a few things myself, but I got so wrapped up in watching the trades (and filming the hellgrammite I posted about a few weeks ago) that I forgot all about it!  Fascinating.  Simply fascinating.

Up next is another Friday 5.  It’s going to be a fun post, so look out for it Friday morning!


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

Collecting Insects: Making an Insect Kill Jar

Insect kill jars are an essential piece of equipment for anyone making an insect collection and allow the collector to quickly and easily dispatch the insects they find in the field.  While it is possible to make a very simple kill jar that contains only a paper towel soaked in a killing agent, it is nice to have a more permanent jar so you’re not getting the fluids all over your bugs.  You can buy pre-made jars from entomological supply companies such as Bioquip (, but they’re cheap and easy to make yourself!

Note: I use different jars and different chemicals depending on the age of the people I am going to work with.  The set of instructions presented here are for children 12 and older and adults.  Instructions for adapting the jars for safe use by younger children are included in the notes section at the end.



Kill jar supplies


Things You’ll Need:

  • large wide-mouth jar with a one-piece metal lid (pasta sauce jars are perfect!)
  • plaster of paris (about 1/2 cup – available at craft supply stores , online, and sometimes at Target or Wal-Mart type stores)
  • water
  • disposable cup
  • disposable spoon or knife
  • paper towel
  • killing agent (more about this below)

To make the jar:

To make the jar easy to see into, it’s best to remove the label if your jar has one.  Soak the jar in warm water for about 30 minutes to soften the label, then peel it off and scrub away any leftover adhesive.  Wash and dry the jar.



Empty, clean jar


Working quickly, mix the plaster of paris and water in the disposable cup using the disposable spoon or knife.  Follow the directions on the plaster package or use about 1.5 parts plaster to 1 part liquid.  I’ve found that using slightly wet plaster makes better jars than using thick plaster because it traps air inside the plaster and makes it more porous, but it does take longer to dry.  I usually start with about 1/2 cup of plaster and add water, stirring gently, until the plaster is pourable, about 1/4 cup.


mixed plaster

Mixed plaster


Carefully pour plaster into the jar until the plaster is about 1/2 inch deep.  If you get plaster on the sides or top of the jar, wipe it off as soon as possible if you don’t want it to remain there permanently.


dry plaster

Jar with wet plaster


Allow plaster to dry.  If your plaster package says you can microwave it, you can speed the drying time by microwaving for one minute and allowing it to cool, then microwaving and cooling two more times or until dry.


dry plaster

Jar with dry plaster


Dribble your killing fluid into the jar and allow it to soak into the plaster to charge your jar.  Depending on how thick your plaster was when you poured it, this may take some time.  There are several options for killing fluids.  See the note below for more information to help you choose the fluid that’s right for you and the amounts you might want to use.


charging a kill jar

Charging the kill jar


After the killing agent has soaked into the plaster, add a paper towel, a tissue, or a small wad of toilet paper to your jar.  This gives the insects a place to hide and helps keeps them from eating one another or beating against one another inside the jar as they expire.


complete kill jar

Complete kill jar


Use your new jar.  If you’ve never used a kill jar before, never fear!  I’ll post a tutorial on how to use a kill jar soon.


Killing agents

There are several different fluids you can use as your killing agent.  The one currently favored by many entomologists is ethyl acetate.  It kills insects very quickly without having to use a ton of fluid.  However, it is also mildly toxic (don’t breathe it in if you can help it) and not readily available in local stores.  If you wish to use ethyl acetate, you can purchase a big bottle of it from scientific supply companies such Fisher Scientific ( or VWR (  It’s expensive though ($350 or so for a 4L bottle), so if you only need a small amount, purchasing it from Bioquip ( is a lot cheaper.  They sell it in a little squeeze cap bottle (pictured in the image of me charging the jar above) that is easy to use and won’t break the bank.  Note that ethyl acetate is a solvent and it can strip color off of some surfaces.  It’s best to keep the ethyl acetate off your insects, so let the fluid completely soak into the plaster before you use the jar if possible.  It won’t discolor most insects, but it can discolor some of them.

There are also other options for killing agents that are more readily available.  Acetone-free nail polish remover is mostly ethyl acetate and works fairly well, though a bit more slowly than pure ethyl acetate.  It is also mildly toxic due to the chemical mixture and may discolor some of your insects.  Rubbing alcohol will also work, though you will need to use a lot more of it to make it work (a few tablespoons as opposed to a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of ethyl acetate or nail polish remover) and it also takes longer to kill your insects.  The latter may be problematic for some people, especially children, because the insects struggle for much longer before they die.  It also allows the insects time to thrash around inside the jar as they die, which can destroy delicate parts.  On the plus side, rubbing alcohol is relatively safe to use, very inexpensive, and available almost everywhere.  I’ve purchased it in tiny little general stores in towns of fewer than 100 people!

Bioquip has other killing agents available, but I have not used them and can’t comment on how well they work.

Making jars for children

Glass and small children don’t mix.  Ethyl acetate and small children also don’t mix.  If you want to create jars for use with small kids, here’s how to make them safe for use.

First, use a plastic jar with a screw top rather than a glass jar.  You can buy these from grocery stores, stores like Target and Wal-Mart, and kitchen supply stores.  They’re often available at craft stores as well.  Plastic containers don’t break as easily as glass when you drop them and are less harmful if they do, so they’re better options for use with children.

If using a plastic jar, you can’t use ethyl acetate because it will disintegrate the plastic over time.  Besides, it’s better if kids aren’t sniffing ethyl acetate (you know there’s a kid in every group that does this sort of thing!).  With kids, I prefer to use rubbing alcohol.  It doesn’t work as quickly as a killing agent, but it won’t destroy a plastic jar and it’s much safer for use with children.

Recharging your jar

All of the killing agents I suggested are volatile and they evaporate a little every time you open the lid of your jar.  Thus, you will need to recharge your jar often to keep it working at peak capacity.  I recharge mine before every trip by adding more killing agent to the jar.  If you use your jar for several hours, you might need an additional recharge.  If you know you’re going to be out for more than a few hours, bring some extra killing agent with you and recharge your jar in the field.


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

New Feature: Collecting Insects

My collection

One unsorted box of my insect collection

This semester, I am the teaching assistant for an insect systematics course and an insect biology lab.  As part of the requirements for both courses, the students are expected to make an insect collection and identify all of their specimens to order and/or family.  We have a surprising number of students who haven’t ever taken an entomology course before, so they haven’t ever made bug collections.  Due to their inexperience, I get questions I never expected.  For example, one day I had to demonstrate how to use an insect net when a student asked how to catch a bee.  It didn’t even occur to me that she might not know that running around with her kill jar in one hand and the lid in the other trying to catch the bee might not be the best way to do it, but that’s what she was doing!

I’m teaching many of my students how to do a lot of things that I, a person who’s been a serious collector since she was 12, take for granted.  I love doing this sort of thing!  Because I have been collecting for many years, I’ve come up with a lot of shortcuts and easy ways to make things at home that work just as well as the professional equipment but at a fraction of the cost.  It’s been fun to share some of the things I’ve learned with my students.

Considering I’m doing a lot of this already, it occurred to me that it might be worth putting some of my instructions for making and/or using equipment online so that other people might benefit from them.  Thus, I’m starting a new feature called Collecting Insects!  Part of my goal in creating this blog was to provide an accessible educational resource, and this new feature will help me fulfill this goal.  I wish to share what I know to help make insect collecting more enjoyable for others, regardless of your level of expertise.

Here’s how it’s going to work.  I’m going to put the tutorials online  as regular blog posts so they are available to everyone on the internet.  Each post will cover the materials needed, discuss where you can get some of the more obscure components, and include detailed instructions with photos for each step.  I’ll also put a printable copy of each tutorial on my Educational Materials page.  These files will be in PDF format and will be accessible for teachers and other educators to use in classrooms – or for anyone else who would prefer to have a printed copy of a tutorial!  Please feel free to share any of the tutorials in any way you see fit as I am making them available to everyone without any restrictions on their use.

damselfly adult

Pinned damselfly adult, side view (Enallagma boreale)

Some of the topics I wish to cover will be how to make insect killing jars (next post), how to make simple insect nets, how to use various nets to catch different type of insects, how to collect aquatic insects, how to create and use a blacklighting rig, how to pin insects, and how to properly label your insects.  If anyone has any suggestions for topics they’d like to see covered, leave a comment below.  I welcome suggestions!

I’ll try to get a new tutorial up once a month.  If you have any interest in collecting for yourself or use insect collections in your teaching, I think this feature will be helpful.  Happy collecting!


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