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University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

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Insect Collecting Techniques

by Monte Johnson and Stephanie Bailey, Extension Specialists


Insects are everywhere!! Insects are often encountered, at least with a little searching, in homes, yards, around building foundations, basements, crawl spaces, flower or vegetable gardens that are NOT heavily sprayed with pesticides, around lights at night, near streams and lakes, abandoned fields, parks, and forests.

Dead insects in reasonable condition (for collections) can often be found on windowsills, car grilles, roadsides and walking paths.

Some insects are very sedentary and are easy to catch with a pair of tweezers. Others fly, some pretty slowly and others (like dragonflies) are FAST! Catching insects takes some practice. It is best not to catch dangerous insects such as bees and wasps at first.

Collectors may want to keep an observation notebook to help them keep track of their expeditions. It is a good idea to make labels for insects that include collection date, location and habitat, as well as the collector's name.


  • Tweezers or forceps, to pick up insects

  • 35mm film canisters, to hold small insects

  • Killing jars, made from peanut butter jars with nail polish remover or alcohol on an absorbent material such as cotton balls or newspaper. Place a crumpled piece of tissue paper in the jar, to give insects a place to 'hide' so they don't beat themselves up trying to escape. Write 'POISON' on the outside of the jar, so the contents are not mistaken.

  • Collanders can be used for aquatic collection, to 'scoop' out insects at the water's surface or underwater at the edge of a stream or lake. Aquatic insects include water striders, whirlygig beetles, backswimmers, diving beetles, immature mosquitoes, immature dragonflies, and giant water bugs (many of these bugs can bite!).

  • Sweep nets are used for sweeping the grass of meadows and abandoned fields, as well as catching insects in bushes and up in trees. Because they are made of solid material, sweep nets won't snag like butterfly netting. Unwind a wire coat hanger (or No. 9 wire), bend the wire in the form of a round loop, and thread the wire through the casing of an old pillowcase. Tape the ends of the wire to a dowel rod or broomstick with duct tape or electrical tape, or tighten the wire to the broomstick with a hose clamp.

  • Butterfly nets are best for catching flying insects. They are assembled like the sweep net, except that the body of the net is made of netting (purchased from a craft store, 1/2 yard will do). Cut and sew the netting material into a 'cone' shape, then fold the edge over and sew a casing through which to thread the wire loop. Attach to a dowel rod or broomstick as described for the sweep net.

  • Beat sheets are used to collect slow moving and small insects which have been jarred from plants. An inverted umbrella, white pan or sheet of paper is placed under plants. Shake or jar the insects off of plants onto the beat sheet, then grab them with tweezers or shoo them into jars.

  • Berlese funnels are useful in collecting small insects from soil, leaf litter, or compost. Place a wire screen over a funnel, with the tip of the funnel resting in a jar above at least 2" of alcohol (ethanol is the best type but rubbing alcohol will work). Scoop a bit of soil or debris onto the screen, and then place an electric light directly above the funnel. The heat from the lamp forces insects down the funnel, into the alcohol. Leave undisturbed for 2-5 days, or until soil is dry. If the material is very fine, place a paper towel between the screen and the soil, so fine particles won't get into the alcohol.

  • Light traps are used at night to catch insects. "Black lights" or ultraviolet lights may be more successful than regular outdoor lighting, but even normal outdoor lights attract lots of insects. A white sheet placed behind the light may help with collecting since it gives the flying insects a place to land and fewer escape routes.

  • Bait traps attract insects with food. Rotten meat attracts carrion feeders, while other insects like overripe fruits, fermented foods, sugary foods, or oils (peanut butter). Some insects are even attracted to dung. "Sugaring" is a method of painting tree trunks, etc. with a fermented mixture of fruits, sugar, and an alcoholic beverage such as rum or beer, and is a good method to catch certain types of nocturnal insects.

  • Pitfall traps are useful for catching ground dwelling insects and can also be baited. Soup cans are an excellent size for pitfall traps. Punch small drainage holes in the bottom, and shield the trap from debris and rain. The top of the can should be level with the ground surface, so an insect will fall right in. Either check traps often or preserve the insects with a mixture of saltwater or soapy water in a can without drainage holes.

  • Pheromone traps use synthetic female hormones to attract male insects to its source. Pheromones for several pest insects are available commercially. Check with the nearest Cooperative Extension Service Office for sources of pheromones and the best time to set up a particular trap, to make sure seasonal insects are in flight. See Entfact 010--Plans and Parts List for the "Texas" Style Cone Trap, and Entfact 112--Using Pheromone Traps in Field Crops for more information.

Photographs courtesy of S. Bailey, University of Kentucky Department of Entomology, 1995

Last updated: 14 January 1999

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