Tools for Insect Collecting

Basic kit (start collecting for under $25):

Pinned beetles in a collection box (Coleoptera).

Pinned beetles in a collection box (Coleoptera).

For the novice bug enthusiast interested in starting an insect collection the options and information available can be bewildering. Luckily, the hobby is easier (and cheaper) than it might seem. Here’s my two-cents worth on the best tools to get you started.

Insect pins (size 2) – you can’t have a collection if you can’t pin your insects

Insects pins come in a range of sizes, with the thickness of the pin increasing as the numbers increase. Thinner pins are less likely to damage small or delicate insects but are more likely to bend or be unable to pierce large or hard bodied insects. For very large insects a longer pin may also be necessary. Stainless steel pins will resist corrosion from long term exposure to humidity, but for most collectors the black enamel treated pins are probably sufficient. Cheaper pins tend to be blunter and more likely to damage insects, but may be useful for other purposes like spreading wings or stabilizing large insects in your collection box.

Pinning blocklet’s get those bugs pinned and labeled!


BioQuip Three Step Pinning Block

Three step pinning block from BioQuip.


Why use a pinning block? Because it allows you to get insects, labels and points onto a pin with minimal damage and bending. Trying to push a pin through an insect or a label with your fingers or on a soft surface such as styrofoam can create uneven pressure that does damage. A three step pinning block also provides a rough estimate of the height placement of the insect and labels and can help you standardize your collection.

Insect boxyour collection’s home sweet home


Stack of chipboard collection boxes.

Stack of insect collection boxes.


A safe, secure place to store and display your insects is a must for any collector. BioQuip’s chipboard boxes are affordable, sturdy, and light-weight making them ideal for a variety of purposes. More expensive wooden Schmidt boxes and cabinet drawers can help to protect your collection from destructive pests like dermestids and ants which may feed on and damage specimens. As a cheaper alternative, periodically placing a collection box in the freezer can also be used to eliminate insect pests.

Spreading boardto make your pretties prettier


A spread luna moth, with spreading board in the background.

A spread luna moth, with spreading board in the background.


If you want to collect lepidopterans (butterflies and moths) or display the attractive or diagnostic wing patterns of any insect species, you’ll need a spreading board. Bioquip’s styrofoam spreading boards can simply and effectively accomodate wing spreading of a wide variety of insects for cheap, cheap, cheap. The only other supplies necessary are pins, strips of paper and patience.

Big jars, tupperware, ziploc bags, etc – grab those bugs!

Almost anything can serve as a collecting container in the field. Save old food containers, stick ziploc baggies in your pockets, or use a large flat tupperware to stack lepidopterans between sheets of wax paper.

Elmer’s glue, flashcards, scissors – ah, pointing, my old nemesis
Pinned dermestid beetle with hand for scale.

Pointed carpet beetle.

Some insects are too small to pin. All the tools necessary for pointing can be found in most home offices. Just add pins!

Some kind of collection guide so many bugs, so many rules

Entomologists strive to standardize their collections so that preserved insects worldwide can be useful for future scientific studies. Preserved specimens are useful in studies of taxonomy, genetics, distribution and abundance. Knowing where to pin an insect, how to preserve it, and how to provide appropriate locality information is extremely important. Having well-pinned insects will not only improve the quality of your collection, it can make your specimens more tempting to other collectors or scientists who may be interested in trading specimens.

Some kind of bug guideWhat did you get?

Finally, no insect collection would be complete without knowledge of the insects within. A good insect guide is a must. The Kaufman field guide is my personal favorite, as it includes useful and interesting life history information alongside the clear illustrations. is among the best internet resources, with tons of pictures available and the option to submit a picture for ID help. For more detailed IDs investing in a book with a good set of taxonomic keys may eventually be worthwhile (I have mostly used Borror and Delong’s Study of Insects).

Recommended (~$50):

Beef up your collection kit with a some of these extremely useful items.

Sweeping a field of flowers for insects

Sweep netting in a field of flowers (Welder Wildlife Refuge).

Net (Bag, Ring, Handle) – A good net is a bug collector’s best friend, and can be used for sweeping, catching flying or stinging insects, and even beating trees and skimming for aquatic insects in ponds.

Snap Cap Tubes – Cheap, versatile and great for holding a wide variety of bugs. Small enough to fit in a pocket and suitable for use with an aspirator (see below). I take dozens of these collecting and keep one in my purse for emergency insect-catching opportunities.

Adjustable spreading board – Adjustable spreading boards provide the maximum utility for the minimum price as you can fit them to spread everything from giant Polyphemus moths to tiny ant queens. The angled wood slats create lovely spread insects.

Other items:

An aspirator with captured moths.

An aspirator with captured insects.

Aspirator – Great tool for collecting small or delicate insects. Also allows you to refer to something as a ‘pooter’ in a scientific setting.

Kill jars – A few big kill jars suitable for field collecting allow you to combine your collected insects into a few containers without worrying about escapes, damage, or predation.

Glass vials – Preserve soft bodied insects and arachnids in vials of ethanol. Larger vials are also great for collecting.

Collecting Bag – pretty much the most amazing and useful field accessory ever, this bag says you are going collecting–guerilla style. Don’t forget to get the vials to go with it.

Back to the techniques section.


That’s it for now! Comments and suggestions are appreciated.

6 Responses to “Tools for Insect Collecting”

  1. Laura September 29, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    Very cool resource! Thanks!

  2. trish November 8, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    I plan to make my first attempt at pinning for my son’s birthday next week. I have been collecting for 3 years but have not pinned in display boxes. I have a variety of specimens and am not sure what size pins to order. Help! Ladybugs to dragonflies and hardshell beetles.

    • 6legs2many November 8, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

      Size 2 or 3 probably work for the vast majority of insects. Finer pins (smaller numbers) can be helpful for particularly small or soft-bodied insects but once you get down to that size you should often be pointing anyway. The sharpness of the pin is often more important than the thickness in terms of dealing with tough beetle shells. (I even use size 3 pins for ironclad beetles after breaking the shell with a thumbtack.) The very biggest pin sizes also get a bit longer for especially stout-bodied insects, but there isn’t much our way that would need that. (I’ve also used size 3 pins for rhinoceros beetles.)

      FYI – It is easier to pin bugs when they a fresh (or have been kept frozen). Bugs that have been dead for a while dry out and become brittle and fragile–particularly legs and wings. Luckily, brittle insects can (and probably should) be relaxed prior to pinning. I do this by placing them in a tupperware container with a damp paper towel overnight. Be careful of mold and mildew! I put some antibacterial soap on the towel to help prevent this. I also try to keep the insect from being in direct contact with the wet paper towel unless it’s something fairly waterproof like a beetle. This also works on already pinned specimens whose positions you want to adjust. (I do this to pretty up badly spread butterflies my students turn in.)

      Hope this helps! And have fun!

  3. Adrian D. Thysse January 21, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    I’ve been tempted to start a basic collection myself, just so I can have a good look at representatives from all the different families. Photography is great, but it rarely gives the opportunity for relaxed, under-the-microscope viewing of the details.

    • 6legs2many January 30, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      This is a good point! I know that within my own collection I have frequently discovered (or more commonly, had pointed out to me) insects that I didn’t realize were novel or distinct or interesting in some way.

  4. DYLAN March 15, 2012 at 12:52 am #


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