The Bug Hunters

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Published on: Jul. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

The entomologist is the hunter, and insects are the game. Armed with only a net and a jar, the scientist stalks his prey through the camouflage of leaves. With a leap and a swoosh of the net, he bags a prize praying mantis.

Entomologists, those who study insects, collect these small creatures for a variety of reasons. Many began their career with the hobby of hunting for insects. With such a variety and abundance of insects to explore, they never grow tired of learning about them. No matter how you measure it, insects make up the vast majority of life on earth. It is estimated that for every 100 pounds of people, there are 300 pounds of insects.

Every good hunter knows the quarry well. Here are some amazing facts to help you, the budding entomologist, know your prey.

  • Insects are found everywhere on earth except in the ocean depths.
  • Over 1 million species of insects have been named, and every year scientists name approximately 1,000 new ones.
  • Although a few insects can be harmful, the vast majority are beneficial, serving as a prey base for larger animals, such as birds, mammals and fish, or as pollinators.
  • Two of Missouri's largest insects include the Cecropia moth and the regal moth, with wing spans of 6 inches. Better to observe, not to kill.

To be an entomologist you need some jars in a variety of sizes for collection and temporary cages. You will also need a net, rubbing alcohol to lay your specimens to rest, insect pins to mount the insects and old cigar or shoe boxes lined with plastic foam to store and protect your catch.

Once you have caught a "bug" what do you do with it? Keeping insects alive for a short while to learn from them can be both challenging and rewarding. You will always remember the first time you watch a moth laying eggs. On the other hand, humanely killing the insect allows you to study it in much more detail - a moving bug is hard to see under a microscope.

One option for killing an insect is to place it in the freezer overnight in a jar or envelope. This method can be used for all insects and is recommended for delicate ones like butterflies.

A second option would be to carry a jar with a couple inches of rubbing alcohol in it while in the field. Placing the insects in the jar as you collect them will quickly kill them. This works well for all insects except moths and butterflies.

If you're interested in learning more about insect hunting, check your local bookstore or library for more insect information. There are many good books available. Two that we find helpful for beginners include: A Golden Guide Series to Insects, and The Insect Almanac by Monica Russo.

Insect Collecting Made Easy

Bring the insects to you:

In a blender, mix a concoction of rotten bananas, molasses, stale beer and sugar (any other fermented fruit mixture can be used). Spread this goo onto trees or posts with an old paintbrush. Wait until evening to see who comes to dinner.

Sink a jar or can into the ground so the lip is at or slightly below ground level. It can be baited with the above recipe, or try your own lure to see what works. A board or log placed above the trap will help the trap work more efficiently. Insects roaming on the ground will fall into the trap.

Light is also a good attractant when used at night. One method is to hang a light with a white sheet as a backdrop. The sheet provides a place for the insects to land, and a good place for you to see them. A second method is to hang a light over a large funnel that is resting on top of a jar. The bugs are attracted to the light and then fall into the jar.

How to pin insects correctly:

Pinning keeps insects in a natural position to allow further study. Entomologists have created a standard way to pin insects so you can easily study them and know the date, location, collector and species name. Most insects are pinned vertically through the thorax, although a few are pinned sideways.article photo

The examples shown here illustrate proper pin placement for the various groups. Insects too small for pinning are glued to a point of stiff card stock. The date and location collected are clearly printed on a card below each insect along with who collected it. A second card would be labeled with what the insect is.

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