Insect collecting can be a rigorous activity during the months when species diversity is at a yearly high (typically spring and summer), and it’s best to go into it with all your preparations in place. For the amateur just starting out, hunting for arthropods can be as cheap as $5! Of course, if you want to preserve your insects, the price will expand. However, it’s best to catch a few species before trying your hand at preservation. Take some time to get better acquainted with your local species, earning an education no book could fully supply. This page will outline the basics of what you need to get started capturing (and possibly killing) your very own insects and other arthropods!
Beginner’s Base Cost: as low as $1-$5 (for child’s net and jar(s))
Typical Base Cost for Adult/Serious Hobbyist: from about $14 up to and surpassing $50 (for net(s) and jars)
NOTE: I highly recommend Home Science Tools for all your science supply needs. They carry a fairly large array of complete science experiments, biological specimens for dissection (which last up to a full YEAR!), science tools, collections, and more! If you sign up today, you can get $5 in HST rewards points. Whether for a child or an adult, HST has the best quality and most entertaining science products on the Web– and all at affordable prices. (No, this is not a sponsor! I just think more people need some HST in their lives.)
The Basics– Nets
Catching your insects is the most basic and essential part of the hunt! I’ll help you outline basic net types and list a few sites where you can purchase affordable nets.
(1) Children-oriented Nets
One option for the entomophile starting out is a butterfly net meant for children to use.
- affordable (sometimes as little as $1)
- relatively easy to find at physical locations, especially during spring-summer
- short reach meant for a child’s arms
- brightly colored and/or childishly patterned (who wants to wander about aimlessly with a child’s toy?)
- NOT durable; will bend, snap, rip, and twist
- shallow net depth not suitable for quick and easy capture/large specimens
- fragile netting not suitable for sweeping
- sometimes sports large netting holes, allowing some smaller species to escape easily
Where to Buy Online:
- On Home Science Tools for $10.95
- On eBay for $5.99
- On Amazon as a $6.99 add-on item
- (OUT OF STOCK ONLINE) Dollar Tree bamboo nets which I buy during spring and summer.
For the entomologist who’s a little strapped for cash, a child’s butterfly net will do just fine in a pinch. U.S. stores like Dollar Tree, Dollar General, Family Dollar, et al. often sell extremely cheaply made butterfly nets for children in the spring and summer months. You can get functional nets for a steal this way. Dollar Tree tends to sell the least durable nets, but at $1 a pop you can stock up on backup nets or use them as primary nets until you come into some more cash, all for one dollar per net. That’s a seriously great price for something that works just fine!
The bad things about these nets can be a bit overwhelming to the more experienced net-wielder, though. The extremely short reach means getting up close and personal with all potential catches, which is sometimes a mechanical impossibility. Faster and more observant insects such as flies, dragonflies, and some lepidopterans will spot you creeping up on them with your two-foot net and flit away before you can curse your apparent clumsiness. The netting, which is soft and flexible, is also easily torn, ripped, nicked, or even bitten through, is not built to last for a serious hobbyist. Depending on how you look at it, you may just be throwing money into a senselessly frustrating endeavor by purchasing even one of these nets for yourself. The netting is also usually much shallower than your typical standard insect net, which renders “cinching” the net with your fingers to trap a caught specimen extremely difficult. Out of the five children’s nets I’ve purchased from Dollar Tree over the years, five of them have snapped at the handle. That’s a 100% snappage rate, people! Consider that these things are pretty much inevitable when you buy the cheapest of the cheap.
Final Verdict: If you’re looking for a quick fix to just have fun outdoors, this is a good option. But for long-term use, don’t waste your money. But even if you don’t want them, consider buying some for the neighborhood kids!
(2) Standard Insect Nets
This is your standard insect collecting net.
- usually durable netting and design allows for constant use, year-round, sometimes for a number of years
- small netting holes make insect escape difficult
- longer reach; sometimes telescoping handle
- deep net for easy capture, even of largest specimens
- variety of types and styles
- you get what you pay for
- various online listings claiming to be “high quality” make it tough to discern good from bad
- higher price ranges
- occasionally, some assembly required
- relatively expensive to replace nets/parts, once broken
Where to Buy Online:
- “Standard” from HST for $13.95
- “Deluxe” from HST for $18.95
- On Amazon for $26.99
- On Forestry Suppliers for $38.25 (Higher Quality muslin material)
- On Amazon for $10.49— BUYER BEWARE: I had an awful experience with this net. The third time I ever used it it fell apart mid-swing, forcing me to try to catch a beetle with my hands before it got away. It telescopes but is not sturdy in the locked position. It is the cheapest one on my list, but it is also not worth the money if it falls apart on you. Read the reviews carefully and decide for yourself.
Standard aerial nets are used for catching insects and bugs in the air and for lightly sweeping short grass. These nets and their sweeping counterparts are fairly close in price range, according to what quality you wish to purchase. These seem to be the best choice for most people, as the majority of insect-catching seems to be done in the air rather than by sweeping through weeds and undergrowth. (However, you should probably first decide which types of insects you are most interested in catching, as habitats vary greatly.) For general purposes, standard aerial nets are the best and most reliable. Many of them are affordable, but the main issue in purchasing one seems to be deciding which net makes the soundest claims on quality and durability. Some nets offer an interchangeable netting, and others do not. I recommend spending a little extra on a net that does offer a changeable netting if that’s at all possible. It’s likely at some point you’ll tear your netting on weeds, brambles, or thorns, so being able to order a simple replacement part would prevent a lot of headaches.
Aerial nets are best for capturing butterflies, moths, flies, flying beetles, dragonflies and damselflies, wasps and hornets, and other such insects which are frequently in the air.
Final Verdict: I recommend that everyone get at least one of these nets very soon. They are fantastically fun to use, offer a wide reach, and usually last quite some time when treated properly.
(3) Sweeping Nets
These nets are, of course, used for “sweeping,” which is swiftly weaving your net through undergrowth, tough weeds, high grass, etc.
- tough netting or thick material is almost guaranteed not to tear
- offers same wide reach as aerial net
- durable frame
- deep netting for quick and easy catches
- some offer changeable netting piece to make replacements easier and a bit cheaper
- fairly expensive
- most do not have see-through mesh at the end, making it difficult or impossible to see what you’ve caught before transferring it to a container
- more expensive to replace than other nets
Where to Buy Online:
- “Medium size” from Ben Meadows for $39.80
- 12″ diameter net from Ben Meadows for $24.95
- “Economy” from Forestry Suppliers for $24.25
- “Heavy Duty” from Forestry Suppliers for $36.75
- “Professional” from Forestry Suppliers for $39.25
- “Professional” from Amazon for $39.25
Sweep nets are used in heavy weeds, on the forest edge, in undergrowth, heavy foliage, and other environments in which an aerial net’s mesh would snag and rip. They’re made to be quite tough, and if you treat them right they could last you some years! It’s a good idea to get a sweep at some point, but in my experience an aerial net is versatile enough to use primarily until you’re ready to spend a little bigger on a sweep net.
Sweep nets are perfect for catching locusts and grasshoppers, crickets, spittlebugs, some flies, hemipterans, hunting spiders, and other arthropods frequently found on the ground and within undergrowth. You can also use a sweeping net to catch resting butterflies and dragonflies in conditions that might damage your aerial net.
Final Verdict: I recommend only serious insect hobbyists and professional hopefuls invest in a sweep net. It’s definitely handy and useful, but for the casual hobbyist the price outweighs the benefits from the net. However, these nets are extremely durable and are built to last, so if you do end up buying one, take comfort in knowing that it will likely last you a long time before even needing a replacement part.
The basics– Jars and Habitats
What do you want to do with your catch?
(1) Jars (Regular)
Regular jars and vials are used for collecting the insects while they are alive.
(Pictured above: 2x magnification inset in lid; green ring for use as handle; grid for reference when viewing specimens)
- mostly lightweight
- various sizes will fit various speciments
- holes for air flow can keep specimen alive for up to a number of weeks, even without food
- some feature magnifying lenses (pictured above, 2x lens) in the lid for a slightly closer look at your catch
- can reuse jars from store-bought preserves, sauces, and other foodstuffs
- affordable, can even find jars in thrift shops and garage sales
- some are breakable and/or made of glass
- some jars can be difficult to open and close quickly in the field
- while portable, some are bulky and/or heavy
- reused jars may have residues that could damage specimens
- will not kill insects unless put in freezer
- slick walls could damage lepidopterans’ wings with prolonged containment
Where to Buy Online:
- “Deluxe” from HST for $3.25
- “3 dram, 12/pack” from HST for $3.80 (vials)
- “1 dram, 12/pack” from HST for $4.80 (vials)
- “World’s Best Bug Jar” from Amazon for $6.99
- “Toysmith Bug Viewer” from Amazon for $5.88
- “Large Bug Viewer” from Amazon for $5.90
- “Ventilated” from Insect Lore for $6.99
- “Locket Necklace” from Insect Lore for $1.99 (Super cute for kids (or the kid-at-heart)!)
- “Cosmetic Jars” from Uline in bulk for $18.00/24 jars
- On Party Pal for $9.89
Regular jars are the easiest and cheapest way to contain specimens! You can put the jars in your freezer if you want to kill the arthropods inside, or you can puncture the lid (or buy a ventilated container) if you plan to keep or release it! I use reused pasta sauce jars and jelly jars every day of the week to capture insects. You can reuse your own, which makes it a super thrifty and even environmental answer to the question of how to contain and view insects. If you buy a specialized container, you’ll likely have a jar with special features, such as an easy-to-remove lid, magnifying lens, grid-pattern for reference, and means of ventilation. However, keep in mind that most of these factory-made insect jars are geared toward children and may be cheaply made because of this; it’s likely they won’t last you forever.
Final Verdict: Regular jars are great if you’re unsure of whether to kill or release a specimen once you capture it. You can find them almost anywhere if you plan to reuse food jars; if you’re looking to buy, you can find bug jars and viewers at some supermarkets and hobby stores, especially during the spring and summer months. I recommend keeping at least a few regular jars around at all times.
(2) Killing Jars
Killing jars kill the specimen after a few moments inside.
- kills specimens in the field without need for freezing
- easy killing without damage so specimen can be pinned later
- store-bought jars are durable and easy to open and close
- can be home-made
- inexpensive to buy and make
- kills all insects added to the jar, so you cannot release or keep specimens
- homemade alternatives have slight risk of leaking onto specimen or just not working
- not suitable for young children, as they contain chemicals which may be harmful if inhaled or swallowed (some may irritate skin)
Where to Buy Online:
- “9 oz size” from HST for $4.95
- “16 oz size” from Forestry Suppliers for $6.80
- “Nonpoisonous” from Science Lab Supplies for $6.95
- “16 oz size” from Amazon for $7.95
Killing jars are excellent if you plan to pin or otherwise preserve a specimen you’ve just caught. With a killing jar, you don’t have to haul your catch back to a freezer to kill them; you can put multiple insects of different types in the jar at one time; you don’t have to worry about damage to your specimen. Killing jars truly are a collector’s best friend! They can be bought cheaply online, or you can make your own with the help of a Youtube tutorial on killing insects and making kill jars.
While some people are staunchly against collecting and killing insects, it’s a widely-practiced hobby in the entomological field and can seriously aid your hands-on study! While kill jars are an effective method of killing insects in the field when you are far from a freezer, freezing specimens is probably the most humane way to kill them, as it puts them into a sort of hibernation and offers an easy and painless death. I opt for freezing whenever possible. Insect collecting is great, but Behind the Bug encourages you to also study live insects and gain a deeper respect for them as living things.
Final Verdict: The traveling entomologist should always have a kill jar handy! But if you’re a hobbyist collecting close to home, there’s no real need for a kill jar. Insects can be killed using a freezer, a much safer and more humane method.
(3) Habitats (long-term and short-term)
Habitats are for keeping live insects as pets or to comfortably house them on a short-term basis so that you can observe them in captivity.
- many different styles to accommodate various species
- great way to observe a specific animal under varying conditions in captivity
- ventilated; some even textured to provide footing and limit wing damage
- some are portable
- very versatile and can be used multiple times for many, many species
- some are very large and heavy, like fish or reptile tanks
- some are extremely fragile and may pop open during handling, potentially letting your specimen or pet escape
- different arthropods require different levels of care, which means different amounts of space (larger habitat) and heat (ability for habitat to sit under heat lamp)
- some are relatively expensive
- bulkier than jars; not practical in the field
- slick walls can damage wings on lepidopterans
Where to Buy Online (primary intended animal in parentheses):
- “Garden Habitat” from Insect Lore for $10.99 (butterflies)
- “Port-a-Bug” from Insect Lore for $9.99 (butterflies)
- “Butterfly Pavilion” from Insect Lore for $15.99 (butterflies)
- “Aqua Culture brand” from Walmart for $5.94 (fish)
- “Kit with light” from Amazon for $13.99 (various)
- “20-gallon Long” from Amazon for $108.69 (reptiles)
Habitats are easy to come by. Most habitats you’ll find in stores near you will be intended for fish, frogs, reptiles, and other such animals, but they’ll work just as well for arthropod pets and specimens. For example, after the death of my last snake, Nikolai, I captured my first arthropod pet, a mantis named Posie. All I had to do to house her was this: I kept her temporarily in an Aqua Culture brand pet carrier, put a solid layer of dirt in the bottom of the snake tank, added some sticks and live plants, a metal mushroom decoration from a thrift shop, and transferred Posie into the tank. She lived out the remaining four months of her adult life in that tank, happy as a clam and fat as a whale! What’s more, you can also use the same habitat with the same setup to house a hunting spider, like a wolf spider, once your mantis eventually dies. So you see, pet carriers and tanks are really quite versatile.
Before purchasing an Aqua Culture carrier or similar, CHECK THE CONTAINER for any defects or cracks. I unknowingly bought several damaged Aqua Culture containers from Walmart one day when I was in a hurry. It’s best not to to waste your money and have to make repairs on the container yourself.
Keeping an arthropod pet can also be a great learning experience for children and young people– even for adults! There is no better way to gain a greater appreciation for life than to care for your very own pet. I believe this is doubly true for arthropods, which are often overlooked.
NOTE: Not all species are suitable for captivity. Many times, it is simply best to either humanely euthanize an animal or to just let it continue living its life outdoors, where it belongs. It can also be very difficult to care for and anticipate the needs and wants of an animal that is not a mammal like us. If you decide to try to get your very own arthropod pet, please be sure to care for it as you would a cat, dog, or any other pet. They are just as deserving of comfort and health as mammal pets are.
Final Verdict: Habitats are useful as transports, even for insects you plan on killing later. However, the ventilated habitats are clearly best suited for long-term habitation. I definitely recommend that everyone keep at least one arthropod pet in their lifetime. It’s an incredible experience to grow attached to something most people want to kill for no reason.
Pinning Supplies– Overview (+misc. Supplies)
Here I will list some other supplies that will make pinning and collecting easier, along with brief explanations. This page is not about pinning, however, so I will only briefly describe each type of product. Check back for later installments about pinning and pinning supplies.
- Pinning Display Cases– You can seemingly buy a case with measuring 8″ x 12″ from Amazon for $0.01 (+$10 shipping). Seems illegitimate at first glance, but the reviews suggest otherwise. After all, I’m wearing a steel ring at this very moment which I bought from Amazon.com for one cent (+~$6 shipping!
- Insect Pins– Insect pins come in a range of size and variety. Please never use regular sewing pins to pin insects, as they do not have the proper coating and size variety; they will rust after some time in the display case. Packs of insect pins are labelled with numbers (e.g. “2 Pins, 100 pack”, “00 Insect Pins”). The number indicates the thinness of the pin, and which number you will want to use corresponds to the size of the insect to be pinned. In other words, the smaller the insect, the lower-numbered size of pin you should use. Size 2 is for small insects, size 4 is for most/medium-sized specimens, and size 6 is for large specimens. 0, 00, and 000 are for increasingly minuscule insects. (Some insects are too small for even the smallest size pins, so they must be “pointed” using a punched-out triangle of paper and all-purpose glue. For this method, you will need a point-puncher, similar to a hole-puncher and available for purchase online and in stores).
- Flashlight/Headlamp– You will likely want to hunt at night, as most insects are nocturnal. A flashlight will really help you see where you’re going. If you use a regular flashlight, though, you’ll have to have one hand on your flashlight at all times, severely limiting what you can do. A headlamp is a great solution to this problem! (Note: I wear glasses and experience extreme, sight-crippling glare from my current headlamp. If you also wear glasses and cannot see without them, try to make as sure as you can that the headlamp you’re buying won’t do this.)
- Rain Boots (or similar)– Long rain boots will enable you to trudge through puddles, wade into ponds, and enter tall weeds, brambles, and ivy without too much concern for sustaining injury from thorns or ivy or any snakes and other animals that might be concealed by the weeds. These can be purchased from Walmart in the men’s section year-round.
- Forceps or Soft-Grip Tweezers– It’s definitely recommended you use forceps to handle most insects you plan on preserving, but if you want to or can’t find or purchase forceps, you can also use tweezers. It’s best if the tweezers have a soft grip so you don’t damage the specimens. You can handle insects by hand if you wish, but be aware that there is a possibility of injuring them (if alive) or damaging the legs and wings (if dead). Crickets and grasshoppers, moths and butterflies are especially vulnerable to damage sustained from handling.
- Glassine Paper– It’s best to use glassine paper to aid in the spreading of lepidopterans’ wings. Some people use regular paper, but it’s recommended to use glassine paper, as it has less of a chance to damage the colored scales on the wings of moths and butterflies. You can even order glassine envelopes and cut them into strips (the envelopes are easiest to find at times). A better home alternative is wax paper, as it has many of the properties of glassine paper and is much cheaper and easier to find in stores.
- Insect Repellent– Maybe it sounds counterintuitive to use repellent when going out of your way to find insects, but sprays and lotions from brands like Off!, Cutter, and even Avon can help keep parasite-carrying and disease-transmitting biting and stinging insects off your body. Due to the risk of contracting west nile and other illnesses and parasites from the bite of a mosquito, I beg you never to forget the spray! Buy a bottle for the house; buy a bottle for the car; buy a bottle for your purse, backpack, pocket, or wallet! I cannot stress how important it is not to risk these diseases, as they can be and usually are fatal, or at the least extremely painful.
- Sun Hat or Baseball-Style Cap– A hat isn’t just for wimps who can’t take the heat. It’s great to wear a hat if the sun is out because it can help protect your face, head, and eyes from the Sun. Ever been chasing a gigantic swallowtail only to lose it because the sunlight blinded you? Been there! With a hat or visor, you’re much less likely to encounter this problem. You can also wear a hat at night so that you can clip a headlamp/hat light onto the bill or brim.
- Spreading Board– A spreading board allows you to safely spread the wings of butterflies and moths. You can buy these (made of corkwood or similar), but you can just as well make a reliable (and disposable!) spreading board out of foam. Here are two types of homemade spreading boards: The first is the adjustable foam board; the second is the cut foam board. The former video explains why making your own foam spreading boards are sometimes better than the wooden ones you buy in stores and online.
- Bright Outdoor Light– You should probably get yourself a porch light or an outdoor light on a tripod. For some unknown reason, insects are attracted to various types lights at night, the most effective being UV or “blacklights.” It can be a bit tricky to effectively set up a light trap, but with a little research and perhaps some practice, it’s not very hard at all! You might even start to see large lepidopterans falling all over themselves trying to bask in the light from your trap. That would so rewarding! Even ultra-bright porch lights can attract the most beautiful, largest species of moths as well as lacewings, ichneumon wasps, and some types of beetles.
- Medical and/or Garden Gloves– Some insects are best handled without the use of your hands, but fragile, soft-bodied insects like larvae are best not handled with forceps, either. So, what’s the solution? Get yourself some gloves! If you suspect you might need to handle insects with mildly irritating secretions or spines, it’s cool to put some gloves on before or during a bug hunt. Gloves can even be used to handle insects if you’re squeamish about them; sometimes having less emphasized bodily contact can help ease the fear of insects, much like when people pick up a roach with a paper towel or remove a spider from the house using a bowl and piece of paper. The same principle applies to using gloves! I have a neat lunchbox in which I always keep hypoallergenic, powder-free nitrile gloves (purchased at Walmart for relatively cheap), heavy-duty garden gloves from Dollar General, and lighter garden gloves also from Dollar General. You can also use these gloves for digging pitfall traps (although I usually do so bare-handed), beating tree and shrub limbs, and other ento-activities during which you might sustain an injury or dirty your hands.
- 10x Magnifying Lens– A powerful magnifying lens isn’t just fun to use and expand your perspective, it’s also extremely useful in cases where arthropod species-level identification hinges entirely on things like the number of leg or antennae segments. For this purpose, I recommend looking at the coin and stamp collecting section at hobby stores or on coin and stamp collecting sites. Oftentimes, entomological and biological supply stores and sites will incorrectly state that their lenses are 10x in magnification, when in fact they are closer to 4x or 6x. Stamp and coin collectors are inexplicably more likely to have accurately labeled and affordable magnification lenses, even some which feature LED lights. For this reason, I recommend bypassing the “10x magnification lens” google search and going straight for “stamp/coin magnifying lens.” You can find these in person at Hobby Lobby or Michaels in the coin/stamp collecting sections.
That’s all for now, but I’ll be sure to add onto the list should I think of anything else that could help you in your search!
As always, good hunting!