When I was 10 years old, I decided I was going to grow up and become an entomologist. I have loved hunting for, catching, and observing insects from a very young age, but eventually set the sciences aside for a more creative college path. That has never stopped me from chasing after interesting creepy crawlies whenever I come across them. In the summer, my car dash or door side pocket usually have a dead cicada or beetle (or more!) sliding around that I found while out and about. I have used silicone putty to cast molds of large beetles so I could make my own polymer clay beetles! Living in the Southern USA is great if you are interested in insects at all. To me, insects are some of the brightest jewels in the natural world, and have always featured as strong inspiration in my beadwork.
Recently I’ve been watching one of my local friend’s facebook feed and her adventures in raising (and releasing) and mounting insects for display. We met up at the recent exotic pet expo and bonded over an insect dealer, and decided to try something neither of us had ever done before – a night catch. Many of the most spectacular insects are only active at night. Because they use the light of the moon to navigate, they can be attracted to a bright light outdoors (porch light, anyone?). She lives outside the city so there is no light pollution to compete with. We had so much fun and squealed like ninny’s when the bugs flew out of the dark and bounced off of us (next time I will NOT wear a white shirt). It is still a little early and cool to attract a lot, more beetles will be traveling later in the summer, so we are planning more night catches later on. Because another thing I have always wanted to do is spread, pin and mount insects for myself, my friend helped me get started on that too.
My friend walked me through the steps of pinning a Sphinx moth that I found last week, along with one of her captive raised Monarch butterflies. You know how all insects have 6 legs? Fun fact – if you ever observe a Monarch up close, you will see that they appear to have only 2 pairs of legs. They actually do have 6 legs, but the front most pair is vestigial, meaning that they have reduced in size so much as to be nonfunctional – Monarchs have the T-rex arms of the butterfly world.
After my pinned butterfly and moth were fully dry, I was able to mount them into two shadow box frames and add them to my existing small (all commercially purchased or gifted) collection. The blue morpho butterfly is what I got at the exotic pet expo. Since this was my first attempt at mounting, it was a bit slap dash. They’re both a bit crooked, but you have to start somewhere, right? Plus, when I get better, I can always go in and loosen the glue and reset the angle if I want to… I thought it would be interesting to show you all of the steps involved in pinning beetles and butterflies/moths:
If you were mounting a beetle in a collection, you would simply poke the pin through the upper part of the right elytra (hard outer wing shell), but I really wanted to practice a more technical type of mount – a flight spread. Beetles are so durably engineered, they are easy to manipulate and play with until you get just the right position. There is only one pin stuck through the beetle’s thorax – all other pins are placed to hold the legs, antennae and wings in place to dry. To keep the wings outstretched, I used round headed sewing pins as props.
The steps in pinning a moth or butterfly are less numerous and finicky, but more delicate. Any wrong move with a pin can rip the wing. Any wrong shift of paper or twitch of finger can rub scales off the wings or fur off the body, knock off a leg or antennae, or squash your delicate subject. These small moths were so much more challenging than the big Sphinx and Monarch, mostly due to the delicacy of their wings and extremities. Two of my catch ended up in the trash after unfortunate twitchy accidents. To leave room for the legs and body, moths and butterflies are pinned on a surface called a spreading board. You can buy balsa wood, pine, or styrofoam boards commercially, but I made my own with foam core board glued to a sheet of styrofoam. While a bit gut churning, getting the pin through the body is the first and easiest step. After that comes the minute fiddling with pins holding the body, antennae, and legs (these moths are so small I ignored the legs) in position. Once you have the body isolated so it cannot rotate, you can start positioning the wings. There are different ways that people use to hold the wings in place to keep them from curling or rubbing while drying, but the easiest is to use tiny strips of glassine paper (I used some printed art vellum on these because it was handy). You use forceps or a pin to grab the vein in the leading edge of the front wing and pull it into a 90 degree angle from the body. Place a strip of your paper on the wing and use pins to clamp the paper over the wing and keep it from moving. This also protects the scales while you manipulate the other 3 wings. These small moths only took 4 days to dry fully…the beetle is going to take much longer due to the thickness of the body.
I hope eventually to collect enough more interesting bugs to make a larger shadow box frame full of native Tennessee critters. For now I am keeping my collection in a plastic shoe box pinned to a piece of styrofoam, but eventually I will need to get a special collection box that will help keep moisture and other critters out of the collection, along with a desiccant and fumigant to further protect them. Insects can remain undamaged in a collection for hundred’s of years if protected properly. I find them so inspiring to my creativity, and the thought of peering into a frame or opening up a box years from now and finding the same delight in them that I do now is invigorating.
We had so much fun at our last night catch, we have several more in the works soon (as long as the weather cooperates). I hope to keep you updated with our escapades. In the meantime, please do check out my friend’s website: ashleyfly.com – She sells her mounted insects and other fun things there!