Best Practices for Capture and Handling of Dragonflies and other Insects

Recently, I have noted a sizable number of observations of dragonflies, damselflies, and some other insects (including butterflies and deer flies) in my area where the observer has caught the insect and is holding it in their hand to obtain a photo with identifiable field marks. I am someone who has been thus far restricted to attempting to photograph dragonflies as they go about their business and have had a lot of frustration, especially with those species that never seem to land.
I have a bug net which I’ve never put to much use, so I’ve been wondering, what are the best practices for the capturing and handling insects (especially dragonflies)? My internet searching hasn’t turned up much helpful information.

Thanks,

Jonathan Layman

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If possible try to net ones that can be done by simply putting the net over it (on the ground, vegetation etc) and then let the insect fly up into the net.

If you have to net one in flight try to observe where they are patrolling and intercept them.

Always handle dragonflies by grasping all 4 wings.

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You can check the page of our local dragonfly expert https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/v_onishko, he holds dragondlies with a pincette to not cause damage to wings of fragile species, I personally had troubles with some of them, though with medium-sized and big ones you hardly can do anything if you do it right.

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I think it may be better to initially gently grab a dragonfly by its body with perhaps part of its wings (unless the dragonfly is calm, then go straight for the wings), and then carefully transfer it by all four wings to your other hand. This technique reduces the amount of time a dragonfly thrashes around in the net.

If you don’t have all four wings then the dragonfly can easily damage its wings in an attempt to escape.

Larger dragonflies can be handled by their legs.

I have heard that it is safe to grab a butterflies wings. Yes, you will likely rub off some of its scales but the wings themselves should be OK.

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For smaller insects, you need to bring a sandwich bag or plastic container to examine the insect. Some insects are too tiny to handle safely with your hands. A sandwich bag allows for better focus, but neither a sandwich bag or plastic container is really all that good for photographs.

Additionally, if you see a dragonfly with shiny wings leave it alone. It is a teneral, which is newly emerged, and the wings are very easily damaged.

A technique I haven’t tried but which might work is to rig up a plastic container to an ice pack. It might be possible to cool an insect enough in the field for photography.

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I’ve had a little success with is using a larger jar, in particular one where the bottom of the lid is colored white.

When possible, I lower the main part of the jar over the insect and, as it flies up, bring the lid up to meet the jar. After that I set the whole jar down on the ground and wait for the insect to calm down and rest on the bottom of the lid. (If the insect remains agitated I remove the jar and let it go.) At that point I carefully remove the jar and start snapping photos.

Having a white underside on the lid means I can also use it as a backdrop when photographing insects or spiders on stems or I can put it under the jar to increase visibility for things like spiders and beetles that might start roaming about instead of just flying away.

A few examples:

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/22943312
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45836104
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45836111
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45937693
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/45673918

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Yeah it should be perfectly fine for the butterfly. There are “old wives tales” stating that once you touch their wings they can’t fly anymore. I have seen a good many Lepidoptera with wings as worn and tattered as anything and still they fly no problem. I guess downside is, if you hold it in the wrong place, like you said, you rub off some scales, or hide certain parts of the wing useful for identification.

I have heard of another “technique” in the field, in which you can gently squeeze the butterfly’s thorax, and apparently it temporarily paralyses them and so it gives you an opportunity to take clear photos. Then after a few minutes the butterfly will recover and fly off. Of course, applying the right amount of pressure is also important, if you squeeze too hard the butterfly will die (I just read that that method is called pinching).

Please don’t pinch the thorax or touch the legs with butterflies, it causes permanent damage to the exoskeleton even if they can “walk it off” eventually.

Grabbing the wings is fine.

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Welcome to the forum. That sounds like pretty good advice .

I’ve been involved with dragonfly photography for years. LEAVE THEM ALONE! Don’t handle them. Let them go about their business. They eventually settle down and land on a twig and most, especially the Halloween Pennants, love to be photographed. BE PATIENT! I had two Blue Dashers this week that I swear landed on a twig and posed for me. They looked right into my lens and patiently waited till I got the shot. They were great closeups! Please be patient and respect them. They will reward you, I guarantee!

This is no good for dragonflies or other large arthropods, but I highly recommend it for small insects and spiders: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000JQ5AZK It is an insect catcher with a sliding lever which you can place over a quick-moving insect on the ground or a flying insect perched on foliage or a wall. A fantastic investment! I’m even planning to buy a spare or two, in case I ever lose or break my original one. I find it particularly useful for catching and chilling small flying insects for photographs, like sweat bees, hover flies, and small wasps, which won’t normally hold still for long.

A couple of caveats:
The sliding panel has a tendency to warp a bit, so it doesn’t fit quite as well as when it was new.
The magnifying glass hasn’t been super useful for me–insects don’t usually stop in the center below it.
It’s not great for really tiny insects–they can still get out sometimes.
I don’t recommend it for hoppers unless you immediately transfer them to something softer, like a ziploc bag–they may injure themselves by bashing against the plastic. Probably true for some other taxa, too.

Here is a beewolf (wasp) I photographed this week after catching it with the bug catcher, chilling it in my fridge to make it temporarily more docile, and photographing it on a nice neutral background (a brown bowl I like to use): https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/56155752 I would have been very unlikely to get such a good photo set without the help of my bug catcher!

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Dragonflies will not always perch for photos. Darners, emeralds and other “flier” species will fly endlessly and even if you are lucky enough to see them perch they’ll often be out of reach. It’s also difficult or impossible to identify some species without looking at genitalia or other features that may not be visible from just photographing them insitu.

The most important thing to keep in mind when capturing dragonflies, especially flying ones, is not to swing the net too hard. You really don’t need to swing the net as fast as you can to catch them- you just need to move the net at the right time and position. Maybe this is a little obvious but if you try to catch dragonflies like you’re hitting a baseball you risk damaging them with the edge of the net, a mistake I regrettably made when I first began catching dragonflies as a kid and have seen other people make.

You should also avoid using a net with an overly large mesh size- if the holes are big enough for a dragonfly’s head to fit through there’s a risk of decapitation.

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