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).