Collecting Insect Specimens

To give the full story, I’ve decided to get my feet wet in the genus Steiroxys, a genus of shieldback katydids known to have many undescribed species. I’ve used iNat as a platform to view all the males of the genus to find potential species. Now here’s my inexperience kicks in, I would like to collect specimens to do one of two things:

  1. Aid a more experience entomologists in revising the genus and describing new species.
  2. So I can revise the genus and describe the new species.

However, I’ve never collected insects before but I do know parents who do with their kids so I believe it’s not that hard. I’ve heard various methods of collecting insects. Probably the biggest question for me is, what’s the most humane way of killing the insects. I’ve heard some use poison, but others freeze them in a glass jar. Any tips that can help me will do great. I suspect it will take me several years to collect all of the insects but I figure the sooner you start, the better.


Hi. I’m actually working on katydids (South American species). I don’t like to kill them, but sometimes it’s necessary to have a few dead specimens for reliable ID and possible type specimens of new species. I use a syringe to inject a little bit of acohol, through the ventral part of the abdomen toward the thorax, or through the neck membrane. Then I carefully take out the intestines through a ventral cut of the abdomen and refill the abdomen with a little bit of cotton. Then I either pin the specimen directly, or enwrap it in toilet paper (held together by a small piece of paper with collecting data and transparent adhesive tape) to dry it as rapidly as possible (in the field in a small plastic container with reusable indicator silica gel).


there are other guides from other institutions as well…

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I freeze them as almost everything else causes too much stress on them while dying, you will definitely need to cut them or they will turn brown, etc.

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Even when collecting, I never like to kill any of my insects. I think that for everything that doesn’t have large wings and is pretty hardy can be well kept in just a small container. Lepidoptera, Odonata, and large Trichoptera need mesh containers if you wish to keep them alive.

Happy Collecting

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Not to be discouraging, but just so you know, it is usually not at all a good idea for an amateur to try to do something as advanced as attempting to revise a genus and describe new species.

Even if you got to the point where you thought you had some interesting preliminary results, it is extremely difficult to write results up into a good paper – as well the lab work you would already have done, you have to do a tremendous amount of very thorough literature research before you can write such a paper. You would really need easy access to a first-rate institutional library and an institutional insect collection too.

Many reputable journals will not accept a paper unless it is fully professional. The work of an amateur likely would not get accepted because it probably would not pass peer-review.

I certainly would not start by collecting all the shieldback material that you think you might need. If I were you, I would not start to collecting the insects or even deciding on a project until you have already located an expert entomologist (who hopefully lives and works not far from where you live) and who is interested in researching something like this, either with you, or perhaps with your just collecting the material for them. If you are able to find a professional who is interested in this, they can advise you about how to collect individuals, including the best way to kill and preserve them. The material would end up being donated to the collection of the institution that the expert works at.

I am assuming that species determination would require careful dissection, preservation and possibly microphotography of the male genitalia. The fact that there are many undescribed species in this genus probably means the work is difficult, perhaps very challenging and confusing to do, even for professionals.


Depends on the group. I kill cicadas by submerging them in alcohol (95%). Kills them in about 30 seconds. Freezing doesn’t always kill things like beetles, ethyl acetate can ruin some insects (same with alcohol) and can take a long time to kill them. Some like katydids, as was mentioned, need to be gutted and stuffed. You also need to be careful to make sure nobody else is currently working on this group so you don’t repeat the work. It also can take years to collect the species of even a small group to do revisionary work. Describing new species is also far more difficult than I think you are expecting. I have been revising a big genus (57 species) for 4 years and we are still just collecting material and have only done some exploratory systematics. We finished describing one species and it took around 6 months.

I know this is discouraging, but I want to make sure you have realistic expectations. I had a similar view when I first started due to my own inexperience.

Reach out to Dr. Jeff Cole of Pasadena City College and ask his advice; he is revising Neduba and Aglaothorax and has described several katydids and is the one I’m revising Okanagana cicadas with. He might have some advice for you.


What @susanhewitt said more articulately than me. Jeff would be the contact I think.

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So- as an entomologist… I’ll add in my two cents.

There are a several amateur entomologists I can think of off the top of my head who do routinely publish, though most of them have entomological experience through schooling or work experience, and lack a professional affiliation.

It looks like you’re in the western US- there are several folks who are working on Orthopterans. I’d likely start by reaching out and seeing if anyone has an interest in the group or may already be working on it (taxonomic revisions often take years, especially if there’s not a lot of funding for the project).


Oh no I get you, not discouraging at not just more informative. I can see how a college freshman amateur like me could be discredited with any research I may obtain because that’s exactly what I am, an amateur. Though I wasn’t expecting to do this for one year, write something on it and say here you go. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I’m still working on this 10 years from now. And besides…

…that alone would probably deterred me from doing any preliminary collecting since I have necrophia (fear of touching dead things) because stuffing is a huge jump from just using a pin to a board.

So adhering from both of your comments, it sounds like the best thing to do is, if I find any individuals, just photo document well and continue doing what I have been doing (specifically, waiting for iNaters to post males and try to map potential species for an expert). And by expert, I think I should try talking to James Miskelly on what I could do to help since I know he did a little work on the genus about ten years but one year in the US doesn’t do much help in revising a complicated genus. Perhaps there’s something I can do that may aid him if he decides to dust this project.


I’d also suggest that you consider volunteering with your local natural history museum (that has an entomological collection)? You’d learn more about techniques and someone may be interested in collaboration with you long term on the project.


Also keep in mind that to revise a genus, you usually have to examine the type specimens for all the existing species. Otherwise you can’t be sure that your new species are actually new (and not an obscure species that was only described with a paragraph of text in 1902 and then forgotten about). In the process you may also discover that some existing species are synonyms or belong in other genera. It’s possible for an amateur to do all this, but it’s very challenging and your estimate of 10 years is probably about right. Susan’s advice of teaming up with a professional is probably the best route to take. Otherwise you will likely run into lots of roadblocks along the way.


Martin (1977), part 1 in the series The Insects and Arachnids of Canada is a good, all round document for collecting and preserving insects. PDF here -


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