12 Must Have Tools for Studying Live Insects

What You Need to Collect Live Bugs

Insects are everywhere, if you know where to search and how to catch them. These "must have" tools are easy to use and most can be made with household materials. Fill your entomology toolbox with the right nets and traps to explore insect diversity in your own backyard.

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Aerial Net

Boy with a butterfly net.
Use an aerial net to catch flying insects in midair. Getty Images/Mint Images RF/Mint Images

Also called a butterfly net, the aerial net catches flying insects. The circular wire frame holds a funnel of light netting, helping you safely ensnare butterflies and other fragile-winged insects.

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Sweep Net

Children with sweep nets.
Use sweep nets to collect insects from vegetation. Bridgette Flanders-Wanner USFWS Mountain-Prairie (CC license)
The sweep net is a sturdier version of the aerial net and can withstand contact with twigs and thorns. Use a sweep net to catch insects perched on leaves and small branches. For studies of meadow insects, a sweep net is a must.
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Aquatic Net

Aquatic insect net and tray.
Aquatic insects can tell you how healthy a stream or pond is. Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley/Will Heap

Water striders, backswimmers, and other aquatic invertebrates are fun to study, and important indicators of water health. To catch them, you will need an aquatic net with heavier mesh instead of light netting.

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Light Trap

Anyone who has watched moths fluttering around a porch light will understand why a light trap is a useful tool. The light trap has three parts: a light source, a funnel, and a bucket or container. The funnel rests on the bucket rim and the light is suspended above it. Insects attracted to light will fly to the light bulb, fall into the funnel, and then drop into the bucket.

A black light trap also attracts insects at night. A white sheet is stretched on a frame so it spreads behind and below the black light. The light is mounted in the center of the sheet. The large surface area of the sheet gathers insects that are attracted to the light. These live insects are removed by hand before morning. More »
Pitfall trap with beetles.
Use a pitfall trap to collect ground dwelling insects. Flickr user Cyndy Sims Parr (CC by SA license)

Just as the name implies, the insect falls into a pit, a container that is buried in the soil. The pitfall trap catches ground dwelling insects. It consists of a can placed so the lip is level with the soil surface, and a cover board that is raised slightly above the container. Arthropods seeking a dark, moist place will walk under the cover board and drop into the can. More »

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Berlese Funnel

Many small insects make their homes in the leaf litter, and the Berlese funnel is the perfect tool to collect them. A large funnel is placed on the mouth of a jar, with a light suspended above it. The leaf litter is put in the funnel. As insects move away from the heat and light, they crawl down through the funnel and into the collecting jar.
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Insect aspirators.
Insect aspirators (or "pooters") filled with insects. Gary L. Piper, Washington State University, Bugwood.org
Small insects, or insects in hard to reach places, can be collected using an aspirator. The aspirator is a vial with two pieces of tubing, one with a fine screen material over it. By sucking on one tube, you draw the insect into the vial through the other. The screen prevents the insect (or anything else unpleasant) from getting drawn into your mouth.
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Beating Sheet

People observing insects on a beating sheet.
A beating sheet is used to dislodge insects on vegetation. Flickr user danielle peña (CC by SA license)

To study insects that live on branches and leaves, like caterpillars, a beating sheet is the tool to use. Stretch a white or light-colored sheet below the tree branches. With a pole or stick, beat the branches above. Insects feeding on the foliage and twigs will fall down onto the sheet, where they can be collected.

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Hand Lens

Child watching insect with hand lens.
Small insects require big magnifiers. Getty Images/Stone/Tom Merton
Without a good quality hand lens, you can't see the anatomical details of small insects. Use at least a 10x magnifier. A 20x or 30x jewelry loupe is even better.
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Use a pair of forceps or long tweezers to handle the insects you collect. Some insects sting or pinch, so it is safer to use forceps to hold them. Small insects can be hard to pick up with your fingers. Always grasp an insect gently on a soft area of its body, like the abdomen, so it is not harmed.
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Once you have collected some live insects, you will need a place to keep them for observation. A plastic critter keeper from the local pet store may work for larger insects that cannot fit through the air slots. For most insects, any container with small air holes will work. You can recycle margarine tubs or deli containers – just punch a few holes in the lids. Put a slightly damp paper towel in the container so the insect has moisture and cover.