Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Mounting and Naturalization of Insects for Study and Exhibition

Today, freaks & spooks, I'll show you how to prepare creepy crawlies to hang on your bedroom walls! yay!

This project is quite simple indeed; it is just a matter of relaxing, posing and mounting some bug in a shadow box. The result is beauty where you'd least expect it; mounted properly, any garden spider or dust mite can look great. It's just a matter of knowing what to do.

First of all, you need your insect. I, personnally, used a whip scorpion. A great way to get FABULOUS insects without going hunting in tropical areas is using ebay, or looking through an entomological supply shop. My whip scorpion came from ebay, and cost around 7$, shipping and taxes included. When ordering, be sure to always check if the insect specimen is in A1 condition; this means it isn't missing any part or isn't broken in any other way.

Now, I know that a whip scorpion is not an insect but an arachnid, but for the sake of simplicity and generalization, I'll call it the bug, the insect, or the specimen. please bear with me.

You have to remember here that you do NOT want soft bodied insects; caterpillars look great but they can only be preserved in liquid (ethyl alcohol or formalin).

Your insect will most probably arrive in a lil package such as this:

However, if you order a butterfly or moth, or in some cases, a dragonfly, it may come in a little glassine paper enveloppe. However, lepidopterae need to be prepared another way, thus I won't cover how to mount them today.

Usually, quality suppliers will stick the insect's data sheet to the package. This is to ensure that the specimen preserves all its scientific value, so don't lose that info; you'll need it later.

In my case, the supplier didn't identify the specimen correctly; it's not a species of stygophrynus, but rather a species of thelyphonidae.

Once you get your insect, you'll realized that it is in quite a cramped position. However, don't try to put it in a more natural pose yet; it is so brittle you'll only able to break it if you try to change its posture.

The secret to having a nicely spread specimen is to let the insect relax. Of course, for this, you'll need a relaxing chamber!

Here you can see the relaxing chamber I used. I personnally enjoy using bruschetta containers, but anything that is airtight will do. All you need to do is to cover the bottom with an absorbent material. I used paper towels. Once it is done, you need to dampen the material with a mix of water and some kind of mold inhibitor; ethyl acetate or crushed moth balls work quite well. Next, you simply plop your insect in the box, cover it with another layer of damp material, and close the box. A good idea is to put squares of paper or cardboard under and over your insect, if it has hair or scales; otherwise, it might get damaged.

All you have to do now is wait a few hours for small insects, or a few days for larger ones. If your insect is tough, like some larger coleoptera, you can use a bit of heat to speed things up. Big fat beetles can even be dropped a few seconds to a few minutes in boiling water, which would relax them almost instantly. However, more delicate insects would be destroyed if dropped in boiling water.

While your insect specimen relaxes, you should start working on the frame.

I used a small shadow box I bought at the dollar store; it's quite cheaply made, but for 1 buck, what can you expect?

Of course, plain balsa like this doesn't suit my palette much. Thus, as Voltaire (the singer, not the french genius) wrote in his book paint it black, I painted it black! with gloss black spray paint, of course.

When the frame is dry, you need to think about the backing; Since your insect will be pinned there, you need something soft but firm at the same time; something like foam!

The best you can use is the plastic foam used to hold fishing flies. However, a thin layer of styrofoam or cork will do. I used styrofoam.

Since by itself, styrofoam is quite ugly, I covered it with a nice, shiny, deep red satin.

Beautiful, gothic and functional.

Now remember when I said that the data sheet of your insect was important? now it's time to use it. Print a label with the species of the insect, the place it was collected, and the date it was collected. Of course, 2007 doesn't sound very vintage, so I changed that to 1907. The fonts I used are called Telegram and Typewriter New Roman, and are freely avaible online.

A bit of coffee later, and it looks like it's quite a few years older.

a spot of glue under the label and now and your frame's ready!

Now, wait a few hours again. You want to be sure your insect really is relaxed before starting to mount it. you'll know it is when you can freely move its legs; as if it was still fresh.

When it is relaxed, plop it on a block of styrofoam, soft balsa wood, cork or whatever you can stick a pin through.

The next thing you want to do is to pin it down. Drive the pin through the thorax, a little bit at the right from the middle. the pin must come out between two legs.

On this picture, the pin going through the thorax is hard to see, but believe me, it's there. It'll be clearer in the final pictures. As you can see, I already started to pin the legs. Don't try to make the pins go through the legs, use them simply to support the legs in the position you want. don't be afraid to use a lot; it'll keep it the way it should be while it dries.

Here it is almost fully posed. You can see how it looks much bigger and alive than before.

Here you can see more clearly how I used the pins to lift up some parts and hold down others. It is now fully posed and ready to dry.

Usually, it takes 1 or 2 days to dry fully. Once it is done, just remove all the pins, except for the pin going through the thorax of the specimen.

It should now be stiff and ready to mount!

The last step is quite simple. Just push the pin through the foam/cork you put at the bottom of the frame, hang the sucker, and you're done!

you can see the head of the pin a little more clearly here. Since it is at an angle, it looks more at the right side of the specimen than it really is.

Hope you have fun sticking pins through defenseless little critters!


Helpful links:

Spreading and mounting butterflies and beetles
Entomology and other supplies and equipment
Unmounted and mounted insects of all kinds


  1. Followed from Craftster to find this, and it's fabulous! I've always loved unusual insects and wanted to make a mounting board for them. Thank you so much for the tutorial!

  2. Excellent! Found this via craftster! I recently found a beautiful blue bee (I've been calling it my jewel bee) dead on my windowsill. As soon as I get resin supplies, I'm totally going to use your method to get it in the right position! Thank you for the tutorial!


  3. RestitutionSpork: it takes patience, but you'll see, it's quite simple! thanks!

    Kira: I never tried encasing anything in resin... now that you mention it, it might be worth a try! thanks!