Monday, 19 December 2011

A Boys Museum 4

A Boy's Museum Part IV. The Insect Collection.

Popular Science Department

A Department of Interest to Young and Old

Edited and Illustrated by Professor A. Hyatt Verrill

The American Boy magazine, May 1910. Digitized by Doug Frizzle December 2011.

WITH the first warm breath of spring the multitude of insects will commence to stir and soon a number of kinds will be visible to the stroller through woods and pastures. Insects of many kinds are very particular as to the season of the year when they appear and hence, to have anything like a complete collection, you must be ready to collect them at any and all times. During the early spring many beetles, wasps, bees and flies are very common, which later on in the summer will disappear entirely. Moths and butterflies, however, are few during the spring but increase in numbers with the advance of warm weather. Insects as a whole are a most important group, for among them are found some of the most injurious as well as the most beneficial of creatures.

You will be greatly surprised to find what an infinite variety of insects you can obtain, even in a small district, or in a city and the more you collect and examine them and the better you understand their odd and interesting ways, lives and habits, the more you will wonder and the more interested you will become.

For collecting insects you will require comparatively few tools or implements, and these are all easily made at home or may be bought at trifling cost.

The things required for collecting are as follows: A good insect net, a small trowel, a pair of forceps, a stout, strong-bladed knife, cyanide bottles, some empty tin boxes (old tobacco boxes are good), a tin box with perforated cover, a lot of square pieces of smooth, rather stiff paper.

The net should be of stout, thin cloth, or bobinet, and should be at least ten inches in diameter and eighteen inches deep. The hoop can be easily made of stiff iron or brass wire bent as shown in Fig. 1. The two ends A,A, should be placed in a tin or brass ferrule (which has been previously stuffed half full of sand), and melted lead poured around the ends. The bag of the net can then be sewed on to the hoop, a handle fitted to the ferrule, and all is ready. Any old garden trowel and an old jackknife will do for these tools; the cyanide bottles have been described in a previous article; the tin boxes should be of various sizes and the one with perforated cover should be quite large and roomy, as it is intended to hold live caterpillars. The square pieces of paper should be of assorted sizes and these are intended to hold freshly killed butterflies and moths. To use these papers they should be folded as shown in Fig. 2, and the butterfly placed within as in Fig. 3 and the edges folded over as in Fig. 4. The papers with contained specimens are then placed in your tin boxes and are safe until ready to mount. In addition to these, a small phial of benzine or gasolene and a small bottle of 40% alcohol (wood alcohol will do) should be carried. It is often easier to kill insects, (especially butterflies in a net), with benzine than by cyanide bottles and many kinds such as wasps, beetles, ants, etc., are more easily preserved in alcohol than any other way until needed for mounting. Formaline is better than alcohol, as the colors of the insects are not so likely to fade, but if only kept in the bottle temporarily there is little trouble on this score. It is always a good plan to carry one or two small boxes and a bottle of alcohol or formaline with you in the woods, whether hunting for insects or other things, for oftentimes one comes across rare or interesting things at most unexpected times.

In order to succeed as an insect hunter you must learn the haunts and habits of each kind of insect and must know just the likely sort of places to hunt in; the flowers and trees that the larvae or adults live on, and the localities most favored by each kind. Beetles are easy to collect as they are usually rather helpless and only a few species, such as the Tiger beetles, take flight when alarmed. Under rocks and stones, in decayed wood and under old bark and logs are the best places to hunt for the various beetles. Some species, such as the boring beetles, (Fig. 5), feed on the flowers of wayside plants, and milkweed, golden rod, asters and burdock are excellent places to collect many species of these honey-loving beetles. Others feed on decayed fruit and by placing old apples, pears, etc., in certain spots you may reap quite a harvest of beetles, flies, wasps, bees and many butterflies. The ground beetles mostly live under stones and old logs and it is really lots of fun turning over such things in the woods and finding what a variety of creatures live concealed under these objects Many beetles live in decayed, or partly dead, wood and here you can use the old knife and the trowel to great advantage. In such places you will also find many species of boring larvae and although these are very difficult to raise to maturity they should be preserved as illustrating the general appearance and habits of these creatures. If possible try to cut out a section of some old dead tree or limb that you find riddled with borers' holes. This will make an interesting exhibit in your museum and the beetles and larvae (after preparation and mounting) should be placed in their natural attitudes and positions in the wood. Formerly the large museums avoided all natural styles of mounting and preparation but nowadays they strive to make their birds, animals, insects, etc., look as natural as possible and instead of mounting them singly on stiff, painted stands, they are mounted in groups among all their natural surroundings and accessories. It is, therefore, a good plan to make notes of the surroundings and situations where the specimen is obtained so that later on you can duplicate it as nearly as possible in your museum.

Although most insects, with the exception of wasps and bees, are harmless, it is always a good plan to handle any doubtful thing with forceps; moreover, by doing this they are less likely to be injured or broken.

Many fine, rare specimens of beetles, wasps and flies may also be obtained by "sugaring." This is done in two ways. One is to make a thick, syrup-like mixture of sugar, molasses, vinegar and water and paint it on tree trunks in woods and orchards. The other method is to use a thinner mixture and hang bottles and jars half-filled with the mixture in various places in the woods. By visiting the coated trees at night with a lantern a great number of fine things may be obtained and many night-flying moths are only secured in this way. The jars will catch many beetles, wasps, flies, etc., but moths that get in them are usually ruined. All specimens caught in the jars should be thoroughly cleaned in fresh water before mounting or drying. Of course in the case of the sugared trees a net must be used to catch the insects hovering about. By placing a bright light in the woods many insects will be attracted and can be readily captured, while a bright light in an open window will attract great numbers of insects on summer nights. Another good place to get beetle specimens is on the shores of the sea or large lakes. Many species fly out over the water until through fatigue they drop down and are drowned and are subsequently washed up among the flotsam and jetsam of the shores. I have taken many rare beetles in this way that I have never obtained elsewhere. Butterflies are found mainly in open fields and pastures and about flowers, but many kinds always hover over mud puddles or swamps, while other kinds are easily attracted to within reach by rotting fruit or decaying meat. Butterflies should be caught by the net and although this sounds easy you will be surprised to find how often you miss one. Approach carefully, make a quick, sharp side sweep with the net and at once turn the handle sharply so as to fold the bag of the net on itself, thus imprisoning the butterfly. The net should then be gathered carefully up and the butterfly grasped firmly between the thumb and finger. A slight pressure on the body at base of wings will render him unconscious and he can then be removed from the net and either dropped in a cyanide bottle or killed with a drop of benzine. It is often a good plan to kill with benzine before removing him from the net. No matter which method you follow, the specimen should be at once placed in the folded paper with wings folded carefully and you should be very particular to see that there are no folds or creases in the wings when placing him in the paper.

Caterpillars are a very important thing to look for and collect, for by rearing these you may secure absolutely perfect specimens of many moths and butterflies that are difficult to obtain in any other way. When a caterpillar is secured he should be placed in the perforated-covered box with some of the leaves of the plant on which he was found. When you get home the leaves should be placed in a bottle of water, paper or cotton stuffed in around the stems, and the whole placed in a breeding cage with the caterpillar. The breeding cage may be merely a box with thin cloth or wire netting cover or it may be made quite elaborate with growing plants, earth floor, etc. For single caterpillars a flower pot covered with a wire fly cover,—such as is used for covering cake,—may be used. If you are keeping a number of caterpillars together you should have the leaves that each feeds on in the cage and these leaves should be changed daily. You will find that a healthy caterpillar devours an immense amount of foliage but you should aim to always keep enough on hand to satisfy their appetites with some to spare and all dead or wilted leaves should be thrown away each day. Give the larvae plenty of fresh air, light and food and provide a pot or box of earth if they are of the kind which pupates in the ground. Handle your larvae as little as possible and after the pupae, or cocoons, are made do not disturb them in any way until they hatch out. The moths or butterflies will be very soft and juicy when they first come out, but you should wait until they are fully expanded and dry before killing and preserving them. Moths should be taken out and killed in the daytime and butterflies at night, for at these times each is sluggish and inclined to rest quietly.

In preparing your specimens you will require a few tools and other appliances, but all are cheap or easily made. Insect pins of several sizes are important, but as these cost only a few cents for a paper of one thousand, the item is small. Mounting boards are also very essential and these should be made as shown in Fig. 6. If you can not obtain sheet cork you can use pieces cut from old bottle corks or a strip of corrugated pasteboard, such as is used for mailing pictures. The mounting boards should be of several widths to accommodate insects of all sizes. In preparing beetles, moths, butterflies and other hard-bodied insects these are all that is required except some long slender needles mounted in sticks for handles, a few bits of smooth, thin cardboard,—old visiting cards are good,—and your forceps. For preparing caterpillars you will need an oven, a pair of fine scissors and some straws. The oven (illustrated in Fig. 7) is easily made from tin, but joints should not be soldered as they will soon melt apart when in use. To prepare a moth or butterfly, hold the specimen firmly by the sides of body, press a pin down through the thorax (the hardest part of body back of head to which wings are attached) allowing a little over one-half of pin to project below the body. Pin the insect in the groove of a mounting board so that top of body is level with the two sides. Then with a needle point press the wings down on the board, spread them into a natural position and pin them temporarily with fine pins inserted close to, or through, the large vein or rib at edge of wing. Proceed in the same way with the wings on the other side and be sure that the wings are exactly even and spread alike on both sides. Now take some strips of cardboard a little longer than wings are wide and lay them carefully across wings as In Fig. 8. Pin these down outside of edges of wings with common pins. Lift up and spread the antennae or feelers and secure them with another strip of card and if possible lift and spread at least one pair of the legs. Your specimen should now be set away in a safe place to dry. If the insect has been kept some time after killing he will be quite dry and stiff and must be softened before mounting. To do this a box of wet sand or sawdust to which a few drops of oil of cloves or formaline has been added should be ready. Place a sheet of clean paper over the sand or sawdust and place your dry insects on this. Cover them tightly and in a few hours you will find they are soft enough to mount. Wasps, bees and flies are mounted in the same way as the moths and butterflies but beetles,—if to be mounted in boxes merely as specimens,—should be pinned through one side of the body back of the thorax, Fig. 9). If they are to be mounted in groups or in natural attitudes, the pins should be placed along the sides and should not be run through the specimen at all. Beetles do not require a mounting board for wings, but the legs should be spread in a lifelike position. In preparing caterpillars quite a little skill and practice are required. Place your specimen on a piece of clean blotting paper, make a small incision between the two hind legs with the scissors (Fig. 10), and then with another blotter press firmly on the caterpillar, working from head backwards until all the contents of body are expelled. The oven should now be placed on a small stove or over a lamp until quite hot. Now place a straw in the incision in your caterpillar and blow gently until the body fills out plump and naturally. Now place the caterpillar within the oven through the round opening and blow gently and turn about until he becomes perfectly dry and stiff, watching the process through the glass top. He should then be placed on soft cotton in a safe spot for future use.

In placing your specimens on exhibition you can use a number of different methods. Moths, butterflies, beetles, etc., may be merely pinned in trays or glass-covered boxes with cork bottoms and each specimen numbered and labeled on a slip through which pin is passed, or they may be arranged in independent glass-covered mounts either in a plain, mounted position or arranged with dried and pressed flowers and leaves, Fig. 11. This style of mounting may also be used to good advantage with the dried larvae and very attractive mounts may be made by mounting the adult insect, the larvae and the pupa together in a glass-covered box with leaves and flowers. The best mounts for this purpose are known as the "Riker Mounts" and are very cheap, but they can be made by any boy with some old pasteboard boxes, some soft, smooth cotton and some old glass. The box is filled with layers of smooth cotton, the specimen laid carefully on it and the glass cover pressed firmly down over all and fastened in place by gummed strips of paper around the edges. This method prevents ravages of moths, allows the specimens to be examined carefully and freely handled and keeps them free from dust or injury. Oftentimes a moth or butterfly exhibits very different appearances on the upper and lower sides of wings and in such cases it is well to mount two specimens together,—one right side and the other wrong side up as shown in Fig. 12.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.