Searching For Insects


It is always fun to go out looking for different insects. The insects easily visible in our gardens and countryside represent only a fraction of the numbers there. An eye for detail and some equipment are needed to find them.

Insects are the most numerous animals found in almost all habitats. Using simple methods that are easy to make at home, you can study insects much closer without hurting them.

If you search in woods, along hedgerows, in the meadows, or in any area of wasteland, you may find butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, and many other insects. By disturbing the leaf litter on the woodland floor, you can observe other small creatures, such as woodlice, beetles, mites, and spiders, scuttling away into their dark world.

If you go out at night with a torch, you can watch many other invertebrates in their nocturnal habitats, harvestmen, ground beetles and their larvae, and night-flying moths.

These are animals you can see quite easily. Yet there are many more to discover by using simple apparatus available to the modern naturalist and by adopting a few observation methods. Although this equipment is sold in certain stores, most of it can be made at home easily.

Photo of people catching butterflies with a butterfly net

Butterfly Nets

Flying insects can be caught with a butterfly net. However, care must be taken. Butterfly Conservation, a leading education and conservation charity, do advise the following. “Butterfly Conservation believes it is acceptable to use nets to confirm identification, but nets must be used with care as they can damage butterflies. It’s best to get an experienced person to show you how to use your net skilfully if you intend to use one.”

A butterfly net is a lightweight bag made of green or black mosquito netting and is long enough to fold over on itself when the insect is caught. The net frame can be constructed of light metal and can be jointed, so it folds up. Wave the net towards the approaching insect to trap it and then fold the net over once it is caught so that it cannot escape.

If an insect settles on the ground or a bramble bush, you can catch it as it flies off in your net. Make sure to aim towards but not on top of the insect. The best weather to catch and study butterflies is warm, dry weather.

Sweep Nets

Another type of net, the sweep net, is designed to catch insects and spiders on vegetation such as long grass and beds of nettles. A strong metal frame, preferably triangular, folds up when not in use, and has a fairly short net bag of nylon or other hardwearing material.

Sweep nets are swept over the vegetation, so the insects are jarred off the plants. After six or seven sweeps, examine the contents of the bag. It may include crickets, red admiral caterpillars, and small tortoiseshell caterpillars.

Inspecting Nocturnal Insects

A pitfall trap is used for catching nocturnal ground-dwelling invertebrates. Dig a small hole and sink a jar or tin in the ground, ensuring the soil is level with the top of the jar. Place a flat slate, supported by four smaller stones, over the jar to prevent the rain from entering.

You can bait the trap with almost any food, including meat, vegetables, and bread. Once you have inspected your catches in the morning you can then release them. 

Using A Tray

If you hold a tray under a bush or tree and shake the branches or give them a few taps with a stick, you have an excellent way of looking at insects close up. The insects will fall onto the tray, and you can then observe them more closely.

Twigs, leaves, and other bits and pieces fall into the tray, which you will be able to see straight away. However, if you wait for a bit, you may notice some of the camouflaged creatures get up and walk away. Some of these will stay still for some time as they feign death to escape danger. By using your tray at different trees you will be able to compare what insects live in different trees.

Use Your Eyes And Your Hands

The best and most useful piece of equipment you have is a good pair of eyes. Lift logs and boulders and search under them, but put them back in the same position so as not to destroy the habitat. Separate the base of a tuft of grass or other vegetation to find small insects, and look for earwigs and mites in tree holes. A white plastic sheet is a good place to keep your findings while you look at them.

Scavengers such as dung beetles and burying beetles occur in some strange places. Make sure you wear gloves and protect yourself, but if you have a strong stomach, they can be found in rotting carcasses, and you can use an implement to examine cow pats.

If you dig out one of the holes marked by a small pile of earth on the sandy ground, you may find a large black dor beetle at the bottom of the burrow. The carcasses of many animals attract several large black and orange burying beetles, as well as flies whose larvae eat the rotting flesh.

Some insects are associated with specific kinds of plants. Aphids are found on rose bushes, and one species of leaf-hopper occurs on rhododendrons. It is well worthwhile searching for these if you have them in your garden.

In the same way, parasites of mammals and birds have their particular hosts. Rabbits, squirrels, and badgers have their own kind of flea, and many lice are specific to the birds on which they occur.

If you find a small mammal or bird that has recently died, use tongs to put it in a plastic bag and tie the top firmly. Although various fumigants can be used to dislodge the parasites, it is usually sufficient just to leave the contents for a while until the insects fall off to the bottom of the bag.

Using Light

Many night-flying insects are attracted by light, especially at the ultra-violet end of the spectrum. Ultraviolet torches give off ultraviolet rays that can be used to attract insects at night.

However, you can also make an effective light to attract insects. Spread a white sheet on the ground and hang it between two poles so that light cast on it from a torch is reflected. You can usually attract moths, several ichneumon flies, night-flying beetles, water beetles, and even water bugs flying from pond to pond.

Transfer the insects into a container. In the morning, the captives must be released into bushes, so the birds do not find them.

The best time to set up this trap is when flying conditions are good. A still, warm, moist evening, while a cool, moonlit, or windy evening will normally not give as many insects.

Mint beetle

Soil Dwellers

A large number of insects and their larvae live in the soil. Dig out soil samples at different depths, such as every 10cm (4in), and then place each sample in a separate bowl of cold water. Most creatures will float to the water’s surface, so pick them off with a small paint brush, taking care not to damage them.

Look carefully at the residue at the bottom of the bowl for larger insects as you pour away the water, or use a sieve to ensure you haven’t missed any smaller insects.

Small mites and springtails can usually be found in soil. The invertebrates in different soils, such as sands, clays, chalk, garden, and cultivated soils, can be compared using this method.

Do This For Conservation

There are many other ways of trapping insects and extracting them from their habitats. Remember that unless a sample is needed for serious study, the captives must be released in the same place, ensuring they are not too exposed to predators. Just catch a small number for observation and release them.

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