How to Display Insects

How to Display Insects


After insects have been properly pinned and labeled, they are kept in specially designed insect boxes constructed with soft flooring into which pins can be inserted. Pinned insects cannot be stored in good condition for long unless they are placed in boxes to protect them from dust and damage. A standard display box is 18 x 24 inches (outside measurements) and 21/2 to 3 inches deep to allow insect pins to stand upright. It is protected on top with a glass or Plexiglas top. Figure 24 shows a box that is simple and easy to make. Standard display boxes also are available from entomological supply houses, or 4-H leaders may know of local suppliers. Use caution if Styrofoam is used for the bottom of display boxes, because the protectants described below may melt this material if contacted directly.

display box

Here's how to build an insect display box at home.

  1. Cut a 1 to 4 inch board into two 24-inch pieces and two 16 1/2-inch pieces.
  2. Cut a groove for the glass on all pieces (about 1/8-inch width and 1/4-inch deep), about 1/2 inch below the top edge.
  3. Cut one 16 1/2-inch boards all the way through at the groove so the glass can slide in. Save the cut off piece of wood to secure the glass later.
  4. Screw all the pieces together to form the box sides.
  5. Attach masonite to the bottom of your box and trim if necessary. (Use nails, tacks, or screws dependent on materials chosen.)
  6. Place polyfoam or Celotex in the bottom of the box. Other materials will also work if they allow pins to be pushed easily in and they hold the pins in an upright position.
  7. Slide the glass or Plexiglas top in the grooved edge and reattach the piece you cut off (#3) to hold it in place.

Store boxes in cool dry areas to prevent mold and mildew growth. Several types of small dermestid beetles, as well as other incidental pests such as rodents, readily feed upon and damage dry insect specimens. Naphthalene flakes, crystals, or mothballs (available as insect repellents in many retail stores), can protect against insect pests if exposed inside the box. These must be carefully secured in the box or they may shift and possibly damage specimens when the box is moved. Alternatively, you may securely attach small strips or squares cut from dichlorvos-impregnated resin strips (No-pest strips, Vaponite, Vapona strips, etc.) to the inside corners of boxes to kill any insect pest present. All insecticides should be handled very carefully and only used in accordance with label directions. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates mothball use, because some ingredients in mothballs may be carcinogenic. The active ingredients are very volatile and evaporate in a short time when exposed to air. Do not dispose of any surplus where there is any chance of these materials entering surface or groundwater supplies.

Always keep the lid tightly closed to exclude other pests, as well as to increase the longevity and effectiveness of the pest-protective materials.

The most common comments and suggestions for improving insect collections as cited by entomology judges include the following:

Overall Appearance of Collection
  • Arrange specimens neatly and in an orderly way in the box. Top-to-bottom and left-to-right across the widest side of the box is best.
  • The box should be a standard size, clean, and well kept. Staining or waxing the box can improve the general appearance of the collection.
  • Group specimens under their correct order and family names. Rectangular groupings are most attractive. Line up specimens where possible. If multiples of a single species are included, always place them together.
  • Use a background color that shows off the collection nicely. White is usually the color of choice, however, light pastel shades of blue or green are also acceptable.
  • Order and family labels should be clear, neat, uniform, and attractively displayed.
Selection and Condition of Specimens
  • Wings on butterflies and moths must be properly spread. The first moths and butterflies spread usually are considered practice specimens and seldom improve the collection. With practice spreading will improve dramatically. Only display perfectly spread specimens.
  • Properly position antennae, legs, and other body parts when drying. Support the head and abdomen of large and less rigid specimens to prevent sagging. Create realistic or life-like positions of all specimens.
  • Do not display damaged or poorly mounted specimens. In most cases, it is better to display a well-mounted, ordinary specimen rather than a poorly mounted specimen, even if it is unusual.
  • Think carefully about displaying duplicate specimens. Judges look for as many varied insects as rules allow. Choose specimens from different orders, families, and species rather than multiples of the same insect.
  • Pin specimens so that insects are level, not tilted, on pins.
  • Place specimens at a uniform height on the pins.
  • Be sure to pin insects according to the pin placement guides for the various orders.
  • Make sure labels are uniform and neatly written, and contain all required data.
  • Position labels on the pins so they are level, straight, and oriented in the same direction.
  • Neatly cut all labels to a uniform size.
  • Use order labels (and family labels if required) to organize the placement of specimens within the box. These should be held by insect pins so that they lie flat against the bottom of the display box.
Specimen Identification
  • Be as accurate as possible in identifying insects. Order level is mandatory, common name and family name are required at some levels but always encouraged.
  • Do not re-label and use specimens from someone else's collection. Do not display insects purchased from supply houses. (Judges can usually detect such specimens and may disqualify the entire collection as a result.)
  • You may exhibit insects from another state only if you collect them yourself and label them correctly as to state, county, collector, and date.
  • Place insects in proper order groups.
  • Be sure that the mounting technique is appropriate for the specimen. Never pin immature insects. (Many insect collection rules stipulate adult insects only.) Use points, vials, and slides when necessary.
  • When using common names, be sure that they are "accepted common names."
  • Closely related insects (within an order) should be grouped together.
  • More precise identification (family and common names) is needed in advanced divisions.
  • Collect a variety of insects from as many different orders as possible. Do not allow one group of insects to dominate the collection and throw the variety of the specimens out of balance.
  • Specimen selection is more important in advanced collections. Selecting perfectly mounted unusual specimens is the goal.
Educational Display Boxes

Educational displays are designed to teach others something about insects. These displays use the same insect boxes as do the collections. Attractiveness, order, and accuracy are still key to making a winning display. However, much more creativity can be demonstrated in educational displays than in insect collections. Educational displays may teach nearly any subject dealing with insects and always feature real specimens as part of the box. Subjects often selected include comparisons of insect mouthparts, growth and development, camouflage, behavior, food resources, habitat, or any of a variety of other topics. Look for education box rules to determine what, if any, subject is required. Insects displayed are not held to the pinning, placement, labeling, or other rules common to collection displays. Tips for top-quality educational displays include:

  • Remember that the purpose of the educational box is to teach others.
  • Keep the message simple; do not try to teach multiple concepts with a single box.
  • Be sure the information presented is scientifically accurate.
  • Place a heading in the box that tells the viewer exactly and concisely what the display is.
  • Be sure that a "take-home message" is clear, concise, and accurate.
  • The display should tell its own story. The fewer the words the better, in most cases.
  • Appearance of, or "eye appeal" of the box is very important.
  • Displaying something you have personally seen or experiments you have conducted is usually best.
  • Try to be original within the confines of the rules.
insect sample

Specimens within an order are neatly grouped above the order label. Pinned specimens face towards the top of the box (Figure 25). Pointed specimens face to the viewer's right, but their labels are parallel to the labels of the pinned specimens. Although no specific size of the order label is mandated, most attractive labels are approximately 2 inches long and 5/16 inch wide. A series of these labels is available to cut and use in the collection here. Pin them directly to the floor of the box, and arrange all specimens representing that order in neat rows in a rectangular area above the label. (Always arrange the insects across the length of the box.)

placing insects in boxes

Figure 25

When secondary identification labels (common name, family, etc.) are used, they are smaller or a different color than order labels and also may be pinned to the floor of the box. Additional labels showing host or habitat may be placed on the pin on which the specimen is mounted, but below the primary label (see Figure 23).

Photos of actual insect display boxes are provided to illustrate what is expected in an insect collection. Objectively critiquing other displays can help improve your own. Asking for advice and tips from others who have experience in insect collecting is also valuable. Above all, remember that practice is key. As old specimens are culled and replaced with newer and better mounts, the collection will improve. The best insect displays are usually a result of several years of persistent insect collecting, practice in mounting, and attention to detail in displaying the collection.

insect display box insect sample