Thursday, April 11, 2013

Butterfly Spreading for Dum- Beginners!

Hey ya'll

The collecting of butterflies to be preserved as specimens has always been a very touch subject, even among lepidopterists! There are those who study butterflies who limit their observations only to live insects seen in the wild, and those who practice the added dimension of observing dead specimens in the lab. From a scientific point of view, the advantages that come from having preserved specimens far outweigh any possible moral outrage that might result from such a course of action. Dead butterflies, for one, do not flutter about so (thus damaging themselves!) meaning that they can be observed and categorized with greater depth and precision, and some butterflies are even difficult and near impossible to distinguish unless looked at under a microscope! Many skipper butterflies from the family hesperiidae are like this. Even for the average Joe collector, butterfly collecting can be a very insightful and rewarding experience! It is true that to obtain perfect specimens, butterflies do get killed in the process. But if it is any small consolation to those of you who might be sufficiently morally outraged by now: 

  1. No butterflies have ever been hunted to the brink of extinction! (You can blame deforestation and general environmental degradation for that!) 
  2. Butterflies are primarily instinctual creatures, they do not perceive emotions like pain or fear the way humans do
  3. Most collectors, experienced ones at least ,are very "humane" in their methods and either use killing jars or the refrigerator method to put the insects to "sleep" where they eventually slip away into death. 
For those of you who might be interested in collecting butterflies, however, spreading the insects can be a fairly daunting thought! Butterflies, unlike other flying insects like dragonflies, cicadas, or even grasshoppers, have very thin and fragile wings! Furthermore, the colors of butterfly wings are made out of millions upon millions of overlapping scales which rub off easily causing the butterfly to lose much of its color and grandeur! With all these difficulties in mind, I have thus decided to put together a step-by-step guide for the beginner on how to properly spread and preserve butterflies. 

Step 1:
First things first, you are going to need to pin your butterfly! It is often ideal to use entomological pins for this, but I understand that they are not always so readily accessible. I use tailor marking pins (the kind that is used to make marks on tailoring dummies) and have no problem with them except for some of the smaller specimens for which the pin may be a little too big. Anyway pins often come in various sizes anyway so you can always just adjust the size of the pins that you pick up from the store. Now, you want to put the pin as close to the center of the abdomen as possible and at a vertical angle. This is, obviously for aesthetic purposes, but also because it is arguably the strongest spot in the butterfly's body. The butterfly's body when straightened should form a 90 degree angle with the pin. Don't worry about it if you get this wrong on your first try and  I would advice removing and reinserting the pin too many times. Remember, each time you do that, the pin will leave a hole in the insect's body... too many little holes may eventually lead into some very serious, and irreversible damage to your specimen! 

Step 2:

Prepare a spreading board for the butterfly by placing two smaller boards of styrofoam on top of a larger board that will form the base. There should be a gap or a wedge between both styrofoam boards and this is where the butterfly's body will go. Make sure the boards are securely pinned down as you don't want them to shift about while the butterfly is being spread as this can cause damage to the wings, or cause unwanted changes in alignment. Once you've prepared the board sufficiently, place the butterfly's body inside the wedge, making sure the pin attached to it is securely stuck onto the main base. Make any necessary adjustments to ensure that the wings rest nicely and evenly on the boards on either side. If the butterfly's body is not secure within the groove (i.e it still moves about) you may hold it down by placing two pins on either side of it. Stick the pins on either side of the butterfly where the lower joint of the hindwing meets its body. This is the strongest spot and will prevent it from moving while you work on the wings. 

Step 3: 

The most crucial part of the process: spreading the butterfly's wings! Now as previously mentioned, butterfly wings are VERY fragile so you have to take special care not to damage them in the process. Different lepidopterists will have different methods of doing this, each involving different tools but I'm just going to tell you of the one I like the best. Using the flat end of the pin (that's the end OPPOSITE of the sharp bit), gently coax the wings into the desired position. Do this by slowly slipping the pin head underneath the upper edge of the forewing and gently tugging on the primary wing vein close to the insect's body which is the strongest structure of the wing and the least likely to tear. You may have to use your fingers, or a pair of forceps (depending on how confident you are about your control) to edge the wing into position but the same rule applies. Always work with the primary wing veins. When you have got the forewing in the desired position, gently lay down a piece of tracing paper (I use it as it is the most gentle) and pin it down around the edges of the wing. Depending on the species and the strength of the wings, you may have to use more than one or two pins. For the hindwing, slip the pin head on the lower edge of the wing, close to where the wing joint meets the body and gently push until the upper border of the hindwing rests somewhat covered by the fore wing. The goal is to ensure that the border of hindwing-forewing is set at a 90 degree angle from the butterfly's body. 

Step 4: 

Simple enough, repeat the above process for the other side. When you are done, you can place a ruler from one tip of the wing to another to see if you've got a butterfly that is "straightly" and "evenly" spread. Don't worry too much if you do not achieve this at your first try. I've got tons of botched up specimens this way and I can only say that practice makes perfect! Now is the time for the final touch ups. Using the pin heads, gently coax the antenna into desired position. You can place several more pins to keep it there, or use a separate strip of tracing paper. If the butterfly's body had contorted or moved slightly out of position during the spreading process, you may now use a pin to gently push it into position and leave the pin there until the specimen re-dries where it will stay in said position. To preserve specimens and prevent fungal growth or attack by ants/pests, I spray all butterflies with water-based insect poison. Don't be alarmed if you notice discoloration as the wings will return to normal once they have dried up.

Anyway I hope this guide has been sufficiently helpful with your butterfly collecting endeavors! I understand that other's may have different methods from mine and I daresay it's pretty much a case of whatever works best for the individual. I learnt most of what I know from more experienced friends and now really just wish t to pass this knowledge down. Just remember, practice makes perfect so do start with common, more readily accessible specimens as opposed to jumping straight into the swing of things with, say, a birdwing! 


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