society of dabblers

Natural History Art: Beetle Spreading!

One of the things I’m most excited for now that grad school is over is that I have time to dabble again. I’ve been a lifelong dabbler, always wanting to try new things and learn new skills.

Add into that the fact that a global pandemic has put a hiring freeze pretty much across the whole job market, and I suddenly have a lot of time to dabble! So I’m leaning into this and trying new things while I have the time!

I’ve always loved natural history, and having been in a biology program for the last few years, I have a newfound appreciation for field methods, as well as how they can be applied via art. Last winter, I got very interested in arthropod mounts, so I asked for a beetle spreading kit for Christmas, and last week I was finally able to try it out!

Here is everything that came in my kit: it includes 10 ethically-sourced beetles (please do some research on this if you’re going to try it at home!), taxidermy tweezers, stainless steel pins, and a “rehydration chamber” aka an airtight container.

I used a combination of insect spreading techniques from these two videos:

The beetles came dry, so the first step was rehydrating them to make them pliable. I dampened a cloth and sealed them up in the container overnight. (The bigger beetles needed to sit for 2 days, but I was able to do the smaller ones the next day!)

I started with two of the medium size beetles, cutting them out of their little packets as I was ready to work with them. For the first one (this green beetle), I decided to just see what it was like to work with an insect like this, and not to try pulling the wings out.

It turns out that spreading beetles is super easy! Once their legs and antennae are pliable, it’s pretty simple to gently pull them into place. The stainless steel pins are to hold the legs in place so that the beetle dries out again, but in a shape that looks like it’s walking.

(Ooh, action shot! Please ignore my chipped nails haha.) For the next beetle, I decided to be braver and try to spread its wings as well. This involved gently popping open the hard wing coverings and using the tweezers to carefully unfold the wings from underneath.

Beetle wings are folded up to protect them, but they are delicate and all the ones I worked with were transparent!

I carefully held the beetle’s body in place while using pins inserted at a very low angle to hold the wings open to dry without piercing the wings, and left them overnight.

This wing-spreading technique was okay with the smaller beetles, but for the bigger ones, I needed to use another tool: the clear wrapping from the packets they came in was perfect for holding wings in place so that I could pin them flat!

So there you have it! My first foray into the world of insect spreading!

I didn’t spread the wings for all of the beetles. Some of them I liked as they were, and some were so small I worried that without enough practice that I’d accidentally tear them. This is definitely something I’m glad I tried, and I would love to keep working with insects this way.

I also have some plans to turn these into art, so look for another post sometime in the future with a beetle-spreading update!