HOW TO: Pin a Butterfly

Have you ever seen a piece of art or craft that you think to yourself “I could do that!” but of course you never act on it?  Well, some people do act on that impulse and I’m going to show you how to do just that. 

Every now and then I get a phone call from someone who has a deceased butterfly and they want to spread its wings so they can put it in some sort of shadow box for decoration.  This is always a fun phone call because it’s kinda hard to explain the process of spreading a butterfly.  I usually end up inviting them up to the museum to watch me do it, but other times I just have to do my best at explaining it. 

 Papered Butterflies

Now, I do not spread butterflies at work for artsy reasons, but rather for scientific purposes.  We have a very large collection of “papered butterflies” that have not been spread yet.  (When I say “papered” I mean that they are in glassine envelopes awaiting curation, after which they will be placed in the collection – see the photo at right.)  These butterflies were collected by various individuals who never had the chance to process them –  which makes my job lots of fun because I get to do it! 

I have processed butterflies from places all over the world, Australia, India, and Peru to just name a few.  I remember spreading one that was collected in 1922.  You’re probably thinking “How can you spread the wings of a butterfly that is 86 years old?”  Well, that’s where we are going to start this butterfly-spreading lesson! 

1.  You have or have found a butterfly but it’s wings and body are hard and all dried up.  You can’t even open the wings.  This is typical, so no need to worry.  All you need to do is rehydrate the butterfly in a relaxing chamber.  If your butterfly is already flexible (you can slightly squeeze the thorax and the wings move) there is no need to relax it.

 Relaxing Chamber

2.  The relaxing chamber is very easy.  You can use any type of air tight container – I use Tupperware.  Place 3-4 damp paper towels in the bottom of the container.  This creates humidity, which will seep into the butterfly.  You also need to add a cap full of either Listerine or Pine-sol.  These act as mold inhibitors so your butterfly doesn’t get all yucky.  The last thing you need is something to prevent the butterfly from touching the paper towels.  I use wire mesh that I cut to the size of the container and put it on top of the towels.  I usually leave the butterfly in here for 2 days before I check on it. 

3. When you check on it, pick it up carefully with forceps or tweezers and hold onto the thorax.  Gently squeeze the thorax to see if it is flexible and the wings move a bit (This is very difficult to explain, so I’m sorry if it’s hard to understand – if you have any questions please comment below).  It this occurs, you are ready to start, but if not – just leave the butterfly for another day and check again.  Sometimes it takes 5 days or so, so be patient. 

4.  Now, you need a large piece of Styrofoam covered with wax or tracing paper.  While you have the wax or tracing paper out, make sure to cut strips about 3 x 1 inches to be used later. This paper prevents the scales from rubbing off of the wings. 

5. Next, you will need some type of pin to put through the thorax.  We use pins purchased from bioquip specially made for insects, but you could probably use any type of long thin straight pin.  Put the pin straight through the middle of the thorax leaving about 1/4 of the pin on top.  While pinning the butterfly, you may need to open the wings a bit.  Do this with your forceps and try your hardest not to damage the wings.

Opening the wings with forceps.
Put your pin through the thorax.

6.  This next part is different from the norm, but I think it’s so much easier.  You are going to pin your butterfly upside down, so the pin head will be going into the Styrofoam instead of the sharp end.  Spread open your butterflies wings and gently poke the pin head into the Styrofoam.  Be careful not to poke your finger on the sharp end.  Now your butterfly should be completely flat.

7.  You will need more pins to do this next part.  Place the first two pins on both sides of the abdomen, right where it meets the thorax.  This prevents the butterfly from moving around when you try to move the wings.  Next, take a pin and find a vein in one of the forewings.  Gently use the pin to move the wing so that the bottom of the wing is perpendicular with the body.  When you get the wing to the correct position, take one of the strips of paper and put over the wing and use some pins to hold it in place.  Do not poke the pins through the butterfly wing. 

8. Now you are going to move onto the hind wing.  Use one of the pins to move the wing so that the top of it just covers the forewing and use the paper again to hold it in place.  Now you can move onto the other side.  The trickiest part here is getting both sides of the butterfly to be even.  This takes practice, so don’t get frustrated. 

Halfway there!
Both wings should be even.

9.  Just a few more things and you will be finished. If the antennae are still attached to the butterfly, you can pin them into place so that they are symetrical. Remember the pins that you used a the beginning to keep the butterfly from moving?  You want to remove those and make a small teepee over the abdomen with them to prevent the abdomen from curling up. 

10.  Now you just wait!  I would wait about a week before checking things out.  When the week is over all you need to do is remove all the pins and paper, lift up the butterfly, turn it right side up and stick the pointy part of the pin in the styrofoam and VOILA!  your butterfly is ready!  Now you can put it into a shadow box or just keep it in your collection. 

I have a couple of last minute pointers before you go crazy with spreading butterflies:

- Patience is very important! 

- Butterflies are very fragile, so be extra careful. 

- If you break off an antennae or tear a wing, just glue it back on with elmers glue that has dried just a bit so it is sticky.

- if you have any questions please feel free to leave me a comment and I will do what I can to help!

I hope you enjoyed this little lesson and hopefully you will be a pro the very first time, but don’t count on it!  It does take practice, so don’t give up, keep on trying and remember to have patience!

133 thoughts on “HOW TO: Pin a Butterfly

  1. Hi Mike,

    We actually sell butterflies in our museum store! They are “upcycled” (which is to say they died naturally) and are beautifully preserved, if you would like to stop by and take a look at some of our framed specimens. I’m sure we can tell you all about the adhesive used, too!

    -Caroline

  2. I would love to stop by but I live in Montana. I was looking for a website that I could get them from that let’s them die naturally.

  3. Hey Mike,

    I spoke with our entomologist, and she says to try ebay or bioquipbugs.com. (We source our specimens from our own conservatory.) Hope that helps!

    Cheers,
    Caroline

  4. Hi Keely,

    We don’t kill the butterflies we pin, we “upcycle” the ones that die naturally in our habitat – and suggest you use butterflies that die naturally, too!

    Cheers,
    Caroline

  5. Hi,

    I’ve found a dead male Loepa sikkima specimen today outside my office. thorax still soft, wings spread, antennae attached perfectly.

    I was searching for how to preserve the butterfly/moth. Your article is exactly what I look for, thanks!

  6. Hey,
    Im Namrata from India..My aunt has preserved few dead butterflies since long… the other day while cleaning the house we found them… and i thought i could frame them.. I was not sure of how to do it and bumped into the information you have provided… I have by now understood that i have to re hydrate them before mounting… just few questions before i do anything wrong…
    I do not know how old these butterflies are.. what should be the time that they should be kept in a relaxing chamber??
    where can i get the moth crystals for the relaxing chamber??
    and I want to mount them in a double glass display box. So i shall not have a foam in the base to pin the butterfly.. What glue should be used to stick the butterfly on the glass??
    Are there any specific points to remember while im mounting the butterfly on to the glass?? eg how to make it free from other insects eating it?

    Im very new to this. Please guide me if you can..

    Thanks.

  7. Hi,

    I found a huge dead beetle outside of my work in Pasadena, TX and have no clue what it is or how it got there. I saw it yesterday and left it, but when I came back today and it was still there I just had to scoop it up. Because of this it is missing parts of its legs from ants. I would love to pin it but am a little squeamish around bugs, but it really is beautiful. Do you know someone who could do this? Or are there any resources at the museum that could help me? I am also just extremely curious about what kind of beetle this is and its history! Thanks for your help.

  8. Hi,
    ive got around 100 in a box that i bought some time ago and i still dont know how to do it. :/ i hope this would help me :) thank you very much.

  9. Hi Christine,

    The best way to pin a beetle is to find a thick butterfly/insect pin and stick it through its shell and out between its legs on its underside.

  10. thanks you very much,
    this was just what i was looking for,

    yesterday we found a Acherontia atropos, got the name from wiki ;), and we wanted to box it,

    regards from Canary Islands, Spain!

  11. If I leave the butterflies in the relaxing chamber a bit too long and a couple of them have a bit of mold on them, should I discard or will they be ok?

  12. Hi! I am a newly becoming artist, and I was wondering if there is any way of preserving a butterfly so that I could pin it onto an art canvas? In this way, there would be no form of protection or shadowbox around it, but do you know of a way that I could harden the insect so that it is still protected? Or is this unsafe for the specimen?

  13. Hi there,
    I bought a butterfly collection a couple of months ago now there are tiny little bugs having my butterflies for dinner. Any suggestions?

  14. This was SO helpful! Thank you! just one question: If I wanted to frame a butterfly to hang in my room, would I need to do anything different? That is to say, would I have to get some kind of special frame, or some kind of special acid free paper?

    Thank you so much in advance!

    Erik

  15. Hi,
    I am an entomology student at Texas A&M and I have never heard about adding pine-sol to the relaxing chamber. How much do you use, and do you add it to the water before you moisten the paper towels or after you put them in but before the butterflies?
    Thanks!

  16. I am preparing to embark on creating a scientific butterfly display. What size of pins would be the best for the pinning?

    Thank you,

    Constantine

  17. Can this same process be used for moths as well? Just making sure there isn’t anything different that needed to be done.

  18. I just found a dead butterfly in my kitchen (I have no idea how it even got in my house) but it is on it’s back wings spread open and it is beautiful and quite large I want to know what steps do I need to do so I can preserve it. I read your steps but they appeared to be for a old closed butterfly and I was wondering if there is any thing different for a fresh open one. I appreciate any help thanks!

  19. I have found a red spotted admiral in my windshield. is it ok to preserve it with the wings partly closed? can you use pillow or quilting badding instead of styrofoam> What is the purpose of the paper over the butterfly when trying to preserve it?

  20. I found a dead butterfly and was wondering if I can preserve it by keeping it in a plastic container used for sewing supplies. I don’t want to spread it’s wings or anything, I want to keep it the way it is but I don’t want it to decompose. Do I need an airtight container or will this container be okay if I put moth balls or silica gels in it? If not is there a way I can preserve it without putting it in a shadow box or frame and still keep it the way it is?

  21. I got 2 butterflies and 1 dragon fly at a lake today but don’t know how to humanly kill them. I herd that the freezer method is good, but I also have heard about a method where you dip a piece of paper in some rubbing alcohol and leave it in a jar with them. Which one is better?

  22. My daughter has one of those butterfly pavilions/gardens (net tube thing) were you watch the butterflies go through their metamorphosis. We want to fame the first group of butterflies (Painted Lady), so what do I do with the ones who have died already?
    Can they stay in the bottom of the pavilion or should I take them out?
    And if I take them out where and how do I store them (so I can pin them all at once)?

    Thank you for the info

  23. l had some butterflies l caught long long time ago. more than 4 years old.
    l don’t catch them anymore because it is so difficult to keep them from damages and discoloration. They are disappearing cause of residential developments and pollutions.
    l felt guilty about their destruction. Anyway
    is it too late to pin through their abdomen and set them on a foam board.
    though they are so fragile now, glue only tear them apart. l had made some paper
    solocup to contain them separately but is not a perfect solution. Any advice ?

  24. l’m not the web guy .But if you put the dead butterfly into a air tight plastic box without any preservation , the butterfly will be 70% safe only and still will deteriorate in time. spread butterfly is better, that way butterfly abdomen dry faster and some corpse eating micro-insects will not develop so fast and finish your butterfly abdomen in less than 1 month. yes you have to check your butterfly once a while and see any insects eating from the inside out and stop them immediately. keeping butterfly alive and dead is not easy. Enjoy

  25. I found a large moth no in the greatest form but it is still amazing to me. I actually had held it the day before and found it had died the next day. but i was just wondering, if the pin has to/should go in the thorax and if the relaxing chamber is useful for a moth too. thx.

  26. hi
    just wondering do you have to put any chemical or bug repellent in the display boxes to stop mites etc from attacking the insects

  27. I worked as a lighting designer on the Butterfly House. I remember how discouraged we were when it opened and the ventilation system caused many of the beauties to die (also the fault of the mechanical engineers I worked with).

    Since then it has enjoyed so many different people from different countries and having my name assigned to its development is so flattering!

    I wrote you regarding an unusual moth I found outside my door. I have lived her for 30 years and never have I seen one like it.

    Thanks for telling me how to keep thos treasure. (you helped through twitter)

  28. Hi there,
    I have a question about pinned butteflies. I have been gifted two frames with pinned butterflies, I’m not sure about their origin though. I would really like to know if there is any way to find out if they have been killed for this cause or died of natual death and upcycled in order to be framed, as you guys do it.
    Thanks a lot in advance!
    Clara.

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