Setting Lepidoptera

Setting Lepidoptera

This method of preservation offers a unique and valuable work for study, reference and genetics which is unavailable by any other means. The main thing to remember is to check that the specimen you wish to obtain is NOT on the CITES list of endangered and controlled species OR is protected by UK Law. The onus is upon the collector to be sure your collection is with-in the law. The collector should show balance and soundness of mind only taking limited examples, aberrations etc…with the aim of furthering our knowledge of lepidoptera. These types of collections are NOT made obsolete by modern identifying field techniques or the Camera. Rather they form an important part of Natural History and archives for future generations.

Firstly if you are using a freshly deceased imago (adult moth/butterfly) then the body parts will still be supple and easy to move. If you are using a dried (papered) imago then the following process will be required. We will presume the imago is dried so that the whole sequence of setting can be highlighted. We suggest practicing on common species to master the technique before trying it on an expensive or rare specimen!

DRIED or PAPERED specimens need to be RELAXED. That is re hydrating with moisture so that the delicate wings and antenna can be easily moved into the setting position without damage. To RELAX a dried imago follow these steps.

1) Fill a dish with boiling water. Carefully hold the imago by the abdomen and dip the antennae into the water for a few seconds being careful not to wet the wings.
2) Using a small syringe inject boiling hot water into the thorax near to the wing joints. As you inject water the muscles and veins will fill and start to relax the wings. Water will drip from cavities in the thorax or even “squirt” out. When this occurs you will have used the correct amount of water. You do not want to use too much as this can damage the specimen.
3) Place the injected specimen onto a paper towel to absorb excess water.
4) Prepare a plastic container with a base of cotton wool (or paper towels) soaked in boiling hot water (Relaxing fluids can be purchased but hot water is just as good!) On top of the cotton wool use paper towels to reduce excess water then place you specimen on the paper towel. I personally try to avoid laying the specimen on its side. Rather I prop it upright against the side of the container or with pins. A polystyrene setting board offers a useful base lifting the specimen off the water surface. Put the lid on the container and leave. Some people put a bowl of boiling hot water under the plastic box to increase the humidity or place on a radiator. However be careful as too much “Wet” will damage the specimen.
5) After an hour or two (depending on the size of the specimen) remove the specimen from the box and lay on a dry paper towel. At this point take the blunt end of a pair of tweezers and gently press on the thorax where the wings join. You will feel and hear the joints crush. Now repeat on the opposite side of the thorax. This technique will help release the muscles that are naturally preventing the specimen from opening its wings. Another technique is to hold the wings and force them back beyond the natural point of resistance. Again the result is the snapping of muscle and the release of the wings. If possible use this as a last resort as it is easy to damage the delicate colours on the wings.
6) Now take the specimen by the thorax with finger and thumb or in a pair of tweezers. Squeeze gently and the wings will begin to open.
7) Now carefully manipulate the wings open. The idea is to free-up the wings making them supple.
8) When you are happy with wings push a pin through the thorax. Make sure the pin is central and straight, entering in the middle from the top and exiting through the middle of the underside between the legs.
9) Push the Pinned specimen into the setting board so that the wings are level with the board. You can buy cork style boards or we offer lightweight polystyrene alternatives, or you can make your own!
10) Now put a pin either side of the abdomen and get the specimen central.
11) Place thin strips of paper over the wings to hold them down allowing space to use the setting needle.
12) Now start on one side of the specimen. Using a setting needle (I have heard stamp collecting tweezers work well) carefully move the forewing forward. Try not to puncture the wings. Use the main vein at the top of the wing to lever the wing forward as this is the strongest point. The trailing wing edge should be approximately horizontal with the thorax. To hold the forewing in place press down on the strip of paper. Then use unwaxed (tracing) paper to cover the whole forewing and pin enough to prevent movement.
13) Now carefully move the hindwing into position slipping it under the forewing until the colours match up. Now pin the hindwing and secure the forewing.
14) Repeat this on the other side! Make sure both sides match up so the specimen looks right for the collection.
15) Now align the antenna. In moths the first two legs are also brought forward under the antenna.
16) Lastly check the abdomen. It is worth supporting and aligning the abdomen with pins to stop it dropping or moving during the drying process.
15) You may well come up with your own methods of setting but the above is standard procedure. Each specimen can offer its own challenges depending on its size or how it has been papered.
16) Now move the specimen to a dry warm place (some use a drying cupboard) Make sure the area is free of ants and other insects that may attempt to “eat” your specimen. It only takes a short time for a specimen to be destroyed. Keep an eye out for mites and if possible use crystals (moth balls) to detour these pests.
17) Leave to dry. The drying time varying depending on temperature and specimen size. Under the correct conditions (drying cupboard) butterflies can be dry in 48 hours, while in room temperature it could take a week or more. Larger specimens such as silkmoths can take longer. Also fresh killed specimens will take longer as they are full of body fluids.
18) Once happy with the dried specimen carefully remove pins and lift the paper. Be careful of antenna as these easily snap off.
19) Prepare a label for the specimen giving the following data. a) locational data with OS ref. if possible b) Date of capture or when bred day/month/year c) name of collector d) Latin name of specimen. The most important reference is the locational data as this helps with future reference works such as type specimen locational data.
20) Now add you specimen to your collection. House in a cabinet or storage box out of direct sunlight with plenty of moth balls!

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DOES THIS ALL SOUND LIKE TO MUCH TROUBLE? Why not buy ready set specimens? Visit Mr. Paul Holt’s store on eBay. Or email with your setting requirements. We are happy to offer quotes for bespoke setting. Perhaps you have boxes full of dried material that you just cannot get round to preparing? We can help. Please contact: or call direct on +44 (0) 1529 421389.