For most of the nearly 3 decades that I’ve been collecting insects, beetles have been my primary interest – first longhorned beetles, then jewel beetles, and now more recently tiger beetles (each taxon an addition, not a replacement!). During that time, I’ve learned a thing or two about the art of collecting – some of which I’ve figured out for myself, much more a result of my good fortune to have spent time in the field with the likes of Gayle Nelson, Chuck Bellamy, and a number of other learned entomologists. In view of this, I thought there might be interest in an occasional post on some aspect of my approach to collecting beetles. With that, I introduce my new series, “Beetle Collecting 101,” and since it all starts in the field, this first installment will consider my basic outfit for field collecting. Although my focus is beetles (and specific groups of beetles at that), this basic outfit is widely applicable across most insect groups. There are a number of additional items that I can and do bring into the field with me at various times depending on location and season or for specific collecting techniques (e.g., beating, blacklighting, pitfall/bait trapping, etc.) that won’t be covered here – these additional items could be covered in future posts if this post indicates sufficient interest. Other future post ideas I had include rearing, specimen processing (everything from pinning and labeling to batch processing and storage methods), and collection organization/curation. Comments and suggestions welcome.
Beetle Collecting 101: Dress for Success
Beyond the needed equipment, the primary considerations for my field outfit are lightweight, comfortable, and protective. I can spend hours away from the truck in extreme conditions or rugged terrain (or both!), so I want clothing that stays comfortable no matter how much I exert myself. It is also tempting to carry more equipment than is necessary – this only adds weight and limits the ground that can be covered.
- Insect net – duh! This is an absolute necessity for nearly all but the purely flightless species. I highly recommend an extendable net handle – I keep mine collapsed (3′ length) for normal use and extend it out to 6′ when stalking tiger beetles or other wary, flighty species. The collapsed net handle is also a good length and weight to serve as a beating stick when I am carrying a beating sheet (not shown). I use an aerial net bag, since I don’t do much sweeping anymore – match the bag to your interests. Of the three common ring diameters for aerial nets, I find the 15″ to be more effective than the 12″, while the 18″ is a little unwieldy. Green fabric is said to be not as visible to insects as white, thereby allowing closer approach before they attempt to flee, but I do not have any experience with this. I have collected quite a lot of beetles with my white net bag and appreciate the ability to see the contrast of the insect inside the bag when attempting to remove it.
- Hunting knife. If you’re interested in wood-boring beetles, you’ll want to be able to slice into dead branches suspected of harboring insects. I like the classic folding Buck Knives Ranger and attach it to the strap of my waist pack (#8) rather than my belt so that it will move with the pack when I swing the pack around backside.
- Hat. If the sun doesn’t bother you, the flies will. Wear something light and comfortable that will absorb sweat – I like my 2-decades old Mombosok for this (and because I be stylin’!), but those with greater sun sensitivity (or who live in tropical environments) might do better with a brimmed hat.
- Backpack. Before my camera carrying days, this was a Camelbak hydration pack with a good-sized but not overly large water reservoir and zippered pouches with newspaper for placing host plant samples for pressing. A backpack isn’t really necessary for short forays or mild conditions but is essential for hiking longer distances in hot/dry climates where there is real risk of dehydration. Many regard backpacks as uncomfortable; however, I find slinging water containers attached to the waist equally annoying and also cumbersome to deal with when crouching or laying. These days, however, I carry full camera gear in my backpack (camera body, multiple lenses, extension tubes, flash unit). This adds weight, but it only took a day or two during my first field trip to get used to it. I still use the camera pack for carrying water, as the front compartment has room for two water bottles or a Camelbak bladder, and my pack also contains a separate zippered compartment where I can still place plant samples for pressing.
- Lightweight t-shirt. I used to wear buttoned fishing shirts over an undershirt, thinking the undershirt would keep perspiration off my skin, while the pockets on the outer shirt would come in handy for holding small items. In reality, things fall out of the front pockets, and both under- and outer layers would become soaked with sweat. Now I wear simple 100% cotton t-shirts – artfully emblazoned with an image of Cicindela ancosisconensis by Kirk Betts at The Wild Edge (and leaving no doubt to curious onlookers as to what I am up to). I find these simple shirts to be the most comfortable in the most extreme conditions.
- Hand axe. Again, if you’re interested in beetles that live in wood, an axe will be handy for chopping into wood too large or hard to sample with a hunting knife. Smaller is better (to limit weight), and rather than using a leather holster (which will become soaked with sweat and stretched out), I simply slip the handle under the strap of my waist pack and let the head of the axe rest on the strap to hold it in place.
- GPS Unit. You do record GPS coordinates for your specimens, don’t you?! I just got a new one for my birthday (Garmin Oregon 450t) with computer download capabilities – no more manual transcribing of data! Again, I attach it to my waist pack strap rather than my belt.
- Waist pack. I use the very compact Eagle Creek Wayside, with two zippered pouches and an unzippered side pouch to hold all my vials and small tools. I’ve tried a number of different methods for holding these items – they fall out of shirt pockets whenever you bend over, are not readily accessible when in a backpack, and do not stay organized in a non-compartmented pack. I have developed a system of vials that serve as both killing bottles and storage containers (this alone could be the subject of another post) – 4-dram vials for most specimens and 8-dram for larger ones. This waist pack holds 8 small and 6 large vials in the front pouch – with the two sizes kept separate by a divider. Being able to carry numerous vials allows me to segregate insects by host plant or ecological association, and most importantly, vials in this pouch stay organized so I can easily find the proper vial when I need it. The larger rear pouch is roomy enough to hold two small olive bottles (for the occasional behemoths or blacklighting), forceps, aspirator, and miscellaneous other items – or, if I’m in the mood to collect wood for rearing (also could be the subject of another post), pruning shears, small folding saw, twine, flagging tape, and permanent marker. A small side pouch is perfect for keeping a hand lens and an eye dropper bottle of ethyl acetate killing agent at the ready. Also, the pack easily swings around to my backside when I need to crouch or lay prostrate (e.g., when photographing tiger beetles).
- Lightweight polyester/cotton outdoor pants. I’m fond of the Columbia line of products, but whatever brand you choose, make sure they are lightweight, have a relaxed fit (to allow crouching) and dry quickly (no denim jeans for me!). The last thing I want is chafing from sweat-soaked pants – yikes! (Let’s just say lesson learned the hard way).
- Hiking boots. Again, lightweight and comfortable are key, and because of the sometimes rugged terrain I traverse I like mid-ankle support so I can watch for bugs instead of constantly watching my feet. The lighter the boot, the longer you’ll be able to hike with comfort, and leather uppers will provide greater protection from thorns.
I hope you’ve found some useful tips here. If you have your own techniques or experiences with field outfits, I’d love to hear them. Also, if you have subjects that you would like covered in future issues of “Beetle Collecting 101,” please do let me know.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010