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  • John Boase

Setting butterflies - the basics

A packet of butterflies arrives in the post. It could be from Peru or Australia or Uganda, from a wholesaler or a local merchant, containing one or two or dozens of specimens. Wherever it comes from, it's always exciting.

You will need the following tools and equipment:

A sealable plastic box

Hypodermic needle (21G for large specimens; 22G for small)

Entomological/surgical forceps or long-nosed tweezers

Dissecting needle or a dentist's pick tool (to the right of the syringe in the photo below)

Insect pins (I prefer continental black pins with nylon heads; use size 1 or 2 for large specimens, and size 0 for small)

Pergamine setting paper

Setting board (some are v-shaped, some are flat - I prefer the flat ones. These are relatively easy to make using balsa wood for the top)

Glass head pins - a few dozen

The very best supplier I have found is Kabourek, in the Czech Republic: http://www.kabourek.cz/ - they have a great range of books and equipment.


Tools and equipment for setting the butterflies. At the top there are rolls of setting paper and insect pins. The important tools below are the hypodermic needle, dissecting needle, and entomological forceps

The butterflies are sent 'papered', meaning that they are each individually packed in a little triangular envelope. At this point they are terrifically fragile - antennae can snap off at the slightest touch.

The first thing to do is to relax them. They are placed in a plastic box with damp tissue paper on the bottom and left at room temperature for a couple of days. A drop or two of antifungal solution is quite useful at this stage. The humid conditions inside the box will gently soften the body and antennae to the point where it can be handled without too much fear of bits snapping off.


Papilio ulysses being spread on a setting board, with the relaxing box open behind it

Now that the butterflies are slightly more pliable, they need to be relaxed even further so that the wings can be spread open without cracking them at the base.


Injecting Batesia hypochlora with boiling water. You need to gently hold the butterfly by the thorax and push the needle in through the vent, then squeeze the syringe gently.

It's really important at this stage that you use boiling water - lukewarm water doesn't seem to work. Gently squeeze the water into the thorax so that at first it swells a bit, and then starts to drip out. Don't push it too hard or the butterfly will shoot off the needle and into the cup of boiling water. When this happens, the usual result is a snapped antenna or a cracked wing.

This will need two or three syringefuls of water. Check it after the first two by palpating the thorax. If the wings open up when you squeeze it, it's ready to be pinned. Don't remove the needle from the thorax when you change the water: keep the needle in place, and just refill the syringe.

Inserting the pin into the thorax: gently but firmly does it. If you are right handed, hold the butterfly between your thumb and forefinger in your left hand, wings pointing upwards (the butterfly still has its wings closed together). At this point, pinch the thorax and the wings will open slightly. With the forceps, grip a pin about midway down and then move it in between the wings. Push the pin through the thorax at the central point. It is very easy to end up pushing it through at an angle but practice makes perfect.

Gripping the pin with the forceps, push it into the central groove of the setting board, making sure that it is vertical, and release it.

Gently - every bit of this has to be done gently - insert the two strips of pergamine paper in between the wings and loosely pin them to the ends of the setting board as in the photo below.


Morpho didius being eased into position by pulling the setting paper gently flat to the board

P. ulysses with the paper stretched tight over it, holding the wings flat against the board.

At this point you can move the wings into their general position with the dissecting needle. Each wing has a series of structural veins which hold it rigid. These veins are very useful when setting the butterfly as they give a place for the dissecting needle to push against without damaging the delicate scales or ripping the fabric of the wing itself.


The intermediate stage of setting Papilio blumei. The forewing is in position, held by two pins close to - but not through - the edge of the wing. I prefer to use wider paper than this for large specimens so that I can place a pin in the indentation between the two wings.

Holding the paper flat and tight against the board, move the wings on the left hand side into the final position. It's very important to note that the pins don't go through the wings themselves, but are put in as close a possible so that they pinch the edge and hold it tight. Three or four pins is enough to hold the fore wing, and then the hind wing usually moves into position without much difficulty (graphium ssp excepted - these ones are tricky).

The wings on the right hand side can now be eased into position. I find it's best to put a gentle pressure on the paper over the fore wing on the left hand side so that it doesn't ping out of place, but you have to be careful because too much pressure can cause the scales to smudge.


Three wings of P. ulysses in place. The pin beneath the RHS forewing will now be removed, and the hind wing moved into position.

Once all the wings are in position, put in as many pins as you like around the edges. If they don't have enough holding them they will tend to slip back together.

The final stage before leaving them to dry for a few days is to set the antennae. The sooner you do this the better, because although they are the last thing to be put in place, they are the first to dry out and they can snap off very easily.

Using a pin to hold the paper slightly off the board, slide the antennae under the paper and nudge it into position. Don't use a sharp needle point to do this as it will cut the antenna in two.


Callicore cynosura (upper side and under side) and Pierella lina all set and now drying out.

One final note - when they have dried out for a few days, be careful how you remove the pins. Take the pins from the antennae first, twisting them as you pull them out so that they don't come out with a jerk, and then move on to the rest, leaving one at each end until last. You want to avoid having the paper come loose and move across the surface of the wing because it can shave off the scales and snap the antennae.


Setting paper removed!

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