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How to Preserve Your Cicadas - Pinning

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How to Preserve Your Cicadas - Pinning

Cicada spreading board

Why its so Important to Keep Good Insect Collecting Data.

When collecting cicadas or any other insect for that matter, it is very important not to just go out willy-nilly trying to gather up all the cicadas you can find, run a pin through them and stick them in a shadow box or specimen drawer only to be forgotten about.

When you want to view them or study them at a later date, chances are you'll have forgotten vital information that will help you appreciate a particular specimen better. Not only that but there is an opportunity here for others to benefit from your work long after you're gone.

Whether your insect collection is passed down to a family member or donated to a college or university or museum, the data that goes along with the specimen is equally, if not more important than the specimen itself. In my opinion without the data to go along with the specimen, the specimen may look pretty or cool but it is really of no use to anyone.

I like to use this analogy: Would I want to be buried in an unmarked grave forever forgotten about without a headstone or grave marker to mark who I was? Nah, that's not for me. I know it may sound grim but history is very important. I would like other people to know who I was, when I was born, when I died, what I did when I was alive, whether I was a good father, husband, brother etc.

So it is very important when collecting that you do it in a responsible, methodical and scientific manner for others to appreciate and learn from. Don't go around trying to catch every single cicada you can find. Leave some for nature.

You should also label the specimens you do collect by noting the who, what, where, when and how.

To that end, below is a detailed method describing what I do with the cicada specimens that I collect when I'm out-and-about.

First Assess the Situation.

These steps are good not only for collecting cicadas but for other insects as well. Before you start, ask yourself these questions:

Do you have the tools necessary to collect specimens, collect data, label your specimens and preserve them? Below is a list of items you will need in order to make collecting easy and not too time-consuming.

NotepadA Notebook - As described on the How To Catch Cicadas page, I mention one of the items should be a notebook. A small notebook is handy to write down all the important data for labeling your specimens.

Label Making Software - If you have Microsoft word, there is a very cool program that runs as a macro. It is absolutely free which will allow you to make insect labels. You can download the macro here for free. It is very versatile and easy to use.

Insect PinsInsect Pins - for pinning your specimens. I have recently found through Bioquip a black enamel-coated pin with a gold-painted pin head known as pin #4 that I use. They start at $4.20 for a pack of 100 but get cheaper the more you buy. I bought a thousand of them and it cost $45.50 with the shipping. This is enough pins to last for several years. Note: the pin size I recommend above is for large sized insects. You may want to go with a smaller diameter pin for smaller insects. Your price will change accordingly.

Spreading Board DiagramA Spreading Board - This is not as difficult as it may seem to construct. I have had much success in making my own spreading board out of styrofoam that is at least 1 and 1/8 inches thick and roughly 18" inches square. You can lay out your styrofoam to accommodate as many cicada specimens that you like. You can get styrofoam like this at any craft store like Michael's. They are pretty much located everywhere in the eastern part of the US. I'm not sure about out west. Try to use the store locator when accessing their web site. There are two options for making a spreading board:

Option 1: Using an Exacto blade, cut a series of oval holes in a staggered formation approximately 2.5 inches long (for larger cicadas) or 1.5 inches long for smaller cicadas. Make the holes 3/8 to 1/2 of an inch deep depending on the size of your cicada. The staggering allows you to to spread a cicadas wings fully without overlapping the cicada next to it.

Option 2: Using an Exacto blade, cut long channels in the styrofoam board about 3/4 to 1 inch wide and about 1.5 inches apart. This way, all you do is line up one cicada in front of the other while pinning. Then in the second channel flip the cicadas in this column facing the other way.

Click the thumbnail above and to the left to see a diagram of what I'm talking about. I hope it makes sense. Last year, I bought a giant piece of styrofoam approximately 18 inches by 36 inches and had somewhere between 60 and 80 cicadas pinned on this board. Now that was a project!! What's great about using styrofoam is that you can reuse it again and again.

Wing Anchors - Again, this isn't as hard as it sounds. Basically these wing anchors can be a piece of cardboard or styrofoam cut into strips and roughly 1.5 to 2 inches in length. They are used to hold the wings of your cicadas in position when spreading. You can even write on them (with a number or other identifying feature) in order to keep track of different cicadas so that later you can add the proper label.

So, at the very minimum the above is what you would need in order to do a proper job of preserving your cicada specimens for all time.

Know Your Cicada Anatomy

Before we get started, it is important for you to know what I'm talking about when I mention things like "pronotum", "mesonotum", "costal margin" and other parts of a cicada. There is a good online resource that I would recommend you have a look at to familiarize yourself with the different parts of a cicada's anatomy. The page is in the links section to the left of this web page called "Anatomy Of A Cicada" it was put together by Professor Richard Fox of Lander University and is filled with diagrams of the different cicada parts. Click here to view the information.

Parts of a CicadaOf course though, for our purposes you won't need to know the names of every single part of a cicada that Prof. Fox mentions. However, if you click the thumbnail to the left, there is a large image that you can minimize and use as a reference so that you can understand the different parts of a cicada that I talk about in the below text.

When To Pin Your Cicadas - Start With a Fresh (Soft) Cicada

Start with a fresh cicada for pinning.I am going to skip over the sections about different methods used to kill insects. There are a number of methods. Whether you inject them with an ethanol/water mixture or put them in a killing jar, freeze them or let them live out their lives first. Whatever methods you use, the important thing is to start with a recently deceased specimen. This means a cicada that is less than a few hours old after death.

This method won't work on cicadas that have been lying around dead for over 24 hours. They become hard and brittle and things like legs and wings can break off quite easily.

There are methods to re-soften cicadas that have been dead for a while and when I get some more free time, I will insert Softening Methods and Killing Methods at a later date.

Before I pin my cicadas, I usually let them live out their lives after capture in mesh bags over branches in my yard. In this way sometimes I can observe their behavior and maybe on those rare occasions coax a male into calling. So I usually don't kill them. However, this means that every day, several times a day, I check up on them to make sure that they are either still alive or to remove the dead ones.

Step 1 - Where To Put The Pin

Determine where to put the pinPlacing the pin is very important. For most hard-bodied insects like cicadas, the pin is usually placed to the right of the midline in the thorax. For cicadas we will place the pin in the part of the thorax known as the "mesonotum". The mesonotum is just behind the pronotal collar. Check your reference image. Click the thumbnail to the left to see the exact spot that we will be placing the pin in our example T. lyricen cicada.

Step 2 - Breaking through the Dorsal Surface

Gently touch the mesonotum.Make sure pin is perpendicular.For this exercise, I am using a Tibicen lyricen cicada that has been stung by a female cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) and is paralyzed. You can't get any fresher than that. Hold the cicada in your left hand with thumb and forefinger and just touch the spot where you want to push the pin through. (Left thumbnail) Make sure the pin is exactly perpendicular (90 degrees) to the cicada. (Right thumbnail) With steady pressure, pierce the mesonotum and push the pin in but don't break through to the other side!! When you feel resistance just stop for now.

Step 3 - Breaking Through the Ventral Surface

Making sure pin is straight on the X axis Making sure the cicada is straigh on the Y AxisBefore pushing it completely through, make sure that your cicada is straight on the pin in at least 2 axes. Turn the cicada so that the front of the head is facing you (Left thumbnail). Is the pin straight? If not make sure it is. Now turn the cicada so that you are looking at it's profile (Right thumbnail). Is the pin straight again? If it isn't now is the time to adjust it. When you are sure that the pin is straight in those two axes, then push the pin all the way through.

Cicada is pinned straight X AxisCicada is pinned straight Y AxisIf you did a proper job, you should be able to draw an imaginary set of lines in the shape of a cross with your cicada being the vertical straight line and your pin being the horizontal straight line. To see what I mean click the thumbnails to the left and right. If it isn't straight you can always back out of the ventral surface and pierce the cicada again. This will take practice to get the pin straight but eventually you will become a pro at pinning your cicadas.

Slowly insert the pin so that only about a quarter of an inch is sticking out of the top dorsal surface of the cicada. This is enough of a length to allow you to grasp the pin and to handle the specimen without damaging it while at the same time leaving enough room to add your labels underneath the cicada specimen.

Technically, your specimen is now ready for labeling. That is, if you don't want to spread your specimen's wings on the spreading board. You can now leave it to dry for about five days.

So you can skip the next section and and click here to find out about labeling your insect specimens.

For those of you who want to learn to spread the specimen's wings, read on.

Step 4 - Placing the Cicada on a Spreading Board.

Now that our cicada is straight on its pin, it is time to spread its wings. As mentioned above there are two options I use for making my spreading board. Either cut out ovals or cut out channels in styrofoam using an Exacto blade. In this example we will be using the ovals because I am just using one of the boards I have had for many years and it has ovals in them.

Insert Pinned Cicada Into StyrofoamProperly pinned CicadaPin the cicada inside the oval cut out making sure that the legs do not catch on anything and are hanging freely. Insert the pin into the styrofoam so that it is secure enough to hold the cicada perpendicular to the styrofoam and that the wing hinges are just above the top surface of the styrofoam spreading board. Click the thumbnail to the right.

Step 5 - Insert a "No Spin" Pin.

Insert A No Spin PinPosition of No Spin PinSometimes when you begin to spread a pinned cicada's wings, the cicada will have a tendancy to spin on the pin. You really want to prevent this from happening because it will be more difficult to line up the wings properly with the end result that the wings will be spread on a crooked body. I avoid this by placing an extra pin on the left side of the abdomen just above the anus like around the 6th or 7th tergite and running along the underside of both the fore and hind wings.

With the abdomen pointing towards you and the body straight in the oval cavity, insert the extra pin making sure the pin is touching the abdomen. Make sure it is secure.

Step 6 - Spreading the Left Forewing.

Spread forewing of the cicada using a sharp tool.Taking yet another pin or better yet, a toothpick, place it under the left forewing and with your right hand, spread the wing. Be very careful when using another pin that you do not pierce the fine membranes of the wing. Use the pin-head end of a pin if you are just starting out or a toothpick with a blunt tip. Move the wing by placing your tool against the front costal margin of the forewing and gently spread the forewing so that the wing tip is above the cicada's head. Make sure the wing is flat against the top surface of your spreading board. Don't worry, the "no spin" pin will prevent the cicada from rotating.

Step 7 - Spreading the Left Hind wing.

Use a sharp tool to move the cicadas hind wing.Once you have the left forewing in the proper position, hold it in place with your left index finger. (Left thumbnail) Taking your pin again, move the Hind wing by placing your tool against the front costal margin of it and move it so that it butts up against the back of the forewing.

Step 8 - Lock Wings Together.

Wingfold diagramForerwing and Hindwing locked together.As indicated by the diagram to the left. There are a series of folds located on the posterior (back) edge of the front forewing and also on the anterior (front) edge of the hind wing. These folds actually "lock" together to form one unified wing when the cicada is in flight. Gently move the front forewing over the hind wing to engage the locking mechanism.

Move wings backwards and forwards to test lock.When you think you have it right, move the forewing with your index finger backwards and forwards. The left hind wing should also move in unison indicating a good lock. Reposition the wings so that again, the wing tip of the front forewing is positioned above the cicada's head and the hind wing is sufficiently spread.

Step 9 - Anchor the Wings In Position

Hold wing and anchor with your left hand.Place pins in the proper position.Now that you have both wings in the right position, it's now time to use your wing anchors to hold the wings in the proper position. Make sure you like where the wings are because once the cicada dries they will be stuck in this position for all time. (Unless of course you re-soften the cicada. Holding the wings in position with your left hand, take your right hand and lay a wing anchor over both wings roughly 1/4 of an inch away from the cicada's body. Then with the index finger of your left hand hold the wing anchor and the wings in position using gentle pressure. Then with your right hand place a pin both anterior and posterior ends of the wing anchor. Note: Be careful to not pierce the wing membranes!!

Step 10 - Spreading the Right Forewing.

You basically repeat steps 6 through 8 above for the right forewing and hind wing. Make sure that the left and right forewing tips are even and that the right forewing and right hind wing lock together and move in unison as indicated by the set of images below.

Step 11 - Anchor Right Wings in Position.

Set pins in right wing anchor.This part can be a little tricky as indicated by the image. Holding the right forewing and hind wing in position with your right hand, take your left hand and put a wing anchor over both wings roughly 1/4 of an inch away from the cicada's body. Then with the index finger of your right hand hold the wing anchor and the wings in position using gentle pressure. Then with your left hand place a pin at both anterior and posterior ends of the wing anchor. Note: Be careful to not pierce the wing cell membranes!!

Step 12 - Remove "No spin" Pin.

Remove no spin pin.The completed specimen.Now you're done!! When you are satisfied that the wings on both sides of the cicada look even, the last thing you should do is remove the "no spin" pin. Now the cicada must be left to dry for 5 to 7 days. Make sure it is in a dry place with very little humidity. We don't want the chance for mold to set in as that will ruin all of our work. A good place to let them dry is on top of the refrigerator. The warm dry air from the blower from the refrigerator will help speed the cicada in drying and keep mold spores away.

If you have questions or concerns regarding pinning your insects, feel free to ask in the comments below.

Date Posted: 2010-06-01 Comments: (44) Show CommentsHide Comments


Posted By: William Payne | On: 2011-07-31 | Website:

Thank you for the most informative and interesting "how to" I have yet to read on the web! Well done!

Posted By: Massachusetts Cicadas | On: 2011-07-31 | Website:

Hi William,

Glad you liked the article. There are a number of different methods to pinning large insects. I find that this method works for me.

Posted By: Jimmy Wu | On: 2012-06-24 | Website:

Another thing to add might be to say that if you want to save space,,,you can pin the cicada as it is without spreading its wings.

Posted By: Massachusetts Cicadas | On: 2012-06-24 | Website:

Hi Jimmy,

Actually it does say that. If you read the article it says you can skip the spreading of the wings step and just go to the labeling article for labeling. I have updated the article and provided a link to the labeling article.


Posted By: Jimmy Wu | On: 2012-06-24 | Website:

Oh sorry...I haven't read this article in over a I just wanted to bring it up when I saw it.

Posted By: Melissa Harris | On: 2013-06-07 | Website:

I just pinned a brood II cicada. I am up to the drying process and I have a concern. Today it is a bit humid and I live in an area that is very humid (Staten Island, NY). I was wondering if using a blow dryer in a gentle setting instead of the refrigerator might work as well. What would you suggest?

Posted By: Massachusetts Cicadas | On: 2013-06-07 | Website:

Hi Melissa,

To be honest, I would let it dry as normal at room temperature. Another place that is very good is to place your pinned specimen on top of the refrigerator. It is usually warm on top and usually dry. That may help. You risk mold if you place it INSIDE the refrigerator.

Posted By: Matthew | On: 2013-08-11 | Website:

Hi, I just collected 6 cicada, as they were emerging, from outside my home. They're currently being held in separate containers with a few branches and some water. They're VERY freshly emerged and are still very soft and white.

My issue is, how exactly do I go about killing them when they harden? I plan on mounting these 6.

Won't they be flying around the container and being fussy?

Would my best option be to just let them die from dehydration or should I try and catch them and kill them in a kill jar?

Sorry for the bombardment of question. I'm only 17 years old and I've never mounted anything until a few days ago. I currently have two cicadas, a Luna Mouth, and a Silver Spotted Skipper.

Posted By: Jimmy Wu | On: 2013-08-12 | Website:

I would actually leave the cicadas and let up live out their lives first. That's what I normally do. Also, if they are of the same species and of different sexes, I would try and get them to breed and let the female deposit her eggs. But if you don't want to deal with the hassle, the "best" way in my opinion is to put them in the freezer for an hour or two to kill them. Afterwards, let them thaw out and put them on a spreading board.

Posted By: Matthew | On: 2013-08-12 | Website:

Thank you so much for a quick reply. I would love to let them live out their lives and breed but due to various issues I cannot set up a terrarium for them. Also I'm not sure they're the same species or even a single species. The two already-mounted cicadas that I have look very much like hybrids. They're definitely a Tibicen species but they don't seem to match any one species, they have characteristics from several species. Is hybridization common? And is there perhaps an up to date data base that you know of that I could use for identification?? I'm pretty sure the 6 live cicadas I have are from different species and/or hybrids.

Posted By: Massachusetts Cicadas | On: 2013-08-12 | Website:

Hi Matthew,

At the very least you should let them fully sclerotize (hardden) before you kill them. That would take at least a few days.

Then stick them in the freezer for several hours and that should kill them.

We suspect that hybridization is possible but the offspring of different-species mating probably wouldn't be viable.

by merely placing different species in the same container actually changes their behavior and you may get different species mating.

That being said, if you'd like fill out the Report a cicada or cicada killer form in the right-hand column. That way you can send photos of your specimens and we can identify them for you.

Posted By: Jimmy Wu | On: 2013-08-12 | Website:

Do fill out a report if time allows, it would kind of be pointless to mount a specimen without knowing what species it is.

Posted By: Matthew | On: 2013-08-12 | Website:

Of course I'll fill out a report. The 6 are doing okay so far in their tubs and seem sort of inactive. I've added branches from the trees they were found on, in hopes they'd feed, I also added water for them. They're all from the same species, definitely, but they vary in size greatly.

I went out again tonight and in only a half hour I found 10+ nymphs climbing the trees surrounding my home. I filmed them but it seems you guys don't accept video submissions. Ah well. I'll be sure to upload pictures of my 6 cicadas soon along with a report. However, I am almost 100% positive now that my cicadas are Tibicen lyricen.

Just until I fill out a report, my cicada were all found on either Holly or Pine trees, outside my home in Red Bank, New Jersey. Zip code 07701. The first nymphs were spotted scaling trees around 8-9pm and most started fully emerging around 10-11pm.

The habitat the were found in is a small forest next to the highway called Newman Springs Rd in Red Bank, NJ. The forest is a small stretch and consists HIGHLY of Holly and pine trees. The forest is also set atop a large hill the has a 40ft drop that leads onto a large marsh which is connected to the Swimming River in Red Bank. The marsh is a large reed field.

I hope that was enough information for now. I'll be sure to file a report in time and if there's a way I can upload videos of the nymphs I found, climbing trees, let me know.

Posted By: Matthew | On: 2013-08-17 | Website:

Hey, me again. I was wondering if anyone has experienced bad odor from mounted cicadas? I have 3 recently mounted cicada that wreak. They smell like expired nuts or rotten fruit. I think 2 of them are around 3 days old and one is 2 days old. Is this common? I have 2 that I mounted a week or so ago and they don't seem to smell.

These cicada are mounted on large styrofoam board I had lying around and I have yet to build a case so I keep them out in the open in a dry/warm place. Is this fine for a few weeks or so? I don't want mine to get eaten!!

Posted By: Monica Haysd | On: 2013-08-17 | Website:

In responds to "Matthew"'s question about stinking cicadas. Yes I'm not sure why (I assume it has to do with airation and rotting matter) but sometimes I do get a stench as my specimens are drying. It will go away in a few days. Just try to leave them in a well ventilated area if its bothersome. My husband can't stand it. So I will set them out in the sun for a few days if that happens.

Good luck!

Posted By: tariq | On: 2013-12-19 | Website:

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Posted By: Will | On: 2014-08-18 | Website: display case

Thanks for this great article, really helpful. I just pinned my first cicada specimen, really happy with how it looks but now I'm trying to figure out a good storage/display option. Any ideas? Ideally I'd like one small enough for a single specimen (4"x6" or so probably) with a foam mount to pin to. I bought a perfectly sized one made by Riker but it uses fiber fill instead of a foam pin-board which doesn't seem ideal. Any input would be really appreciated.

I stumbled on a dying cicada right on the sidewalk the other day and was just going to keep it around for a while to make drawings and what-not. Found this article and it turned into a whole project, ordered materials from BioQuip, made a relaxing chamber, and finally finished pinning it the other day. Thanks again for writing this!

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Posted By: Carol Davis | On: 2021-05-25 | Website:

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