Stilling Insects

by Johan J Ingles-Le Nobel
Last updated August 31, 2017


There are just no really nice ways to kill animals, insects included, so if you have serious worries of any kind about this, think of something else to do.

Stilling Without Killing

Surely there has to be a better way to do studio stacking rather than to always kill the insects, or at least you'd hope it is possible to make something. This insect chiller chamber is an in-progress project of mine using Arduino to drive some peltier elements and fans in a temperature controlled chamber.

I hope to to cool insects down to levels at which they stop moving, but don't die. This is a tricky project as it incorporates programming, electronics and micro engineering and I do not expect it to be complete until some time in 2014.

Stilling insects

Freezer for stilling insects for studio shots of preserved specimens. There are no nice ways to kill animals, insects included, so if you have serious worries of any kind about this, think of something else to do.

Killing Insects

There are no clear guidelines about what constitutes the best or most humane way to kill insects but common sense should tell you that if insects are sentient organisms, none of them are going to be a heaps of fun.

The quicker the better is a sensible principle as long as specimens are intact and useable afterwards so you don't repeat the exercise unneccessarily.

Consumer Stilling

The standard consumer means to still insects for preservation is to freeze or boil them. This makes for clean specimens with their body features preserved, although different types of insects do lend themselves to different methods.

Chemical Stilling

Ethyl acetate, used to kill insects

Ethyl acetate, used to kill insects, regarded by many as the most satisfactory liquid killing agent.

Entomology has used chemicals to kill insects for study since entomology began. There are a lot of chemicals for insect study that can be bought online, and although the use of some of these is very dangerous, most of them are perfectly ok for the non-specialist to use.

Ethyl acetate is regarded by many as the most satisfactory liquid killing agent and its fumes are less toxic to humans than those of other substances used to kill insects.

Although it usually stuns insects very quickly, it actually kills them slowly and insects should be exposed in a killing jar longer rather than shorter.


Stilling insects for macro is controversial, and it's not for everyone. There are occasions and purposes for which it's appropriate, and there are times when other techniques are better. Simple solution - if it's not for you, then don't do it: there are plenty of alternative styles of macro. But posting anonymous comments on a false name on websites for people who do have to do this is a little bit infantile and I don't have time for it.

Comments (4)

Article: Stilling Insects
Greg Brown says...
Since macrophotography is a hobby, I am anxious about killing a creature just for a photo. However, focus stacking a live subject is just about impossible for me. Therefore, I've come up with the following strategy when seeking subjects for focus stacking. I judge a specimen for collection, in ascending order of acceptance, if they are:

1) Dead (my hummingbird feeder is an unexpected source of small specimens, particularly for snout and bark beetles; unfortunately, its a de facto trap, but I like hummers)
2) Dying
3) Invasive species
4) Biting (yellow flies are fair game any time)
5) Social (workers, drones, etc.)
6) Common (non-threatened species)

I then use a killing jar to dispatch them quickly if they are alive. If there are other "rationalization schemes" for deciding if and when to collect, I'd like to hear them. Thanks.
4th June 2019 1:33pm
Mike Adams says...
For fruit flies (Drosophila) carbon dioxide will knock them out with no permanent damage. The problem for any stilling method is that you seldom can arrange the specimens properly in the time available.
4th August 2016 6:20pm
Harold Gough says...
Had insects and other living speciemens not been collected, killed and preserved, they could not have been studied and described. We would have no names for plants and animals. In other words, the name Linnaeus would mean nothing to us.

Insects, beetles in particular, were one of the main leads for Darwin into his Origin of Species and theory of evolution. Without his cvast coloctions of specimens we would have had no wildlife documentaries and no macro.

The fate of most invertebrates and small vertebrates is to have their insides sucked out or to be swallowed whole while still alive. Anesthesia far less traumatic. Using the process is more about your own feelings than those of the individual insect.

I prefer to photograph in the natural habitat but would use dead material if I really needed to.
22nd July 2014 7:18am
Marisano says...
Not to advocate killing insects, but I'm not so sure that there are *no* nice ways to kill animals, though such ways may well differ from genus to genus. After all, we don't even notice when we're being poisoned by carbon monoxide. Also, since the males of several species of insects have evolved to die right after mating, I imagine this is not a painful process (so duplicating that/those hormone(s) would probably make the animal feel that everything is right as rain), particularly for those males that offer themselves up as nuptial gifts to their mate. [Don't know about the females of such species, but they probably have similar receptors, but just don't produce the hormone(s).]
21st July 2014 6:38am
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