Home » Identifying beetles » Techniques for studying beetles » Carding, pinning and labelling

Carding, pinning and labelling

Carding is the act of gluing a beetle to a small piece of card. Ideally, the beetle should be in a fairly natural pose, the right way up, and with all 6 legs and both antennae spread out. Neat carding is worth the effort as it makes the resulting specimens easier to identify and more valuable as reference specimens to compare to others. It may seem that some coleopterists go to an inordinate amount of effort to make their specimens look ‘pretty’ – but there are good pragmatic reasons for carding as well as aesthetic reasons.

First attempt, 1992. I still remember the frustration!

Black-belt carding, 2005. Palps and claws set, all symmetrical.

Carding can be extremely difficult and time-consuming, and it probably only becomes a simple, rapid task after lots of practice. However, there are a few tips that can save you a lot of headaches. Carding is not the fun part of being a coleopterist and if you want to spend more time on the fun stuff, it is worth learning how to do the chores quickly and to a high standard. I reckon that one immaculately carded specimen is worth a dozen contorted badly-carded specimens. So getting it right saves time in the long run.


Specimens can be kept in acid like this for at least 5 years in my experience

First, always try to start with relaxed specimens. Ideally, specimens should be killed with ethyl ethanoate and kept cool in an airtight tube out of direct sunlight for an hour or more after death. Between an hour and a few days after death, transfer the specimens to dilute acetic acid in an airtight tube. I use pickling vinegar (5% acetic acid) bought from a supermarket but anything between 2% and 10% seems to work. You can immerse the specimens in the dilute acetic acid but I prefer to lie them on top of some tissue paper which is sopping with acid. I have kept specimens in satisfactory condition for up to 10 years like this.

Relaxing very stiff specimens

For stiff and/or elastic specimens try using forceps to stretch the legs out. This requires very delicate handling not to stretch the legs to breaking point, and the antennae are even more delicate. If bits get broken off, simply glue them alongside the beetle when the rest is in position. If that’s not working just make the best of a bad job. There are those who claim to be able to relax specimens after they have become stiff and I have followed several of their recommendations without a glimmer of success. I consider this a Dark Art but try this.

Now (January 2011), thanks to Andreas Herrmann, I’ve got a clear description of a technique which has been tried and tested by German coleopterists, using pepsin solution.

Identify before carding

It is always best to identify a specimen before carding it, so that underside characters, or characters such as crossed elytral epipleura, can be seen more easily. Also, if you are going to need to do a dissection, it is far easier to do so before you’ve carded the specimen. However, once out of the tube, specimens will dry out quickly, especially if they are being identified under the hot light of a tungsten-filament light source. I identify specimens on some damp tissue paper and use cold fluorescent lighting which helps to prevent them drying out and stiffening up.

Equipment you will need for carding:

  • tissue paper
  • pipette and a jar of water
  • 2 very small paint-brushes
  • forceps (storksbill and watch-makers’ forceps ideally)
  • mounting cards
  • water-soluble glue: I use Scotch Scrapbooker’s Glue. Read why here.
  • scissors
  • pins
  • a cork block or similar for pinning
  • card for labels
  • a staging block may be used to get all labels at the same height on the pins – not essential kit!
  • a very fine-nibbed pen with indelible ink

Preparing your specimen for carding

Working on a sheet of tissue paper, first pipette a couple of drops of water onto the specimen to wash off the dilute acetic acid. Lay the beetle on its back and spread the appendages out into roughly the positions you want them to be in after carding. Easy to say but exactly how you do this depends mainly on the size of the specimen and also to a great extent on personal preference. This seems to be an area where no two coleopterists are alike. One has to do two equally fiddly things at once: hold the specimen still with one hand, and spread out the appendages with the other.

If the specimen is big enough, hold it still with your fingers. Smaller specimens will need to be held using watchmaker’s forceps. Tiny specimens will need to be held in position with a mounted micro-pin. Or read this for an even better idea. I find that several layers of damp tissue packed into the very shallow lid of a cigar tin is a good base to work on.

Spreading out the appendages can be really easy if your specimen has been thoroughly relaxed in acetic acid. Thoroughly relaxed means the appendages are fully plastic (freely movable to any position) with no elasticity (they stay exactly where they’re put). With larger specimens, brush the appendages out. It is best to brush out both hind-legs first. Once they are brushed out, they can be held down while the remaining appendages are teased out. Once this is done, turn it right way up and the beetle is ready to card. For most beetles, brushing is too coarse a method and a mounted micro-pin with a hooked tip is what I use. I hook each appendage and pull it out into position. A hooked pin will be essential for those species which retract their appendages into recesses on the underside (e.g. pill-beetles Byrrhidae, Trixagus (Throscidae), Anthrenus (Dermestidae)): getting a mounted specimen of one of those species with all appendages displayed is black-belt carding!


Using the glue brush, paint a thin film of glue onto a suitable area of card, and then pick the beetle up and place it onto the glue. Using the forceps again, arrange the legs and antennae, and the palps if you want to be a real perfectionist (if you identify before carding, you will know whether the palps have any diagnostic features), making sure all appendages are stuck down. Try to minimise the amount of glue you get on the upper surface of the beetle. The glue will dry out pretty quickly – the thicker you paint it on, the more time you have to arrange appendages, but the more likelihood you will get glue all over the specimen! In case of disaster, remember that you can always wash your beetle in water, pat it dry with tissue, and start again.

Once glued down, trim the card to size, if necessary, and pin through the base of the card. A thimble will be necessary for driving pins through thick card, or if using the less sharp makes of pin. Use a cork block underneath.

James McGill’s carding techniques

James has developed his personal techniques for carding beetles to a very high standard (black belt, 5th dan!) and has kindly written up his advice here.


A staging block is useful for getting card and labels onto the pin at standard height, but is not essential kit by any means.

Labels should be added to the pin immediately, including at least the essential information, e.g.

det. MGT, vi.2000

Holkham Gap
coll. MG Telfer

‘det.’ means ‘determined by’. For some reason, entomologists always speak of determinations rather than identifications. It is good practice to record the date of the identification, as our understanding of limits of a species changes through time.

‘coll.’ means ‘collected by’ on my labels, but other entomologists often use ‘leg.’ to mean ‘collected by’ and ‘coll.’ to mean ‘in the collection of’.

It is really worth getting your labels as small as you can while still being clearly readable. Storage space for a collection (store boxes and cabinets) is one of the major expenses for a beetle collector and it makes no sense to be filling up your cabinet drawers with huge labels on tiny beetles! Laser printers can print perfectly clear labels down to 4 point font or smaller.

Additional labels

If a specimen is re-identified at a later date, it is good practice to add another ‘det.’ label, rather than replace the original one. This is not to embarrass the original identifier, but to track changes in opinions, to emphasise where mistakes can be made, and in the case of specimens which are in support of reports or published records, allowing subsequent users of the collection to trace specimen to record.

There are a few tricky species-groups which may be identified differently depending on which set of features you place your trust in. Different coleopterists may come to different determinations. Hence the value of recording who identified the specimen, and when.

If you know a lot more about the origin of your specimen – the habitat or microsite, what it was feeding on etc., it is very useful to add this information on a separate label.

Soaking off

It is very quick and easy to soak carded beetles off, to look at underside features when needed. As long as a water-based glue has been used, if you wet the surface of the card with a paintbrush, the adhesive softens in 30 seconds, and the beetle can be gently lifted off with forceps. Because it is fully dried out (within a week or so of being carded), it retains its position – flat with appendages spread – so can be dropped neatly onto a freshly-glued piece of card after its underside has been examined. Unless it is soaked for a long time, the legs and antennae will not need arranging again.


  1. Mick Massie says:

    Glue: in the past I have tried Gum tragacanth obtained from a cake decorating shop, with a few drops of Dettol added. It works fine and you can adjust the consistency, but it is not perfectly clear. I tried some Gum tragacanth from David Henshaw, but it is very thin, almost water, so does not work for medium to large specimens. What’s that about ? I am now trying out Wickes wallpaper adhesive and Hobbycraft School PVA (washable glue, maybe the closest thing to Gloy). Maybe you should not mention Gloy, as it is unobtainable – there is nothing more off-putting than hearing that the chemical, book, glue or whatever is no longer obtainable. Many entomologists seem to love to make beginners suffer in some sort of entrance rite. Several people recommend Fish Glue or Seccotine and some suppliers stock it, I haven’t tried it.

  2. markgtelfer says:

    Mick, thanks for the info. I’ve been at a glue cross-roads myself recently but have now plumped for a new brand. New glue webpage added – linked above.
    Circumventing those cruel induction rites is one of the aims of this site – sorry for the slip! Mark

  3. Mick Massie says:

    I’ve just ordered some of the Scotch glue from the 3M ordering website. £3.74 post free!

  4. Mick Massie says:

    ‘Getting the legs and antennae out’ is very difficult with some species e.g. Byrrhus and Coccinellids. They will not lie still and are too small to hold with fingers. I have tried restraining the specimen by putting it in a depression made in a piece of of Blu-tack, but would like to hear of a better method.

  5. markgtelfer says:

    Mick, page overhauled and updated with more photos. Good luck!

  6. Scotty Dodd says:

    Relaxing with acetic acid: I find that a plastic chinese take away tray (with clip on lid) with a good layer of kitchen towel moistened with household vinegar works well – even for tricky weevils. I place the specimens in a petri dish or similar, clip on lid and place on a warm radiator / under desk lamp for a few hours.

  7. Clive Washington says:

    A few hints I have found useful over the years.

    When the specimen is on its back, spread out, it can be very tricky turning it over without the legs going out of place again, and everthing ending up in a gluey mess. I find it much easier to spread the inverted beetle, apply glue to the card, then carefully apply the card (glue side down of course) to the inverted beetle. On turning it over the legs etc are all in pretty much the right places and the work is 75% done. It does take a few tries to make sure the beetle ends up in the centre of the card.

    It is worthwhile having at least 2 fine brushes. One is marked with a length of coloured electrical sleeving and that is the one that goes ‘in the glue’ when arranging the appendages. The other is kept glue-free for initially spreading the appendages – you don’t want to try doing this when there is glue on the brush! Brushes should be 3/0 (or 000) but strangely the size varies a lot – I have some sable which are much bigger than the same size synthetic ones. Despite what has been written in various places, I haven’t really found sable brushes to be much superior to synthetic.

    For glue I use the W+D tragacanth but it is worth buying this 6 months before you need it as it gan be rather lumpy when newly acquired. I also think it needs thinning a little. You can get a bit of this glue in the ‘wrong’ place when setting, and it dries invisibly – but the downside is that it doesn’t have much gapfilling power so you end up with the specimen attached by rather fewer points of contact than you would like. I generally paint a thicker glue ‘centre-line’ down the card and this serves to provide the main holding power. You don’t want to hold a beetle just by the tarsi or the slightest impact will lead to your having a card with 6 nicely arranged tarsi on it and not much else!

  8. Andy Chick says:

    I find with some stubborn specimens the best practise is to set the beetle before gluing to the card. I cross pin the specimen on to a piece of scrap foam and use pins to hold the appendages in place while it dries then when dry I glue to the card.

  9. Dave Murray says:

    Working with lots of specimens, even if they are mounted with pins having a decent head, can quickly result in sore fingers. To get round this I use a small length, say around 15mm, cut from a wide rubber band and hend doubled over between thumb and forefinger; the rubber provides adequate grip,it will open to grip or release the pin when you want it to and will provide plenty of purchase to insert pins into any medium, it also allows a decent level of feel and control so that pins can, with a little experience, be inserted vertically.

  10. I used to try to relax specimens in the fridge until I realised this was actually slowing down the process – even more than it slowed down the mould 🙁

  11. Just a small addition to the identification label: often “cf.” is attached to the species name. It’s an abbreviation of the Latin words “collectio formarum” and means that the identification regards to a group of species looking extremely similar to each other, or the taxonomic state needs a revision.

  12. Jason Green says:

    Relaxing – I had good results with the large carabid ‘Leistus spinibarbis’ – taken from the killing jar which it had been in for one hour, then left in a small airtight container with table vinegar half-filling a milk-bottle lid. I left it for a week and the insect was so relaxed I actually considered at first that the legs were breaking off! They weren’t and were quite secure, but very relaxed. A joy to set!

    Concerning the appendages of tiny beetle that are reluctant to give themselves up from the underside when the venter is glued; try placing a tiny drop of glue to touch the tip of the tarsal claw that is only just exposed from the insect’s lateral margin. Wait a minute, then try spreading the glue slowly, and often it should pull the leg/antennae out too. It’s worked for me!

  13. Rory Hart says:

    Many thanks for this site. As a beginner, the understanding tone whilst authoratative is a joy. I was inspired to start collecting by Brian Eversham and have had great help from Martin Collier but want to try to get my collection rather more ‘black belt’ than I have at present. Pins and cards are my problem at present as I lack the experience to know what sizes I need and what sizes the numbering system for pins refers to. In any case,very much enjoy the site. Many thanks

  14. markgtelfer says:

    Thanks Rory, glad to help. It was Brian who inspired me to get into entomology too! Mark

  15. Rik Harris says:

    Can anyone tell me where you can buy pre-cut card, if there is such a thing?

  16. markgtelfer says:

    Rik, I buy my pre-cut mounting cards from Mrs Lydie Leforestier (http://www.insects.demon.co.uk/). You can also buy some from Watkins & Doncaster (http://www.watdon.co.uk/the-naturalists/ and search for ‘die-cut card’) and there may be other suppliers out there. Mark

  17. markgtelfer says:

    Just discovered that Mrs Leforestier has stopped dealing in entomological equipment. The same kit can apparently still be purchased from Entomo-Phil but their website is entirely in French:

  18. Peter McMullen says:

    Mark, I was very disappointed when Lydie ceased trading. Unfortunately I’m not confident enough in French to purchase from the other site mentioned. However, Paradox Insects (http://www.insectnet.eu/glue_boards.php) also supply pre-cut glue boards. I can’t vouch for the quality of the boards yet but their service is excellent

  19. Peter McMullen says:

    Hi Mark, just a comment on relaxing. First of all your suggestion on the use of acetic acid has saved me several specimens already (I’m a very lazy Coleopterist). My method includes adding a paper label held by the tube stopper. This effectively acts as drain/wick for the water and results in dry specimens covered with crystals of acetic acid. Just keep a check and ensure they are kept wet and they will last for months.
    In addition a note on the use of the other method. As an amateur in the UK the availability of “stomach acid” is limited and, at best, frowned upon by the authorities. However, it’s quite legal to buy capsules from ebay that will strip paint from furniture. These are marketed as “Betaine HCL – Digestive Enzyme”. Break a couple of capsules and dissolve in water, add a specimen, and it will relax practically anything. The down side (which was quite an eye opener) mould will grow quite quickly. For best results the solution needs to be filtered before use. Be very careful with this as a litmus test showed the pH to be 2. Obviously this also contravenes the H&S guidelines provided with the capsules.

  20. markgtelfer says:

    Peter, ALS have recently stepped in to supply some of the things that Lydie used to sell including mounting cards:

  21. markgtelfer says:

    Regrettably, ALS have discontinued all their mounting cards.
    NHBS have started selling mounting cards (http://www.nhbs.com/title/196063/rectangular-mounting-boards) but as best I can tell, these are the same product as sold by Ento Sphinx (http://www.entosphinx.cz/en/16-nalepovaci-stitky). I saved about 25% by buying direct from Ento Sphinx (including the p&p and currency conversion costs) compared to NHBS. Ento Sphinx was a really nice company to deal with but the cards I’ve bought are much poorer quality than the ones I used to get from Lydie Rigout. Graham Finch very kindly sent me a sample of cards he’d bought from Paradox (http://www.insectnet.eu/glue_boards.php) and they are better quality.

  22. David Stevenson says:

    Mark, have tried your technique of resting in acetic acid, wow! My specimens have got the swelling you usually get from popping them in alcohol. In your experience do they dry out eventually ? I’m just a bit worried I’ll card them and then they’ll shrink back down after gluing or develop mould as they dry. Your site is a great resource, loads of info in one place, cheers 🙂

  23. markgtelfer says:

    David, thanks for your kind words.
    If I have a specimen which has absorbed fluid and swollen up (usually out of trap samples), I will burst it and press the fluid out before carding. Poke a sharp pin through somewhere soft, like between the abdominal tergites.
    It’s not normal for specimens to swell up in acetic acid – I’m not sure I’ve ever known it to happen.

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