Photo Caption: First prepared in 2012, the cast exoskeletons of a periodical cicada, left, and an annual cicada are preserved for posterity in a vial filled with hand sanitizer.
Good Natured: The Perfect DIY Gift for Nature-Lovers
December 25, 2020
Note: This column originally ran in December 2012, long before hand sanitizer would become the must-have item it is today. If you find you’ve got , this an ounce or two to spare, this craft is a great way to put some of that surplus to use. It’s also a great way to put a smile on someone’s face while saying Goodbye 2020 and Hello 2021!
Good news, Good-Natured procrastinators! Even though the holiday season is nigh, there’s still time to handcraft a gift for that special someone on your list.
Combining some of the very best elements of nature itself, along with a dash of stylish individuality and 70% ethyl alcohol, this clever creation lets you say, “I care about you and your interests and want to help you share them, even if at times they have caused people to recoil and/or run and hide. Merry Christmas!”
Better still, it’s the sort of homemade gift anyone can make. No need for hard-to-source supplies, awkward glue guns or tedious, repetitive production steps. All you need is a small vial or jar and lid; hand sanitizer gel; and a dead bug.
These simple materials, brought together and heated ever so slightly, are guaranteed to yield results so exquisite, so stunning, so Martha Stewart-esque, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it yourself. Or why you’ve never thought to leave the cap off your bottle of sanitizing gel, just to see what might crawl in.
- Step one: Procure a vial other than the one in which the hand sanitizer currently resides. Helpful hint here: Think small. That quart-size mayo jar you’ve been saving for goodness knows how long is a little large for this purpose. Unless, of course, you have an abundance of hand sanitizer. Or dead bugs.
- Step two: Wash, rinse and dry the vial, making sure to remove any water droplets lurking inside.
- Step three: Fill the vial two-thirds full with hand sanitizer.
- Step four: Add dead bugs and, using a probe or skewer, arrange in a pleasing fashion. (Note: Entomologists recommend against the use of freshly killed insects, as their bodily fluids can react with the hand sanitizer and cause the gel to dissolve. So all those bugs you’ve been meaning to remove from the windowsill? Go for it!)
- (Note Part Deux: The gel also is an ideal medium for small or delicate objects like dragonfly wings and the tiny bits you or someone you know extracted from an owl pellet. Think shrew jawbones, vole scapulae…you get the picture.)
- (Note Part Trois: Alas, it doesn’t work so well with the scaled wings of butterflies and moths, nor the furry bodies of bees and certain spiders.)
- Step five: Place a small saucepan on a stove burner and add about 1 in. of water. Stand the uncapped vial upright in the water and heat to a simmer. Cook gently until all bubbles in the sanitizer have risen and dissipated.
- Step six: Remove from heat and let cool. Top off the vial with more sanitizer, making sure you don’t add more bubbles in the process, and twist the cap on tightly. Add a bow (optional) and ta-da! Your one-of-a-kind gift is complete.
The concept of containing bugs in viscous fluid, actually a way of preserving insects for use in classroom activities, isn’t new. In fact, several entomologists have likened the result to insects encased in amber-fossilized tree resin formed millions of years ago.
This most recent incarnation, using hand sanitizer as the protective agent, seems to have surfaced about 20 years ago. It was then that an entomologist working at a pest control firm encountered fruit flies inside an uncapped bottle of hand sanitizer. Apparently attracted by the fluid’s sweet smell, the insects had crawled in and become trapped-and preserved-inside the container.
Intrigued, the bug scientist began experimenting with different types of hand sanitizer, and different species of insects. He found little difference in clarity and preservative quality between brands; he also concluded, that, in general, the process works better for adult insects than for juveniles. Other entomologists have since determined that dried insects work better than those that are still, um, moist.
This gift-giving season, forego that frenzied dash to the mall-covid mitigations advise against it anyway. Instead, take a stroll around the perimeter of your home, paying particular attention to overhangs where spider webs may hold desiccated treasures. Basements, with their masses of dried millipedes and sowbugs, are good sources too, as are the sills between your interior and exterior windows. (Naturalists’ desks are probably the best places of all, but good luck stealing the bugs away without the naturalist noticing.)
Measure out some hand sanitizer, repurpose some bottles with tight-fitting lids, and you’ll be on your way to creating a charming new holiday tradition. No humbugs allowed!
Pam Otto is the outreach ambassador at the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.