After an extensive and decidedly involuntary hiatus some medical issues have been sorted and I once again have the time and energy for that most excellent pursuit. That’s just one of the fantastic things about microscopic mounting, in many of the processes there are several stages at which production can be halted indefinitely and returned to weeks or even years later without ill effect…
The first step in creating a slide of any sort is not often planning as one might think. As an amateur the first step is more apt to be the acquisition of a specimen; formation of a process for mounting can come later. At present macerated and pressed insect slides are the goal and the methods discussed will be limited to those appropriate. Depending on the particular part of the world where one resides this may not be the most opportune time for the collection of specimens but there is always some supply to be found or purchased. For the sake of simplicity in this first attempt at a mount one may stack the deck in their favor by selecting a hardy subject. I heartily recommend ants.
An ant or ten can often be found in any of the seasons save winter (here in New York anyway) diligently trouping across ones sidewalk or patio. Collection is a simple matter and may be accomplished with whatever container is at hand. Specialized apparatus such as a fine set of forceps or an aspirator can speed up collection but are luxuries rather than necessities. In a popular work concerning ants titled Journey to the Ants, eminent myrmecologists Dr. Bert Hölldobler and Dr. E. O. Wilson spend a page or two on the ease of collecting and preserving specimens in the field be it a South American rain forest or at dinner with Stalin: put the ants into alcohol.
One can use whatever spirit is handy and potent. Concentrations of 80-95% isoproply or denatured alcohol being common and inexpensive make them useful. For our purposes the alcohol acts as killing agent, fixative, and preservative. Live specimens collected directly into a container of alcohol may be stored indefinitely for use as required or removed and desiccated for traditional pin mounting as desired. If one is unable to readily capture ants locally for whatever reason the various retailers who sell ant farms will happily supply a vial of harvester ants for a few dollars delivered.
It’s useful to note that ants aren’t the only subjects which are generally collected directly into strong alcohol. If hunting in the field one happens on an intriguing arachnid Comstock’s classic work The Spider Book recommends collecting into small killing jars or even directly into the strongest alcohol available. The alcohol being decanted and replenished the following day to ensure its potency after the spiders own moistures dilute it.
Spiders and ants make exceptional first specimens as their lack of wings and significant exoskeletons greatly simplifies their processing. That one is generally able to locate several of the same species also helps to ensure that an acceptable slide may be produced. With a significant stock in alcohol on the laboratory shelf one is free to attempt many variations of method to produce the finest results. So do run out and start collecting, or get your ants on order. When I return we’ll begin mounting in earnest, why not come along with me?