Inside the killing jar

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The prized Blue Triangle butterfly. I had one in my collection.

The next story I want to talk about from my collection The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After is one of the originals: “Razor Blade Anthropology (Guerdon for the Beautiful People”. Like “The Garden Shed Pact”, it was one of my Clarion South stories (written at the workshop in 2005).  Compared to that story, “Razor Blade Anthropology” is a much more off-beat, black humour story, so I didn’t try hard to sell it to a magazine or anthology (although I did have it accepted to one many years ago, but that disappeared into a black hole…).

Another thing the two stories have in common is bugs …

Bugs (and any small creepy crawlies, including frogs) … they’re a difficult subject for me. Sure, there’s been a 30-something year-long fear of them, but in my late 30s, I finally overcame this. I was even able to safely remove frogs by hand from our pool (and with a pool within hopping distance of Lake Joondalup in Perth, we had frogs in the pool every week).  There was no single catalyst for overcoming this fear. It was a combination of immersion therapy and logic.

However, my ledger with insects is far from clean. If you’d read the afterword for “The Garden Shed Pact” (read more on that here), you’ll remember that for two years, I was involved in the high school entomology group. While admittedly über nerdy, it was a hands-on activity I did with my friends. It was competitive, engaging, scientific, and honed my handicrafts (I built my own display board), but let me tell you the downsides …

Do you know how to kill a butterfly without damaging its magnificent wings?

I was taught to catch the butterfly in a net, and while it was trapped, to crush its thorax (chest section) to prevent it from flapping its wings. This was done with a firm squeeze. Too much pressure, and you kill the butterfly and its innards ooze everywhere. Not enough, and you might simply injure it without paralysing its wings.

You then put the crippled but still-living butterfly in an envelope until you could return to the lab. There, you prepare a killing jar. That is essentially a glass jar with a cotton wool square that is immersed in a killing agent. From memory, that agent was ethyl acetate (nail polish remover). You seal the crippled butterfly in the killing jar with the agent, and to ensure the job is done properly, the sealed jar is placed in a freezer overnight.

After 24 hours in a freezer sealed inside a killing jar, my insects were removed and then pinned to the display board. This involves driving a large pin straight through the centre of the insect’s back, and with winged insects, holding their wings in place with pins and paper (but never pins directly into the wings). Once the insects were like that for a day or two, the wings stayed locked in position and the excess pins were removed.

The same process applies to any other small insect, except the thorax wasn’t crushed.

The bulk of my collections were butterflies and beetles. Beetles were especially tough buggers—particularly the weevils. On a couple of occasions, several minutes after having pinned a beetle to the board, it would revive and begin flailing. Remember, they had survived 24 hours in the killing jar in the freezer and the pin through their back. Another, higher dose of killing agent was the most humane way to end their suffering at that point.

It’s not something I would do again (and not something I’m particularly proud of, in hindsight), but the experience of collecting insects will always stay with me, for better or worse.


The Abandonment of Grace ebook

You can read “Razor Blade Anthropology (Guerdon for the Beautiful People)” in The Abandonment of Grace and Everything After, available in hardback, trade paperback, or ebook from Amazon (ebook currently on sale for just 99c).

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