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Otto: A Christmas tradition? No humbugs allowed

Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

Looking for a gift for that naturalist on your list? Hoping to make an impression with something handcrafted and from the heart?

Have we got an idea for you!

Combining some of the very best elements of nature itself – along with a dash of stylish individuality and 65 percent ethyl alcohol – this gift 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 in horror and/or run from the room screaming. 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 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, in the years since hand sanitizer was invented, you never thought to leave the cap off your bottle, 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: 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 vial, making sure to wipe away any water droplets lurking inside.

Step three: Fill vial two-thirds full with hand sanitizer.

Step four: Add dead bugs and, using a probe or skewer, arrange artfully. (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!)

Step five: Place a small saucepan on a stove burner and add about 1 inch of water. Stand uncapped vial upright in 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 vial with more sanitizer, making sure you don’t add more bubbles in the process, and twist 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 10 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 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 season, for at least part of your holiday gift-giving endeavors, leave the stores behind. Instead, take a stroll around the perimeter of your home, paying attention to overhangs where spider webs may hold desiccated treasures.

Stock up on hand sanitizer, re-purpose bottles with tight-fitting lids, and you’ll be on your way to creating a charming new Christmas tradition. No humbugs allowed!

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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