This is actually one of the more common questions we get, and it’s a pretty difficult one to answer because every situation is different.
Insects can get themselves into a lot of awkward situations, and I can totally relate to that because I get myself into a lot of awkward situations. A lot of people would prefer to move the bugs, rather than kill them outright. In most cases, I agree with that wholeheartedly…and I’m totally willing to help people with that.
So, if you want to move a bug outdoors…here are a few things to consider.
I’m putting this at the top, because this was the most recent question we received:
Your Name: Maria
Your Bug Question: I live in the Andes at 3200m. Found a family of black widows but I can’t find them and have no sprays or chemicals available. I need suggestions on what to do?
A black widow bite is no fun. I’m not a small guy, and a single bite from a mishandled female put me in the hospital for 3 days*. Relocating a black widow, especially by hand, would not be a great idea.
It can be done, but the results of mishandling one of these guys would be disastrous…especially if you’re living in an isolated area without access to medical attention. Due to the difficulty of fishing a widow out of her web, I would not attempt to relocate one of these guys despite how much I like these spiders. Since this is something I wouldn’t attempt to do, I’m not going to recommend anyone else attempt it.
The same thing goes with bee and wasp colonies. Wasp nests which hang free, like hornet and paper wasp nests, can be relocated safely if they’re located in the right place. This is something I’ve done in the past. However, you need special equipment and training. It’s not something everybody can do, and it’s not the sort of thing I’d be willing to walk someone through in a blog post. It’s not easy, and it’s kind of dangerous.
As unpopular as it might be to say there are some insects and spiders which are too dangerous to attempt to move, and some situations (e.g. people with bee allergies) where moving something outside can put a person at too much risk.
This brings me to the second point…
Know what you’re working with
If you see a cockroach, beetle, or moth, and want to move it outside, you’re probably going to want to know whether it’s a pest species before you do that. If you see a spider, you’re probably going to want to know if it’s dangerous before you attempt to move it. Ants probably shouldn’t be relocated outside, because it’s likely they’re eating something inside your house.
If it’s a pest species, moving it outside won’t do any good because there’s an underlying problem you won’t be able to get rid of by moving the animal. Also, don’t relocate any dangerous animals.
Knowing whether your bug is a pest can be tricky, but there are a lot of ID guides online to help you out. If you’re in the US, there are only two types of medically significant spiders. These are the Widows and the Recluses…both easy enough to ID.
Know what time of year it is
This one is pretty intuitive. The first frost is coming pretty soon, and a lot of bugs which enter houses at this time of year are looking for places to overwinter. If you move them outside, they’ll likely be dead by the next morning. Or they’ll find their way back in.
Know how to pick up the bug without hurting it
This is the meat and potatoes of the article. If you know the bug won’t hurt you, and can move it to a safer location, and want to move it, here’s how to do it.
The Cup Method
Most insects and spiders (including bees, wasps, non web building spiders, moths, etc.) can be moved using the same method. Ideally, you want to move the animal without touching it. This is preferable because a lot of insects can sting, bite, or cover you in a smelly fluid. Many insects and spiders, like moths, can be harmed if you handle them too roughly.
So we figure why touch them if you don’t need to?
To perform this trick, you’re going to need two things. You’ll need a cup, and a sturdy piece of paper. An index card would be ideal, but notebook or printer paper will also work.
Ideally, you should use a clear cup because you want to see when the animal is at the top of the glass. If you don’t have one available, you can make due with whatever you’ve got on hand.
So take the glass, place it over the animal like so:
…and then, slide the paper under the animal.
Now, you’ve got the animal safely contained. Take it outside, and dump it out far away from your house and close to the ground.
It’s as simple as that. Releasing a bee or a wasp might be a little intimidating, but they tend not to sting unless you grab it and trap it. Revenge simply isn’t on their mind…they just want to get out of there as quickly as they can.
Moving web-building spiders
Your Name: Robyn
Your Bug Question: I am moving out of my apartment. There is a yellow and black garden spider (argiope) that has built a web outside one of my windows and I’ve grown quite fond of her. I’ve read several things about her but I’m concerned that either maintenance or the new tenants will want her removed and/or killed. Would it be ok for me to capture her and relocate her with me so I can make sure that no one kills her or would this be too stressful for her? As far as I can tell she does not have babies yet. I DO NOT want to keep her as a pet!! I am only moving 5 hours from my current location and she would go into a garden at my new home.
Web building spiders present a little bit of a unique situation because they’re usually pretty helpless out of their web. They can survive without a web, but if you plop them on the ground they’re going to be pretty vulnerable. If you don’t transport a little bit of web with them, you’ll expose them to predators.
Fortunately, you can use a variant of the cup/paper method. Catch the spider, like above, and simply include a little bit of web for it to hang on. You should use a pencil to transfer the web to a low-hanging plant.
The spider might fall to the ground when it comes out, but that’s completely OK. They’ll usually spin a silken line which it will use to climb up later. If she doesn’t do that, she’s probably not going to hang back on the web…and attempting to re-capture her will risk more harm. In this case, the best solution is to simply leave her wherever she lands. She’ll take care of herself.
Life as a small animal is risky, and by moving the spider back outside you’re exposing her to less risk than she’d have inside your apartment.
Moving insect pupae
Pupae are pretty complicated, maybe even more so than the other insects. This is pretty counterintuitive, because those pupae aren’t trying to escape like the animals in the other examples. However, they’re very delicate and a wrong move could kill them. Leave them if you can, but if they need to be moved this is still possible.
Your Name: Lora
Your Bug Question: I’m a preschool teacher and a parent from a different classroom brought in a mason jar with 2 eastern swallowtail caterpillars inside. One of them was good enough to anchor itself on the side of the jar. I know you can move a monarch chrysalis with a Q tip and water, but can you do the same with this species?
A coocoon is pretty easy to move. Very gently feel the coocoon to see if the pupa inside is still there. Pinch the silk and lift up. The rest of the silk should come with it; the pupa still safe inside. If it tears, that’s OK, because the silken covering isn’t a part of the insect.
After that, move it to a protected spot out of direct sunlight. Don’t bury it, but don’t leave it out in the open.
Chrysalis (naked pupa)
Chrysalises are probably the most complicated entry on here, because you need different tools. You also need to know a little bit about the biology of the pupa.
The tools you need are simple ones. You’ll need a sharp blade, like a razor or an X-acto knife. You’re also going to need some quick-drying glue. Elmer’s glue is a nice choice, and I’ve used nail polish to do this before.
Pupae are held onto a surface by a structure called a cremaster. The cremaster is a non-living extension of the insect’s exoskeleton that serves to glue it on the surface it’s hanging on. It can be broken without harming the pupa. However, if you’re not careful you could kill the pupa.
So, first, locate the cremaster. It’ll always be on the insect’s butt.
Second, use your blade to cut under the cremaster. If possible, shave the first layer of the substrate off. If the insect is on a plant, this is the best possible situation because you can simply remove the leaf.
If the pupa is on a surface that you can’t cut, like a book or a piece of furnature, you can use the blade to cut the cremaster off the substrate without harming the insect. It’s difficult to do, but you can do it if you’re careful. In this case, a dull blade (like a piece of plastic) is actually preferable because you won’t be cutting. You want to gently scrape the cremaster off the substrate. If done right, it will come off without a trace.
Once you have the pupa in hand, you can move it to anywhere you’d like. This is where the glue comes in. You want to glue the cremaster, or bit of substrate, onto another substrate. The insect doesn’t use the cremaster to breathe, but you still want to use a light touch with the glue.
Insects don’t use the cremaster to emerge. Instead, they emerge through the head of the pupa. So it will still be able to emerge normally even after you relocate it.
The Bottom Line
If you want to move an insect outside, that’s great! It’s definitely the proper way to deal with most of the bugs that end up in your house. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s complicated…but it can be done. In most cases, it should be done.
At the same time, however, don’t put yourself at risk. We’re not exactly shy about pointing out that insects need to be killed for various reasons. If you’re allergic to bees, or if you see a medically significant spider, then use a flyswatter. In this case, that’s the appropriate way to deal with the invader.
It’s ultimately up to you to decide how you wish to deal with the animals which invade your personal space. While we might disagree with some decisions, there’s no wrong decision. You should always feel free to take care of these invaders however you like
However, if you want to move them…this is a very general how-to guide on how to do that.
*If you’re wondering what happened to this spider, she was re-captured alive and relocated to the UGA insect zoo where she lived out the rest of her natural life. I typically don’t name arthropod pets, but I gave this one the only name I felt was appropriate…I named her Nancy, after my close friend who also blogs here at Ask an Entomologist. To this day, this is the only arthropod pet I’ve ever named.