Stick insects, along with leaf insects, are among the most popular insects kept as pets due largely to their unique appearance and the relative ease of caring for them. The key to keeping stick insects in captivity is to try to mimic the conditions they would naturally experience and feed them foliage as close to what they naturally eat as possible.
There are over 2,500 species of stick and leaf insects. These insects rely primarily on camouflage as a defense, so look either very much like twigs or leaves, depending on the species. Only some species of stick insect are winged and most come from tropical climates. They range in color from a dark brown/almost black to bright green. The younger insects tend to be browner.
Common Name: Stick Insect or Leaf Insect
Scientific Name: Phasmida
Adult Size: The stick insect's body is about 10 centimeters.
Life Expectancy: 1 year, although they can live longer in captivity
Difficulty of Care: Beginner. Stick insects require the utmost of care, but they can be very tame and sit on your hand. They don't require daily maintenance and can be left alone for a week without any care.
Stick Insect Behavior and Temperament
Stick insects tend to be quite tame so will sit on your hand, but caution must be taken when picking them up or handling them. Very carefully grasp them by the body (not the legs!) between your thumb and forefinger and place them on your open palm, or simply offer your open palm and gently nudge them onto your hand. They do not require daily maintenance and can be left for up to a week without any care. Stick insects are naturally nocturnal. They are most active at night. During the day they are usually inactive and still unless they are disturbed.
Housing the Stick Insect
As a rule, stick insects need an enclosure that is three times as tall as the length of the insect. For Indian stick insects, this means a minimum of 12 inches tall, although a little taller would be better. Glass aquaria (10 to 15 gallon), tall glass jars, plastic pet containers, and other similar containers work well for housing, but the lid needs to be well ventilated and secure to prevent escapes. Fine netting can be fixed over the opening to such containers.
Indian stick insects should be kept fairly warm, around 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 24 degrees Celsius). The temperature can be allowed to decrease a bit at night to mid to high 60s F. The best way to achieve the proper temperature is to keep them in a warm room, although supplementary heat can be provided through head pads meant for reptile enclosures or by placing a lamp near the cage. Using lamps for heat can be very drying and white bulbs should not be used at night (red or blue colored bulbs can be used).
If using potted plants in the vivarium, consider using a fluorescent fixture above the vivarium for optimal plant growth. Stick insects need a moderate level of humidity, but the vivarium should be well ventilated to prevent mold growth. Misting the leaves of the plant will provide water for the insects to drink and help maintain humidity levels.
The floor of the tank can be covered with paper for easy cleanup. An alternative material that helps conserve humidity is peat moss or vermiculite. This takes a bit more effort to keep clean, and shouldn't be kept too moist since mold growth could be a problem. Stick insects produce a fairly dry waste which is easy to clean up.
Food and Water
Bramble (blackberry) is generally considered an appropriate diet for many stick insects. Other options include raspberry, privet, hawthorn, oak, rose, and ivy. Fresh cut branches of these plants can be placed in water in the cage and changed once they dry out (or are consumed). The water container must be closed off or sealed so that the insects do not fall into the water and drown (choose a narrow-necked jar and place some material around the plant stems to seal off the opening). An alternative to feeding cut branches is to grow small potted plants of the desired species and place them in the cage. They can also eat lettuce, which should be washed and cleaned well.
The most important thing to consider is that any food must be free of insecticides and herbicides or it may be lethal to your pets. Care must be taken when collecting food to make sure it hasn't been exposed to these materials. Try to avoid collecting food near busy roadways. Even if using potted plants, make sure that the soil used is free of pesticides, as some soils are infused with pesticides which may make their way into plants grown in the soil.
Common Health Problems
There are no major health problems that impact stick insects. They do hang upside down to shed their skin and require a large vertical space to shed. If the space they have is limited, the stick insect will die or become severely deformed.
Is It Legal to Own a Pet Stick Insect?
If you are in the United States or Canada, tropical species such as the Indian Walking sticks are considered plant pest. A permit (United States Department of Agriculture or Canadian Food Inspection Agency) is required to import them. In other areas, check with the appropriate government agency about legality (e.g. a Department of Agriculture or similar agency).
Non-native stick insects should never be released into the wild due to the risk that they could reproduce and cause damage to an ecosystem where they are not normally found; non-native species are considered plant pests. This includes making sure any eggs are disposed of by crushing, boiling, or burning, as no special care is needed for many species' eggs to hatch.
Purchasing Your Stick Insect
Check your local and state laws about how to purchase a stick insect. A permit is needed to import it into the United States and there may be additional local laws that dictate the legality of stick insects. These can vary state by state.
Indian stick insects can reproduce in the absence of a male (parthenogenetic reproduction). A female will lay hundreds of tiny eggs (0.08 inch) over her life. These are smooth and round and can be collected from the bottom of the cage if desired. Place them in a tub of sand or vermiculite and leave in a warm place. They may take up to a year to hatch, and they should be kept in small separate rearing containers until they reach adulthood when they can be housed in small groups (similar environment to adults, feed a fresh supply of leaves often).
The babies ("nymphs") molt several times before reaching adulthood, and during this process, they will hang suspended from a branch or the lid of the container. Molting is an extremely vulnerable time in development, and the insects should be left alone and not handled until the new exoskeleton is hardened after a molt.
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