You might be looking for a pleasant creature to look at ? Quite simple to take care of ? Existing in all shapes and colours ? Maybe you don’t have enough place to keep a dog or a cat ? Or your kid just brought you one from school ?
There is plenty of good reasons to want to be keeping stick insects !
The Stick Insect
The stick insect or phasmatodea (also known as phasmida or phasmatoptera) are an order of insects representing more than 3000 different species.
The word phasmatodea comes from the latin phasma, which means ghost. They were given this name because the majority of them can easily hide among the plants thanks to their procrypsis and appearance. Indeed they can perfectly imitate sticks, leaves but also thorny stems, barks and even lichens. Most of them can stay motionless for hours in order to melt into the background.
On the contrary, some species of stick insects don’t hide but wear bright colours, called aposematics, to advertise their toxicity or distastefulness to predators.
So you see, you can really find them in all sizes, shapes and colours !
A distinctive characteristic about some species occurs during reproduction. It can be sexual, but also by parthenogenesis, in other words without fertilisation, which can only make clones from the parent, so only females. That is the case of the Carausius morosus for instance. (the ‘common’, ‘Indian’ or ‘laboratory’ stick insect)
In metropolitan France, where I come from, 3 species can be found. And as you will see, it is pretty difficult to discern them in their environment.
- The French stick insect : Clonopsis gallica.
- The Spanish stick insect : Pyjinackeria masettii.
- The Rossi stick insect : Bacillus rossius.
Caring for Stick Insects
Required equipment :
- A cage : This one can be a terrarium, aquarium, vivarium, it doesn’t matter as long as the size is appropriate and as long as there is enough ventilation. How to know if the size is appropriate? First of all, do some research on the adult size of the species that you want to keep, if possible, the cage must be 3 times the size of the stick insect’s height. The stick insect must have enough space to shed properly. Then, adapt the width to suit the number of individuals that you will put in there.
- Plants to feed them : To start with, do some research on the species, all the stick insects species don’t have the same diet. However, they all are phytophagous (feeding on plants), and most of them accept several types of foliage. When keeping them, you are not likely to give your stick insects the foliage that they would find in nature, so you must find some substitute plants. Most of them will accept bramble, which is an advantage as it can be found everywhere, even in winter time ! Be careful, if you have read that stick insects can eat poison ivy, some do, but not all of them, so don’t poison or starve them because you have been misinformed.
- A jam jar : All of us eat jam, or else we can get a jar when visiting grandma. The main interest is to have an empty jar that can be used as a water reserve, then make a hole in the lid to put branches into it. To drill the lid, take a shear, push it in and turn it, it is hard the first time but with practice you will succeed, so don’t worry if it’s not perfect.
- Paper towel : You don’t have to, but if you want to cover the bottom of the cage with paper towel, it will keep a bit of humidity, and it will help the cleaning and the harvest eggs along. Now if you opt for a terrarium with substrate it has no point.
- A nest box : This is not necessary for all stick insects as most of them will just “drop” their eggs anywhere on the floor, but if you choose a species that needs a place to lay, the insects will need a nest box somewhere in their environment. To do so, nothing simpler, an old tupperware, a butter box, basically any container that you will be able to close after to keep the humidity.
- A trowel : One of the best tools for any insect keeper. The trowel will permit you to scrub the bottom of your farming containers to remove all of your animals’ dejections. This one is a basic tool that can be found in any DIY store, even in some supermarkets.
Choosing your species :
This non-exhaustive list will give you a few examples :
- Carausius morosus : The ‘common’, ‘Indian’ or ‘laboratory’ stick insect is one of the most common in the hobby. Its diet includes bramble and ivy.
- Medauroidea extradentata : The Vietnamese or Annam walking stick, very appropriate for beginners, they are easy to handle.
“Ok fine, but I don’t want a stick, I want something more impressive.”
- Phyllium phillipinicum : Beginners are often advised not to start with leaf insects because they are noticeably more difficult to look after, however this species can be kept without too much worry.
- Extatosoma tiaratum : The giant priclky stick insect, completely harmless, however the females have little barbs than can be surprising.
Later on, when you feel like lauching into more difficult species, you will be spoilt for choice, your supplier will be the most difficult thing to find !
Your set-up :
You first need to find what the ideal place would be, because plants and stick insects like the light but not too much direct sunlight, and if the sun hits the panes of the cage you will create an oven (which is not the ideal environment). If you don’t have this ideal place in your home, no problem, you adapt, install an artificial light in the room if it’s too dark. You can always move the cage later on, it is not as heavy as an aquarium !
You can now install everything, cover the bottom with paper towel, and next you arrange the jar filled with water in which you will put your foliage from now on.
If you did well with your research, you are now ready to put the stick insects with the correct leaves.
Depending on the species, some stick insects need more humidity, but just assume that you need to spray your insects with rainwater once a day, this will provide them some coolness as well as something to drink.
Foliage changing :
One would think that you need to remove all the foliage, spot the stick insects on it, take them out and put them back on the fresh foliage. The thing is, it’s a long process, you can forget some insects and it’s also stressful for them.
The best option that I would suggest is to place another jar filled with new foliage in your terrarium and let the stick insects move on their own during the night, and then you remove the other bunch on the next day, there will not be much insects left to find/manipulate and the changing process seems more natural for them.
Egg collecting and terrarium cleaning :
Whether you have covered the bottom with paper towel or let it bare, there is nothing simpler.
This applies to those of you who keep adult stick insects and thus who have eggs. Otherwise, you proceed in the same way, but instead of putting all the droppings on the desk, put them into the bin.
- Fold up the paper towel in order to avoid dropping things as much as possible, then take that to a clear space so it’s easier for you to sort the eggs, a desk is a smart choice for example. Spread out the towel content on a white sheet of paper in order to get a better visibility. Then collect the eggs one by one and put them in the incubator. If you find yourself with too many eggs, the least cruel method to get rid of them is freezing.
- To collect what lies on the bottom and clean at the same time, the simplest is to scrape everything with the trowel (mentioned in the paragraph about the required equipment). To sort the eggs, same principle as above. Spread out everything that you gathered on a white sheet of paper to get a better visibility. Then collect the eggs one by one and put them in the incubator. If you find yourself with too many eggs, the least cruel method to get rid of them is freezing.
Egg incubation :
You have sorted the eggs beforehand and want them to hatch to see lots of stick insect babies running around ? No problem, I’m going to tell you how to do this.
1. Take a plastic box like the ones with salad or grated carrots inside. (Don’t buy it if you don’t like it, I’m personally against that, but their boxes are convenient, and tabbouleh makes a good meal when you don’t feel like cooking.)
2. Take a needle and make little holes in the box, then fill up the bottom with vermiculite. It’s a neutral substrate that can be found everywhere and it shouldn’t rot.
3. Moisten with tap water, without soaking, remember that stick insects are not aquatic insects.
4. Put the eggs in, and close the box.
5. Place the box in a warm and constant place. The ideal would be a place where it’s 25°C (77°F) all the time.
6. Wait and keep a close eye on humidity, if the substrate gets dry then humidify it again.
7. You will have to wait quite a few months. In certain species the incubation period can last up to a year. So once again, do your research on the species that you want to keep and don’t stress out if it’s taking some time.
Observations and experiences :
At the beginning of your stick insect keeping, simply spoting them in the terrarium will be a great satisfaction, you will then have the opportunity to attend a moult, which is quite a special phenomenon for an insect.
When you gain enough experience, it is then possible to find more difficult and impressive species to keep.
And for the bravest out there, some species can change colour depending on their environment. This is the case of the giant prickly stick insect (Extatosoma tiaratum).
Its colour can change a lot, and the colours from the first image are often seen : green, beige, brown and orangey. And some farmers can even manage to get a lichen colour.
If you still face difficulties despite all my valuable tips, don’t hesitate to ask me questions in the comments. Also don’t forget to follow me on this blog and on social media so that you don’t miss any of my articles. See you next week for a new article !
Special thanks :
I want to thank all the following people for their pictures.
Nico l’As Thouault