Leaf insects are a group of insects that are so-called because they closely resemble leaves. Adult females tend to be particularly good mimics, with even their wings taking on the color and texture of leaves, complete with fine veins. This camouflage helps leaf insects to avoid detection by predators, for whom a large specimen would make a juicy snack.
Leaf Insects as Pets
Leaf insects make undemanding yet fascinating pets. Prepare to astonish your friends and family with just how well your new pets manage to mimic the plants on which they sit!
Living for roughly a year, leaf insects are docile pets that can be handled safely by keepers of all ages. Only the adults have wings, meaning that immature specimens can be easily handled without risk, whilst only the adult males are what might be referred to as “strong fliers”. The adult females, whilst possessing wings, are generally too heavy to fly very far.
It is important to remember when keeping leaf insects that they are insects of the tropics, and as a result most specimens will require some form of artificial heating in all but the warmest months of the year.
Unlike their close allies the stick insects, sourcing leaf insects is not always an easy task. The best option is normally to visit entomological shows or to search online in order to find a breeder. While some keepers opt to buy adult specimens, be aware that they may only live for a matter of months before dying of old age. In contrast, hatchling leaf insects can be infuriatingly delicate, and inexperienced keepers may struggle to rear them to adulthood.
If the option arises, therefore, it is generally better to buy part-grown leaf insects which will be tougher than hatchlings, but still have a good length of life left in them. Leaf insects are reasonably easy to breed, so once you have some adults you should be able to continue your colony indefinitely.
Housing Leaf Insects
Leaf insects are relatively docile insects that get on well as a group. Unlike tarantulas and praying mantis, which will want to be kept separately, one can safely keep a colony of leaf insects together in a single cage.
Leaf insects are arboreal, meaning that they spend the vast majority of their time off the ground. They are most commonly encountered in bushes and trees, where they lie motionless for large parts of the day. Only after dark do this typically start moving around, feeding on the leaves around them.
Their arboreal nature, and the need to provide them with plant matter to eat, means that a decent-sized cage is necessary for larger specimens.
As your leaf insects grow, so you will notice them changing their skins regularly. Your specimens will emerge from their old skin with a new, soft and noticeably larger suit of armour. It is critical to provide enough space for this moulting process to occur, particularly with respect to the height of the cage.
There are several popular options when it comes to housing leaf insects. The first of these are mesh cages, which are cheap to buy and weigh very little. The benefit of such cages is that leaf insects find it easy to climb up the sides, making it easy for them to reach their food.
The problem with mesh cages makes itself felt as the weather starts to cool. A cage made from mesh is very difficult to heat in cold weather, and your leaf insects may suffer as a result.
A better option for captive leaf insects is a tall glass vivarium, as is sold by some specialist pet store. These cages not only permit excellent visibility, but are much easier to heat.
Heating Leaf Insects
Leaf insects do best at a temperature of around 25’C. As there is some flexibility in this temperature, even in the UK I find that my leaf insects do very well in summer with no heating whatsoever.
On the other hand, in winter a heat mat will likely be necessary. Try not to heat the entire cage, but instead warm one side, while leaving the other half cooler. In this way, your leaf insects can move about to find a temperature that suits them best.
Leaf Insect Food
Leaf insects are herbivorous – meaning they eat only plant matter. Possibly the most popular food among leaf insect keepers is bramble leaves. These are available throughout the year, even in snow, and make a easily-sourced foodstuff.
Note that bramble leaves can quickly dry up and shrivel in a warm vivarium. At this point, your leaf insects are likely to refuse your food. While one solution to this problem is to provide fresh leaves each and every day, for many of us this is not a practical solution. Perhaps a better option, which I use myself, is to place the sprigs of blackberry leaves into a jar of water – rather like you might with a bunch of cut flowers. Under such circumstances the leaves tend to remain fresh and green for a week or more.
This removes the need to source fresh leaves each day, and means that your leaf insects can largely take care of themselves for a week at a time. With no handling necessary, and only minimal cleaning being necessary, this strategy makes leaf insects one of the easiest of all exotic pets, requiring only a small amount of attention once a week to remain fit and healthy.
Breeding Leaf Insects
Adult leaf insects are easily identifiable by their full-sized wings. It is also very easy to tell males from females, as the males are noticeably smaller and slighter, while the females are broad and heavy. With a little skill it is quite easy to even sex leaf insects long before maturity, ensuring that you have specimens of box sexes ready for breeding. All you need to breed leaf insects are an adult pair, though of course more adults will greatly increase your odds of success.
No real work is required on the part of the leaf insect owner. Leaf insects often mate at night, so you may not even be aware that breeding is going on. If you are lucky enough to observe leaf insect mating then you’ll likely find the male resting on the female’s back, with his abdomen delicately tucked around hers.
Soon afterward, your female leaf insects should start to produce eggs. The eggs are simply fired out of the female and fall to the bottom of the cage. Here’s a picture of some leaf insect eggs laid by my females. Here they can be gathered up and incubated away from the parents.
Eggs may take some 2-3 months to hatch, where upon you will be greeted by dozens of tiny brown ant-like baby leaf insects ready to start the colony all over again.
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