Leaf insects are herbivores, which means that they eat plant material.
What’s more, the fresher this plant material is, the better.
A dried, shrivelled up leaf is unlikely to be anywhere near as interesting as a juicy new leaf to your pets.
While leaf insects eat a range of different plants in the wild, these are generally not available to us as hobbyists.
Instead, leaf insect keepers have slowly experimented with a range of different food stuffs over the years to find those that are most agreeable to our pets.
For leaf insects, the best staple food plant is blackberry / bramble leaves. These can be widely found in the countryside, and even in some urban hedges. If you have them growing in your garden then all the better.
Just be careful with the spines, which can be fearsome. The use of both sharp secateurs for cutting and some thick gardening gloves can make this process a lot easier and more comfortable! Note that bramble deserves special mention as it is an evergreen plant.
Even in the depths of winter, when snow covers the ground, it is possible to find some suitable leaves. This is not always the case for the other foodplants of leaf insects.
If it is easier, other plants may also be fed. Among hobbyists the two traditional alternatives are oak (acorn) leaves and rose leaves. As a last resort, some leaf insect keepers have found that their pets will take to strawberry guava leaves, though I have personally found the uptake to be less than impressive.
All the same, it can be worth trying your leaf insects on guava, as it can be grown as a house plant on your windowsill. This saves the time and effort of going out when it’s freezing cold to hunt for bramble leaves.
Be prepared for some odd looks if someone catches you in your local park cutting off pieces of blackberry and stuffing them into a carrier bag!
How to Harvest Food for Leaf Insects
While in a perfect world your leaf insects would have access to live, growing plants in reality this is generally not possible. Instead we give them long sprigs cut off the plant.
It is preferable to use secateurs to cut leaf-bearing sections off, rather than just plucking individual leaves, as the sprigs seem to last much longer in cage surroundings.
The stems also give your leaf insects something to climb up, which also makes moulting much easier for them.
If you must travel some distance between collecting food plants and actually placing it into your leaf insect cage then it makes sense to place the stems into a plastic bag and seal it properly.
This helps to keep in moisture; as leaves dry out so they lose appeal to leaf insects, so the use of plastic bags keeps your food fresher for longer.
Warnings to Be Aware Of
Collecting food plants from your garden, or from public places like parks and forests, does bring with it a range of potential problems. Here, therefore, it pays to spend a few minutes discussing some warnings you should be aware of.
The first of these considerations should be whether a potential food plant has come into contact with harmful chemicals. Weed killers, for example, or car fumes.
Try as much as you can to avoid collecting plants from roadside verges, therefore, or anywhere you’re confident that garden chemicals may have been used recently. For this reason, either gathering plants from your own garden, or deep in the countryside, tends to work best.
Secondly, especially when feeding young leaf insects, be aware that wild plants can harbour all sorts of predators.
It is all too easy to collect some bramble leaves and pop them straight into the cage at home, only to discover too late that a spider had hitched a ride, and has consequently eaten all your pets.
On arrival at home, therefore, it pays to carefully check over the plant material gathered to identify and remove any predators which may have hitched a lift.
Personally speaking, to minimize the impact of both these potential risks, I like to thoroughly wash my food plants after gathering.
Placed into the bath tub, they can be pounded with water from your shower head for a few moments, which helps to wash off chemicals or unwanted predators.
How to Feed Juvenile Leaf Insects
Care for hatchling and juvenile leaf insects is quite different to looking after adults. The key to success here is that they require a high ambient humidity to thrive. Additionally, due to their small size it is all too easy to dispose of your pets when replacing large volumes of leaves.
Most young leaf insects do well in a sealed plastic cage, designed to maximize humidity.
Fortunately this moist environment also helps to keep food plants fresher for longer. Stuffing the leaves into the plastic tupperware is normally enough to keep them fresh for a week or more.
As they start to dry out the leaves can be replaced for fresh ones, taking great care to inspect each and every leaf that is removed, to avoid throwing some of your beloved pets in the bin.
Note that hatchling leaf insects can struggle to chew through the tough edges of many leaves, so they require additional help. All you need to do is gently expose the juicy inside of the leaves, by gently snipping off the outer surface with a pair of scissors.
This sounds annoyingly particular but really doesn’t take long once you get used to it. The bigger your leaf insects get, the less need there is to remove the outer surface so feeding leaf insects does get easier with time.
How to Feed Adult Leaf Insects
Feeding adult leaf insects is considerably easier than feeding youngsters. By this stage your insects will have obtained a good size, and will easily be able to chomp through leaves without assistance.
Humidity also becomes less of an issue. For this reason mesh cages may be used for larger leaf insects, or Exo Terras if you want a particularly eye-catching display.
At the same time, the reduced humidity means that food plants can dry out much quicker, requiring more regular replacement. The trick, like a bouquet of flowers, is to place the stems into a container of fresh water. Following this system leaves may stay fresh for 5-7 days, making for only weekly feeding and cleaning.
The process is simple. After gathering the food plants, and carefully inspecting them for predators, gather all the stems together as if making a bouquet. Then insert these stems into a heavy jam jar or other clear glass container.
Aim to cram the stems in tightly, so that there are no spaces. We do not want your leaf insects falling in and drowning, and we don’t want eggs falling into the water either.
Once your “vase” is full, run it under the tap to fill up the container with water, and place this into your leaf insect cage. All you need do after introducing your leaf insects is to check that the water in the jar isn’t getting too low and that the leaves aren’t drying out too quickly.
As you can see, while some effort is required, especially when feeding young leaf insects, the process of feeding your insects needn’t take too much time. Following these procedures makes providing your leaf insects with healthy, good-quality plant material surprisingly easy and effort-free, requiring only minimal ongoing maintenance.