Leaf insects are so-called because of their uncanny likeness to leaves. Green in colour, leaf-like in shape, with the wings of adults even having a “ribbed” or “veined” appearance like leaves.
So good is their camouflage that the untrained eye often can’t even see them in a cage.
The leaf insect is, in short, a wonder of nature. It’s also a perfect pet for someone looking for something a little bit “different”, but without requiring too much specialist care or expensive equipment.
Read on to discover all you need to know to keep leaf insects as pets…
Ease of Care
A number of different leaf insects may be found in the hobby, though the care of all species is similar. While these insects are typically classed as “exotic pets”, meaning that they are not a traditional pet, their care is reasonably easy.
Once you have purchased the necessary equipment and set up their cage they require very little ongoing maintenance.
Leaf insects produce virtually no smell, especially if cleaned regularly, and make no sound apart from the sound of them softly clambering about their cage. They have no sharp spines or mouthparts, and therefore can cause no damage to children or other pets.
Lastly, while leaf insects reach a comfortable size for handling in time, they require only modest-sized cages. This makes them ideal pets for those with minimal space and/or time. They are also ideal for pet owners looking for something a little bit different, without the cost, complexity or commitment of caring for a snake or lizard.
Where to Buy Leaf Insects
Leaf insects are still quite an unusual pet, and the adults tend to live only for a few months after reaching maturity.
This means that leaf insects are rarely seen for sale in pet stores; instead it will normally be necessary to purchase directly from a breeder.
This is no bad thing, as it affords you the opportunity to ask questions before purchase, and hear right from the experts.
On the other hand, tracking down these breeders can be a challenge. Online forums and classified ad sites for exotic pet keepers may be your best option here, whereby eggs or live insects can be shipped to your home.
Alternatively, entomological shows often have leaf insects available as they are attended by breeders from around the country.
Leaf Insect Equipment & Supplies
In comparison to a bearded dragon or a ball python the equipment required to keep leaf insects as pets is modest. To start with you’ll want a suitable cage in which to keep your insects. Here it is important to differentiate between small youngsters (those under 3-4cm in length) and larger individuals, as their care can be quite different.
The key difference is that youngsters struggle when not kept in very humid environments. It seems they quickly become dehydrated and die.
Younger leaf insects are therefore best kept in sealed plastic containers with minimal ventilation. Plastic tupperware containers such as those designed to hold cakes therefore tend to work well, as can old sweet jars.
Older leaf insects, however, can be housed is far more aesthetically-pleasing surroundings. Here humidity is less of an issue, so you can let your imagination run a little wilder with their housing options.
Two solutions are particularly popular. The first of these are collapsible mesh cages. The second option is a glass tank with a mesh lid for ventilation, such as the ever-popular Exo Terra.
Like stick insects, leaf insects need to moult by attaching themselves to a branch and then slowly “sliding out” of their old skin. As a result it is critical that older leaf insects are kept in taller cages. A cage of around 18-24″ in height is ideal for adults, while the length and depth are less critical. A cage of 12-18″ in length and depth tends to work well.
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As tropical insects, leaf insects also require some form of artificial heating, especially in the colder months. This is best provided with a heat mat attached to a reliable thermostat.
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The final piece of equipment that you might like to purchase for your leaf insects is a house plant mister. This allows you to easily mist your adult insects several times a week, allowing them to drink from the droplets.
Most other pieces of equipment can be easily found in the home, or sourced from non-specialist shops.
Setting Up A Leaf Insect Cage
Setting up a leaf insect cage is reasonably simple. For youngsters, line the base of the cage with a few layers of standard kitchen towel. This helps to absorb excess moisture, thus preventing tiny hatchling from getting stuck in water droplets and drowning.
The chosen food plant (see below) is then loosely packed into the plastic container. The goal here is to provide a “3d mesh” of stems and leaves, that both allow your leaf insects to climb effortlessly around the cage, while still providing enough space for them to moult successfully. The young leaf insects are placed into the container and the lid is carefully closed.
For adults, the food plants are best inserted into a container of water such as an old glass jam jar. This helps to keep the food plant fresher for longer, cutting down on your routine maintenance.
Whichever setup you use, the cage should then be placed half on, and half off, a suitable heat mat which is being controlled with a thermostat.
This really is all the equipment necessary, and will create an ideal environment for your leaf insects.
Feeding Leaf Insects
Leaf insects eat a range of different plant materials. Most popular are bramble leaves, though oak, rose and guava may also be taken.
It is important that these leaves should be fresh and juicy; older leaves that are starting to wilt or dry up should be replaced.
If you follow the housing suggestions above this should only be necessary once every week or so.
If the food plants are not provided with suitable moisture while in the cage they can dry up in a matter of a day or two, greatly increasing the work you need to do.
Routine Care & Maintenance
Leaf insects are clean and scent-free animals that require very little ongoing maintenance. Once your cage is set up properly the ongoing effort can be neatly divided into three specific tasks.
The first of these is to monitor the temperature and humidity within the cage regularly. A digital thermometer can be a handy way to check that the cage is being kept warm enough. Just as importantly, however, the humidity should be controlled.
For young leaf insects, kept in a sealed container with minimal ventilation, care should be taken to prevent too much moisture. Cage walls covered in large drips of water can lead to drowning, so be willing to remove the lid and gently mop up excess moisture using kitchen towel.
For adults, with better ventilation, the situation is quite the opposite. Use your houseplant mister to gently spray the cage two or three times a week. The adults will drink these water droplets, helping to keep them fit and healthy.
After monitoring environmental conditions, the second routine task is to monitor the condition of food plants, and replace them as necessary. Given a healthy supply, most food plants last some 5-9 days in my experience.
In general a weekly change is acceptable, though if you find leaves turning brown and rotting, or drying out and turning crispy then changing the plants will be necessary. In short, your leaf insects should always have a healthy supply of lush, green leaves to eat.
The final task involves routine cleaning. Fortunately, this is reasonably simple, and is most easily accomplished while changing the food plants. Simply remove the kitchen towel lining the base, scrub the cage clean, dry it thoroughly and then replace the kitchen towel in the base.
The foodplant can then be changed, and your leaf insects should be good-to-go for another week.
Handling Leaf Insects
Leaf insects are wonderful pets to handle. They’re docile, slow moving and cause no harm at all so can be safely handled by children and adults alike. That said, leaf insects can be fragile, especially when they are younger, so they should be handled gently and calmly to prevent damage.
Adult specimens are altogether more sturdy. They can either be nudged into a flat hand, or simply scooped up off their food plant.
The one thing you should be aware of when handing adult specimens is that they have fully-formed wings. Adult females tend not to fly, and can be handled without issue.
Males, however, can fly surprisingly well and may take off from your hand if given the opportunity. In other words, when handling adult males always do so in a sealed room, where the insect can’t come to any harm if it makes a break for freedom.
Open water and open fires, for example, can pose a danger. In truth, the adult males don’t fly like a butterfly; they won’t flap their way round and round the room. Instead, they’ll normally take off in a single direction, rapidly falling to the ground.
Even a male that flies off can therefore be easily recaptured and returned to the cage safely.