Leaf insects are beautiful and fascinating creatures which are almost as easy to care for as many of the popular stick insect species currently reared in captivity but with a number of added bonuses.
Firstly they are truly impressive and fascinating creatures to observe because they really do truly resemble green leaves as adults. Secondly they are docile, unlike some of the larger species of stick insect, so can be safely handled without any risk of personal injury. Lastly keeping leaf insects is just a little bit more unusual and exotic than keeping stick insects though many of the core principles are identical.
Tell someone you keep stick insects and often their eyes glaze over as they think of the boring, green Indian or laboratory stick insect. Tell them you keep leaf insects and many people still don’t even know what they are or what they look like!
After years of keeping, breeding and then rearing baby leaf insects to adulthood I’ve picked up a number of tips from other breeders, from the small number of print books currently available on the subject and, just as importantly, from my own experimentation. If you’re keen to rear leaf insects in the home then you’re about to learn the exact techniques that I have personally found most successful thus giving you the best possible chance of success.
Why Buy Baby Leaf Insects?
As adults leaf insects can be reasonably expensive to buy, particularly when you take into the account the fact that they may only live for a few months once they reach adulthood. In this way it is entirely possible to buy some adult specimens off a legitimate breeder and have them die of old age within weeks if not days.
In this way buying baby leaf insects prolongs the pleasure of keeping them. Indeed some might even argue it increases the interest because you will be able to see your pet leaf insects growing, moulting and turning into adults eventually thanks to your commitment and hard work.
Of course in addition it’s generally far cheaper to buy baby leaf insects than adults and they also require a significantly smaller cage than the adults do meaning that at least initially they won’t take up too much space in your home.
The Keys To Rearing Baby Leaf Insects
As with most species of invertebrate kept in captivity, the younger they are the more fragile they are and so this means that it is important to get the conditions as accurate as possible when you’re dealing with juveniles.
Even then a few losses are almost inevitable but try not to let this get you down. It is perfectly natural and by following the guidance below you will maximize your chances of success in keeping this stunning insect.
That said, it is worth investing in a number of baby leaf insects when you start out rather than trying to cut costs and just buy one or two. Doing so will greatly increase your chances of ending up with an adult pair, after which you will find a non-stop stream of eggs being produced which will enable you to grow your colony considerably.
When it comes to rearing baby leaf insects I have found that there are four real secrets to success. They are feeding, cleanliness, warmth and humidity. Let’s take a closer look at each one in turn and discuss in detail what you need to be providing for your leaf insects.
In the past some keepers have found that their hatchling leaf insects refuse to feed and end up dying of starvation. A number of suggestions have been made as to the reason for this including the youngsters not realizing they can eat the food plants provided to them, a general lack of appeal of the chosen food plant and/or the fact that their tiny mouths struggle to deal with tough, older leaves.
For my own leaf insects I provide almost exclusively bramble (blackberry) leaves to eat. That said, I am experimenting with some different species of guava – the natural food plant of leaf insects in the wild. However in general bramble is a decent, reliable food source that can be found almost anyway, at any time of year (even under snow) and seems to provide leaf insects with all the nutrition that they need.
However when providing bramble that I have collected from the countryside I always pay attention to four elements.
To avoid the risk of poisoning my insects with weedkillers or pesticides I try to collect bramble in specific areas. I avoid those close to human habitation such as parks, gardens and roadsides and instead try to collect it from deep in the countryside – such as from publicly-accessible woodland – where the chances of chemicals having been used close-by are minimal.
Baby leaf insects are tiny and when collecting plant matter from the countryside it’s very easy to accidentally introduce a spider or suchlike that can quickly run amok among your leaf insects causing multiple fatalities.
I tried for some time to carefully examine every sprig before adding it to the cage but still found I missed the odd beastie that reduced the size of my colony so whilst it takes a little longer I now wash all my food plant under fast-running water – carefully wiping both sides of each leaf which, in combination with the power of the water blasting the leaves – virtually guarantees that no predators will make it into your baby leaf insect cage.
To make the food as appealing as possible and to encourage feeding I like to use a pair of scissors to gently snip the outside off some of the foodplant, which then reveals the juicy inner surface of some leaves. This seems to encourage the babies to feed voraciously and by following this simple process you give your youngsters as good a start as possible. Furthermore after a few weeks it’s possible to stop this process altogether once your leaf insects have gained an appetite for the food plant you’re providing.
The food your provide needs to be fresh. This typically means changing it two or even three times a week for youngsters. Once my leaf insects get to a decent size of an inch or two in length I move them into larger cages where I have place springs of bramble into a water-filled jam-jar. Doing so keeps the leaves fresh for a week or so, cutting down on my maintenance drastically but doing so for young nymphs really isn’t realistic. So bite the bullet if you’re going to rear baby leaf insects and appreciate you’ll need to be topping up those leaves on a regular basis.
In the warm, sweaty confines of an insect cage, with numerous hatchlings defecating plus the odd death a leaf insect cage can quickly become pretty nasty and hygiene is as important with insects as it is when keeping any other pet.
I typically clean out my leaf insects twice a week when they’re babies and once a week as adults. The adults typically make less mess overall hence the less regular cleaning.
When it comes to cleaning leaf insects out I don’t simply mean changing their food plant but rather and entire “top-to-toe” clean. I throw out old leaves (after checking them for babies!), remove all the insects themselves from their cage and give the whole cage a thorough wash and scrub before allowing it to air dry.
Because baby leaf insects can move swiftly – and you may well be keeping a number of them together – the cleaning process can be a little problematic. Add to this the fact that washing the container and letting it dry can take some time and personally I have found it useful to have “spare” cages available.
In this way I can set up a fresh cage and transfer the baby leaf insects straight into it from the “old” one and can then clean the old cage at my leisure without any risk of losing some of my precious baby leaf insects.
Coming from tropical regions leaf insects like a warm environment and this is even more important for hatchlings. Whilst adults will often cope fine in a centrally-heated room I like to try and provide some gentle background heat for hatchlings and you will normally find that those insects that are kept warmer will grow quicker too and attain adulthood that bit sooner.
To do this I like to leave one end of my leaf insect cages on a reptile heat pad, whilst the main body of the container is off it. In this way a gentle temperature gradient is created with one end warmer than the other allowing the insects to choose the temperature that they find most comfortable.
As always, if I find all the babies at the heated end I move more of the cage onto the heater and vice versa. By paying attention to the behaviour of your pets in this way you will be able to give them the best possible conditions to grow and thrive.
The element I have left till last is humidity – and for good reason. In my experience humidity is the single most important aspect of all and I can trace my success rate almost directly to my provision of the correct moisture levels in my baby leaf insect cages.
Put simply, baby leaf insects rapidly get dehydrated and when they do so they often die. Furthermore a humid environment is often needed to allow your pets to easily change their skins – as they will naturally do many times while growing.
On the flip-side, small leaf insects can become trapped in large droplets of water and a “wet” rather than a “moist” environment can encourage mould and/or breathing problems.
Finding the right balance is therefore essential to your success.
In warmer months I like to keep my adults in net cages, where they can easily climb, where the netting allows a strong and reliable foothold and where the air movement prevents stagnant air building up.
However I have equally found that these net cages are not suitable for youngsters as they don’t allow you to raise the humidity to a suitable level.
For rearing baby leaf insects I like to use small aquariums or plastic boxes as sold by many supermarkets or hardware stores for keeping food, tools and so on in. I like the clear plastic ones to maintain visibility and look for a size of around 30cm long by 15-20cm wide and tall.
A container of these dimensions is ideal for hatchlings and it provides the necessary space to move around, to moult and also for me to include plenty of leaves to feed on. Equally it isn’t so large that the babies can become lost and I can also easily reach any part of the cage for spot cleaning, rescuing any sick-looking individual and so on.
I use containers with tight-fitting lids to keep the tiny babies in – and these also help to keep in the moisture. The base of the container is covered with a thick layer of kitchen towel to absorb any excess moisture and thus prevent drowning by the babies.
In this environment the leaves will naturally transpire and give out moisture vapour which is then trapped within the confines of the cage providing a moist environment ideal for rearing leaf insects in.
Regular changing of the leaves ensures a constantly supply of moisture while regular cleaning means that stagnant air can escape on a regular basis and the kitchen towel never becomes too soggy so as to become a danger to the insects.
Setting Up A Cage For Your Leaf Insects
Setting up a cage for baby leaf insects is therefore simple if you have paid attention to the steps outlined above. Find yourself a couple of decent-sized plastic containers (Tupperware boxes are ideal) and, keeping at least one as a spare to make cleaning easier, line the base of the remaining container(s) with kitchen towel.
Add to the container some freshly-cut and washed food, add the insects and secure the lid. Place one end of the container on a heat mat and then simply place the container in an area where it won’t suffer from temperature extremes. This means avoiding windows for example where direct sunlight could cook your pets or where a breeze could lead to an unpleasantly cold atmosphere for your leaf insects.
Kept in this simple manner you should find your leaf insects remain fit and healthy and grow at an impressive rate. Soon enough you’ll need to start moving them up into larger cages until you find yourself with a number of adult specimens who will lay eggs and therefore start the process all over again.