by Gareth Price, 28th May 2001
Before acquiring your stick insects, it is important to consider their housing requirements and ensure that the necessary food and equipment are readily available. Although stick insects are relatively easy to keep and breed, problems can occur when they are housed in inadequate or improper conditions. As many people who have experience with this creatures will know, their prolific nature means that housing becomes a real issue, leading to cramped, confined enclosures that support the growth of mould and fungus.
A number of housing options are available, their suitability depending partly on the species concerned. If you wish to keep some of the larger species, such as the jungle nymph, you may need to provide very spacious surroundings. In contrast, if you are interested only in smaller species (such as dares, aretaon or carausius) a large sweets' jar will suffice. It is important to remember that stick insects need sufficient space if they are to moult and develop without difficulty. In practical terms, this means that they must be able to hang upside down easily, to manoeuvre themselves out of their old skin. As a rule of thumb, the height of their accommodation must therefore be at least twice as great as their length. Perhaps the most useful design is a tall, transparent container with ventilation holes in the top. In its simplest form, this can be a glass jar with a nylon mesh top held in place with a rubber band. Cages sold specifically for housing small insects, including caterpillars, are based on this simple design but come in a variety of sizes.
An alternative design, useful for stick insects, leaf insects etc. consists of a wooden frame covered with nylon netting. The front of the cage is removable, allowing you to replace food and clean out the interior. The amount of ventilation can be controlled by fixing clear plastic over one or more of the sides. These wooden units are available from specialist entomological suppliers, such as small-life supplies or world wide butterflies, for a reasonable price. However, if you are on a particularly tight budget, it might be worthwhile considering the DIY approach.
It is often possible for the new enthusiast to build his/her own enclosure providing they have some basic handyman skills. This type of enclosure can be built using nylon netting, which can then be tacked or stapled to a wooden frame. (Black netting is preferable as it gives you better visibility than white once the unit is completed.) One potential pitfall when building your own enclosure at home is that homemade enclosures are nearly always made of wood, which is difficult, to clean and prone to rot. However, if you have a large number of sticks, a homemade enclosure can prove a very suitable option.
You can construct a suitable accommodation using 1in (0.625cm) wood. Small panel pins or staples can be used to hold the framework together although it is often easier to glue these into place. Construct each of the four sides separately, with the two opposite sides, of course, being of equal size and all four being of equal height. With the sides complete, you can then screw or glue them together with a suitable adhesive. Then construct the top in a similar fashion, making sure that it provides a tight fit. It is useful to hinge the top, rather than one of the sides, to act as a door, as there is then less risk of the insects escaping while you service their quarters. The base of the unit is best made of a thin piece of plywood, which can be tacked onto the bottom to create a secure structure.
Once the structure has been allowed to dry, you can begin to tack the black nylon netting so that it covers each side of the enclosure. Once you are confident that the material is held securely, you can begin to trim off any excess material from around the edges. Once your enclosure is completed, you should think about treating it with a couple of coats of varnish in order to extend its inevitably short life. You could also think about inserting some clips onto the top of the enclosure that will service as retainers for the insects foodplant.
A variation on this design consists of a cylindrical mesh cage that can be hung from a hook or converted to a free standing cage by placing thin wooden struts between the upper and lower frame. This type of cage is particularly useful for housing insects that are seasonal, especially caterpillars; when not in use, it can be collapsed and stored away easily.
Facts and Figures
Now that we have discussed the general do's and dont's of housing your invertebrates, lets take time to look at some general facts & figures which may make your job just a little bit easier. These include handy product tips, design techniques and guidelines all developed from personal experience.
If you have anything to add, or have refined my own ideas, please feel free to contact me and I'll see about publishing them on the web. Similarly, why not post your ideas on the phasmid mailing list, or the sticklist? I'm sure there are many less experienced beginners who would be glad of your help (i'm one of em!)
A Rule of thumb
As far as housing your phasmids is concerned, it is generally accepted that a height of three times the total length of the insect is adequate, as this allows it to move around and moult without difficulty. Adequate accomodation will alow for proper ventilation and circulation, which will retard the growth of moulds and fungi. Therefore, I would strongly advise you to consider an insects needs before you make any long term commitment. If the housing is improper, it is likely that your encounter with your new pet will be brief. You can easily calculate the size of your enclosure by multiplying the adult length of your insect by three, to find the height, halving this to find the width and subtracting 1/2 an inch for every inch of width to find the depth (got it?). However, for those of you who are hopless at maths, I have put together a handy table for you to print out and use as a reference if you wish.
Another important thing when designing your enclosure, is to allow for the implementation of clips, which will service as retainers for the insects food plant. I usually build these into the roof, as they can then hang down into the enclosure, leaving more floor space for ground dwelling animals and egg laying females.
Speaking of which, it is a good idea to line your enclosure with some good quality sharp sand (available from garden centres and DIY stores) as this allows gravid females to lay their eggs effortlessly and also because it is one of the only substrates that can be effectively "cleaned." By using a fine sieve, particles of waste can be removed and the remaining sand can be soaked, spread on a broad sheet of paper and left outdoors to dry.
That's all folks! it won't belong before you all start raiding your tool sheds and building something cheap and really spectacular! Just don't rip up your Mum's best cupboard (gulp!!)