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Insects as Pets

In the United States, perhaps the most common insects kept as pets are ants in commercial ant farms. Otherwise in the U.S., there has never been a great desire to keep insects as pets. However, in other parts of the world, especially Japan, insects are often kept as household pets, as commonly as dogs and cats in the United States. Sometimes, there is true value in having insects as pets. Night-singing crickets as household pets have been used in the Orient to indicate the presence of intruders, because the crickets suddenly stop singing when disturbed by other noise. Singing crickets and katydids have been kept as pets widely through the Far East and the Mediterranean Region for thousands of years. The Japanese strongly accept insects as pets, and sell living crickets and bamboo cages in markets. The advantages of having insects as pets are that they are not difficult to find, don't require great care except for feeding, and they can be kept in relatively little space. The following are the most practical of insect pets:

Field Crickets. These insects have no wing beneath their wing covers and are therefore not able to fly. As musicians, they make wonderful pets, and can be kept in a large glass bowl or aquarium. The container should have several inches of soil or loam and be covered with a piece of cheesecloth or wire screening to prevent the crickets from escaping. They eat lettuce, fruit and moist bread. Dried dog food also is a reasonable food for crickets.

Praying Mantids. A fish aquarium with screened top will work as an enclosure for this pet, although home-made insect cages are perhaps better. The enclosure should have a layer of soil on the bottom, and small plants or small branches for the mantid to climb. Mantids are cannibalistic, both as nymphs and adults, and should be kept as individuals in compartments of an enclosure. Egg cases are best gathered in the spring, and brought into the house only after they start to hatch.

Ant-Lions. As immatures, ant-lions are known as "Doodle-bugs," and are generally familiar to most people. Doodle-bugs form cone-like pits in sandy soil, and then await at the bottom of the pit until a passing insect, often an ant, falls into the pit where it is captured and eaten. Sometimes insects don't fall into the pit for weeks, but the doodle-bug is able to survive between meals. It may be two or three years before doodle-bugs become adult ant-lions. Doodle-bugs should be kept in a shallow box or dish of sand where they will build pits to entrap live prey.

Caterpillars. Observing a caterpillar change through the pupal stage into the adult stage is a fascinating lesson in nature, and is recommended as an individual or group exercise during the childhood years. When finding a caterpillar to rear, one should note the plant foliage on which it is feeding, because it is important to resupply food as the insect develops. Small branches of the food plant may be broken off and placed in a small water jar in the rearing cage. Another choice is to build a small enclosure around the caterpillar and its surroundings on the food plant, using a transparent material or screening. Any such device should include "plugs" at the end (clothing, cardboard or such) that will keep the insect from escaping. When the caterpillar enters the pupal stage (chrysalis or cocoon) , it may be left in place or removed to be kept for closer observation. It is important to keep the pupa outdoors in a natural state of weather. When the moth or butterfly emerges, the wings should slowly unfold, and the wings will dry before the insect moves and flies.

Mealworms. Although called "mealworms," these insects are actually not worms but rather the immature larvae of a black beetle. Mealworms are reared in great numbers for commercial purposes, usually for food for certain birds, lizards, snakes and other animals. Unfortunately, mealworms are also pests, annually destroying great amounts of stored grains and flour. For successful rearing of these insects from egg to adult, nearly any reasonable container may be used (a glass jar, a tight box, crock, or a large tin can being possibilities). The container should be filled half full of food (cornmeal, breakfast bran cereal, or wheat in some form) . Adding a few bread crusts, half an apple or raw potato, and a sheet of crushed newspaper will be helpful. Mealworms themselves may be purchased at a pet store. Place the container in a temperature of about 70 degrees F., and remove any uneaten pieces of food. About six months are necessary for a full life cycle.

Selected References:

Frankel, Lillian & Frankel, Godfrey. 1959. 101 Best Nature Games and Projects. Gramercy Publ. Co., New York.

Headstrom, Richard. 1973. Your Insect Pet, 159 pages, David McKay Co., New York.

 

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Prepared by the Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

Information Sheet Number 55

5/99

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