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Beyond Tarantulas – The Amazing Diversity of Insects in the Pet Trade

Tarantulas and scorpions have long been invertebrate pet staples, with over 150 species being captive bred in large numbers.  However, insect keeping, always popular in Japan but much less so elsewhere, is now coming into its own in the USA.  I recently found that over 50 stick and leaf insect, 30 mantid, 25 cockroach and 25 beetle species, along with numerous grasshoppers, katydids, butterflies and moths, are now regularly bred in captivity.

Velvet Ants, Tarantula Wasps, Giant Water Bugs and innumerable others are also kept in smaller numbers, and are growing in popularity.  An aquatic insect exhibit I recently designed for the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, featuring the usually ignored Water Scorpions and Whirligig, diving and water scavenger beetles, is a big hit with visitors.

Grand Possibilities

The potential diversity of insects that may be kept in captivity is limitless, and many exhibit their entire life cycles and full range ofHercules Beetle behaviors in a relatively limited space and time span.  Those who keep insects are offered the real possibility of discovering new information.

Conservation Value

Much of what has been learned by those keeping insects in private and public collections has conservation value.  Captive breeding and reintroduction programs for endangered species ranging from Sphinx Moths in Arizona to Burying Beetles in Rhode Island have yielded promising results.

Other Invertebrates

An astonishing array of other terrestrial invertebrates are also being kept and bred in captivity, including Banana Slugs, trapdoor, orb-weaver, wolf and crab spiders, centipedes, millipedes, Vinegaroons and Sun Scorpions, to name just a few.  

Further Reading

Japan’s Tama Zoo boasts 2 giant insect houses…be forewarned, insect aficionados who visit will emerge in shock, as did I!

Phasmids (walking sticks and walking leaves) have long been popular as captives in Europe. Photos of many of the nearly 3,000 described species, along with natural history notes, are posted here.

Founded in 1892, and with roots dating to 1872, the NY Entomological Society is an invaluable resource for insect enthusiasts. To learn more about this well-respected group and its publications, please visit their website.



Wild Caught Invertebrates as Reptile and Amphibian Food – Pesticide Concerns – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for a general discussion regarding the collection of insects and other invertebrates and their use in the diets of captive reptiles, amphibians, birds, invertebrates and fishes. Today I’d like to focus on some areas of special concern.

Toxic and Biting/Stinging Invertebrates

Black WidowWhile not involving pesticides per se, for your own safety and that of your collection it is imperative that you learn to identify the toxic or otherwise dangerous invertebrates that you may encounter while collecting. A good field guide (i.e. Audubon, Golden Guide or Peterson series) is indispensable in this regard. Be sure to handle unfamiliar species with plastic tongs.

Please bear in mind that even relatively mild bee venom can cause fatalities in allergic people. And while less than 1% of the world’s 40,000+ species of spiders are considered dangerously venomous to us, a number readily bite both people and animals in self defense. It is best, therefore, to avoid them…the Thin-legged Harvestman or “daddy long-legs”, which are not spiders, are safe to use. Steer clear also of bees, wasps, large ants, stag beetles and others well-equipped to defend themselves.

Bright colors often indicate that an animal is toxic or bad-tasting; ladybugs, fireflies, milkweed bugs and a great many others fall into this category. Unless you are sure of an insect’s identity, the safest course of action is to avoid brightly-colored species.

Native vs. Non-Native Prey Species

In many cases, predators avoid dangerous prey animals that occur naturally within their ranges; this can spare both pet and pet- Milkweed Bugskeeper a good deal of grief!  However, dangerous non-native prey animals may be attacked with abandon if the hunter has no “frame of reference”, so use extra caution in such cases.

I have, for example, housed highly-toxic Marine Toads with Green Anacondas for decades without incident, despite the fact that anacondas consume non-toxic frogs readily. However, Australian monitors and snakes, which have no instinctive or learned toad avoidance behavior, eagerly consume the Marine Toads that have been introduced there, often with fatal results.


Earthworms are one of the most nutritious live foods available. There are, however, situations that warrant precautions.

Earthworms are unique in consuming dirt as they tunnel, and in doing so may concentrate toxins present there. To my knowledge, the only problem that has arisen thus far has involved worms that dwell along golf courses, which are subjected to unusually high degrees of pesticide application. Please see my article Raising Earthworms for details concerning striped skunks and earthworms in NY.

West Nile Control and Related Programs

Avoid collecting invertebrates for 1 week after an area has been sprayed as part of West Nile eradication efforts, and steer clear of farms where pesticides are known to be applied regularly. Avoid also local insects that are considered to be agricultural pests, as they are likely the subject of control measures (this may apply to aphids, caterpillars, Japanese Beetles, etc.).


Despite the precautions that must be taken, invertebrate collecting is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable endeavor. Don’t forget to examine your catch closely…several years ago a new species of centipede was uncovered in NYC’s Central Park, on ground trod daily by thousands of people. Like me, you just may wind up keeping some of your discoveries in captivity for their own sake!

Further Reading

For a very interesting account of how toads learn to avoid stinging insects, please see my article Amphibian Learning Abilities.

Please write in with your questions and comments.


Black Widow image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Trachemys.

Milkweed Bugs image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Greg5030.

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