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Stick insects thrive without special attention... but multiply!

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If you have too many stick insects, find a victim to take them on as pets rather than releasing them into the wild. Photo:foxgully.wordpress.com

If you have too many stick insects, find a victim to take them on as pets rather than releasing them into the wild. Photo:foxgully.wordpress.com

If you have too many stick insects, find a victim to take them on as pets rather than releasing them into the wild. Photo:foxgully.wordpress.com

bin. So they decided to release them into the garden. The mother and children did this quietly, because the father of the house was a keen gardener, and they didn't feel that there was a need to get him involved: he might just say "no" to their plan.

They knew that their stick insects enjoyed eating green leaves, so the large privet hedge on the boundary of their property seemed like the ideal new home. They assumed that the insects would live for a few weeks then gradually fade away. In fact, they released the insects in the late summer, when it was still warm enough for them to thrive and to breed outdoors. Within three months, they'd stripped most of the leaves off the privet hedge. The father began to complain that his privet hedge was dying, and he didn't know why. The mother was mortified. It was bad enough that she'd almost destroyed her husband's hedge, but what if those pesky stick insects moved on to the neighbour's back garden? Eventually, somebody might find the cause of the dying vegetation, and as the responsible adult, she'd get the full

WHEN THE man in the pub approached me, glancing to his left and his right before speaking to me, I felt immediately suspicious. I'm used to people coming up to me to ask me about their pets, but why did this man look so guilty?

Then he came out with it: he was offering me second hand goods with a difference. He moved close, and spoke quietly, straight into my ear: "Do you want some stick insects?"

Stick insects are fascinating creatures, and they must be the simplest of all pets to keep. All that's needed is a vivarium (a tank made of plastic or glass) and a supply of fresh greenery from the garden. The most common species to be kept as a pet is the Indian Stick Insect. These look like yellow or light brown twigs or grass stems, a couple of inches long, with three fine legs protruding on either side. They don't do much: they sit in their tanks, munching green leaves. If you want a no-fuss, low cost pet, stick insects are hard to beat.

There are over three thousand different types of stick insects, with around three hundred species being kept as pets around the world. They originate from warmer countries, with South East Asia and South America having the biggest range of strange and interesting versions in the wild.

I remember visiting a Stick Insect Farm in Malaysia: it was like the Reptile House at Dublin Zoo, but instead of lizards and snakes, there were exotic insects in the glass-lined tanks. There were some "normal" stick insects, but there were also some strange creatures that looked as if they had been created by an imaginative children's book illustrator. They had bodies over a foot long, with long spindly feet and antennae protruding. Some had large, flat, green bodies, resembling exact replicas of the leafy foliage that they lived on. Others had long twitchy antennae that they waved around in front of their heads.

There was a "hands on" section, where you could pick up stick insects and sit them on your shoulder while you had your photo taken. This was not an experience that would have been enjoyed by those who get nervous around creepy-crawly creatures. Stick insects are harmless, but they do have a spider-like or cockroach-like strangeness about them. I'm not at all spooked by them, but I can understand why people break out in a sweat at the thought of large, spindly-legged insects crawling along the back of their neck and perhaps getting tangled in their hair.

Stick insects thrive as pets without any need for special attention, but there's one big problem with them: they are prolific breeders. The constant challenge for successful stick insect owners is how to cope with the continual supply of young insects that keep hatching out. The man in the pub is not the first person to try desperate means to solve this problem.

One newspaper reader wrote to me a few years ago describing her own stick insect crisis. Her children were enthusiastic stick insect keepers, but they had managed to produce so many young ones that their tanks had become over-crowded. They had to get rid of some, and they wanted to be as kind as possible to them. They didn't want to kill them, and it seemed mean to put them in the blame. What could she do?

I consulted with an entomologist from the Royal Horticultural Society in England to find out the best answer to her problem. The first news was bad: she had broken the law by releasing exotic animals into her local environment. Normally, a good frost is enough to kill stick insects, but winter was a few months away, and meanwhile, gardens were being devastated. The best answer was a ruthless approach: to spray the privet hedge with a strong insecticidal bug killer. The lady did this, apologising to the stick insects as she killed them.

The main message: if you have too many stick insects, find a victim to take them on as pets rather than releasing them into the wild.

By the way, I'm now a successful stick insect breeder myself and I have too many of the little critters. Does anyone want to try a free, fascinating pet?