Do stick insects need a substrate?

When you start keeping stick insects, there are a lot of decisions to make. In the end, you want to make it as good as possible for your pet. So, you have to decide what enclosure you house them in and how many you want to keep, and what you should feed to them. But how about a substrate? There are divided opinions about this subject, and in this article, I will share my experience with you about substrates for stick insects. What are the benefits of a substrate? And do you need it in the first place?

A substrate is needed for stick insect species that burrow their eggs or need high humidity. For others species, it is not strictly necessary but can be recommended to increase the humidity or keep the humidity steady and to prevent damage to animals when they fall, which is also a defence mechanism of stick insects.

What are the benefits of a substrate?

A substrate is a necessity for stick insect species that burrow their eggs, such as jungle nymphs (Heteropteryx dilatata), giant spiny stick insects (Eurycantha calcarata) and thorny stick insects (Aretaon asperrimus). Some other species, like the giant spiny stick insect (Eurycantha calcarata), are ground-dwelling stick insects and do like a substrate layer. But there are more benefits of using a substrate.

One major benefit is controlling the humidity inside the enclosure. The substrate is a material that absorps moisture and the moisture is slowly released and evaporates. By using a substrate the humidity will keep more steady and you don’t have to moisture the enclosure to often. For stick insects that requires a high humidity it is almost a necessity to use a substrate because it is otherwise difficult to maintain such high humidity levels.

Another benefit of a substrate is that it softens the ground. Many stick insects have a defence mechanism to let themselves drop when feeling threatened and will play “dead” on the ground. When you have a hard surface, and they fall from a certain height can harm and damage your stick insect. Also, many species drop their eggs on the ground. Eggs have hard shells and don’t break or damage that easily, but it makes the annoying sound of continuously tappen sound on a glass bottom. With a substrate, you don’t hear the eggs fall.

Some keepers like substrates because of the natural look it makes in the enclosure. When keeping exotic stick insects, you try to mimic and recreate the environment of the species, and a substrate is part of that environment. When you have a good looking enclosure as a centrepiece in your room, it is a bit of shame that you see the bottom glass plate, full of droppings if you don’t clean it twice a day.

What are the drawbacks of a substrate?

Although a substrate has multiple benefits, I also need to mention some drawbacks of why you maybe don’t want to use it. Many (professional) breeders don’t use a substrate or use alternative substrates (more on that later). So, what are the drawbacks of a substrate?

The most important to mention first is that a substrate is a perfect breeding ground for mould. High(er) temperatures, humidity and a substrate, is the perfect formula for mould to grow in your enclosure. And mould is detrimental to stick insects and stick insect eggs. Although the substrate, when cleaned and maintained well, should not give that much trouble, it is more likely that mould will grow.

And when using a substrate will cost more effort to clean the enclosure. Although it does not cost that much time, it is more work to maintain your substrate. Droppings of your stick insect — and some species can produce a lot — is more difficult to remove. It is also more difficult to find the eggs within the substrate, and for breeding, it is recommended to collect and separate them from the adults.

What are suitable substrates for stick insects?

There is a variety of substrate that you can use for stick insect enclosures. I will discuss the ones that are often used and that I find working well with stick insects.

The one that I used most often is terrarium white sand (sometimes called ‘desert sand’). This fine sand works well to maintain humidity make a soft layer liked by many stick insects (for example Extatosoma tiaratum). One of the main benefits why I use this substrate a lot is that you can sieve it to remove droppings and collect eggs. And if you like you can wash the sand and reuse it (you could even cook it if you want to make sure to destroy mould and bacteria). I find this particular sieve scoop working perfectly to clean the sand regularly — because it is square and not round, you can more easily work in the corners of your enclosure.

For stick insect species that have higher humidity requirements, it would be better to use coconut fibre. Coconut fibre, also called ‘coil substrate’, has more capacity to absorb moisture. It also works great for species that burrow their eggs. However, it is a bit more difficult to clean, and you can sieve it as you can do with sand. Also, it has a higher possibility that mould will grow in the enclosure, but that can also be by the fact that it is used to keep it moister and higher humidity in the enclosure.

You can also use earth potting soil as a substrate layer. Although it retains moisture very well and species can burrow their eggs in it perfectly. Personally, I’m not too fond of potting soil. It tends to grow mould more quickly and become muddier.

If you want to keep it easy, like (professional) breeders do, you can also use kitchen paper or dishcloths. With these products, you have the benefits of retain moisture better and maintain a steady humidity level, but it is easier to clean or refresh. Remind that this material is not suitable for species that dig in their eggs.

Gravel, vermiculite and pebbles don’t work and are not advised to use. It has no perks to the climate and isn’t liked by the animals. Leaves may work, but the perks are moderate and because it is an organic material, together with higher humidity, will quickly decompose where mould is more common than the exception.

Maintenance of the substrate

Even though a substrate has many perks for your stick insect enclosure, a substrate needs a certain amount of maintenance to make it beneficial, or even worse, be detrimental to the animals.

Cleaning

Whilst substrate is more difficult to clean, it is important to clean it either way. To maintain the substrate, you need to do ‘spot cleaning’ — only remove the dirty spots within the enclosure. This means that you need to remove fallen and dried leaves when you replace the food items. Any dead animals should always be removed as soon as possible. Also, try to remove as many droppings as possible, so it doesn’t pile up. With white sand use a sieve to remove droppings and eggs from the substrate.

However, it is good practice to refresh the substrate twice a year (or remove the substrate partly but more frequently). Before throwing the substrate away, you need to collect the eggs that may be left in the substrate. Don’t throw it away in nature, because an egg can be left in the substrate and when it hatch, it may compete with native animal species or become a pest and destroying nature. Better would be to freeze the substrate for a couple of days before you throw it away.

When using a substrate such as coconut fibre or potting earth, you can consider using a cleanup crew to help maintain your substrate fresh and free from mould and bacteria. Springtails work perfectly for that task. Springtails are primarily eating mould, so mould doesn’t have the chance to overgrow your enclosure.

Costs

Substrate doesn’t have cost too much. If you want to place a good layer in an enclosure of 30cm x 30cm, you need around 5 litres of substrate. For most products, this will cost around $20, and you can maintain it for 6 to 12 months. The use of kitchen paper or dishcloths will cost less per placement, but need to be refreshed more frequently. A good average for the substrate in a standard stick insect enclosure will cost around $50/year.

Want to know more?

Want to know more about keeping stick insects and leaf insects? I can recommend you to start with reading our guide about caring for stick insects.

If you like to know more about the basics of breeding stick insects, you should check out our guide on breeding phasmids.

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