Deregulated Goodies

As I mentioned in a previous post, the USDA recently finalized a rule that deregulated many species of plant pests, including some insects. Quite a few of the species on the list are relatively uninteresting for hobbyists and are used in laboratories for various experiments or as feeders for other laboratory animals. Nevertheless, there are some nice species in the feeder roach section. One of them is Blaberus giganteus, which just happens to be the longest species of cockroach available in the hobby. Before this deregulation, the permits for this species required a containment facility. I had tried to obtain the permits for this species multiple times, but I was denied every time. After the official deregulation went into effect on August 9th, I was able to obtain a decent size colony.

I enjoy B. giganteus for several reasons. For starters, they are unable to climb smooth surfaces, so I do not feel the need to put them in the high-security gasket bins I use for many roaches. (The largest gasket bin is only 20 gallons, and especially for such a large species, I like to have more space for my colony to grow.) Another aspect is feeding. These things are little gluttons, and it is entertaining to watch the nymphs running off with little pieces of cat food to eat in peace only to have it stolen by nymphs who were making their way to the food dish. They will also swarm apple, banana, oranges, or other fruits. These roaches also have the funny habit of hopping off my hand. It would make them difficult to handle in front of a crowd, but it is cute nonetheless. I have also noticed that they almost seem to recognize their tank, and if they see it, then they will jump into it and hide. I doubt this is actually any recognition and attachment to their tank on their part. They probably just see the dark-colored coconut fiber in the tank contrasting with my cream-colored floor, think the tank is a hole, and therefore try to hide in it. Regardless, they are active, entertaining little pets.

This was about 60 seconds after I refilled their dish of cat food. You can see some nymphs fighting over some cat food on the left edge of the picture.
I managed to capture a short, slow-motion video of this roach hopping/gliding.

As far as care, these roaches are fairly simple. The first time I kept them a few years ago, I had a simple tank with a layer of coconut fiber and nothing for them to climb. I would not recommend this type of setup. It worked alright for my adults and the tiny babies, but later instars, especially subadults molting to adulthood, might not have been okay. I have researched a bit, and I now think that having a surface, such as cork bark, for them to climb is quite beneficial. Not only does something like cork bark provide a sturdy place to molt, it also increases the surface area of the tank, allowing more roaches to fit in a tank comfortably. The substrate also is important. Unlike some feeder roach species, this species does well with a substrate. They are from tropical regions ranging from Mexico down to northern South America, and the humidity from a substrate such as coconut fiber is appreciated. Despite the warm climates they inhabit, in my experience, these roaches breed well at room temperature (75-degrees Fahrenheit). It is possible that, since this species occasionally inhabits caves, it is used to cooler microclimates within a generally tropical region. Once a colony is established, these roaches are fairly adaptable and hardy.

Good News from the USDA

USDA-regulated organisms, such as giant cave roaches (Blaberus giganteus), orchid mantids (Hymenopus coronatus), and white-spotted assassin bugs (Platymeris biguttatus), are common in the US invertebrate hobby, yet many hobbyists do not have the proper permits to purchase these animals. The USDA rarely enforces the regulations, so these people keep their pets, breed them, and sell them to others. I strive to follow USDA regulations and obtain the proper permits for my regulated organisms. I currently have the permits to own 12 species of cockroaches, 3 species of exotic millipedes, 2 species of isopods, and the two most common species of hornworms in the genus Manduca. Since I have permits, the USDA sent me a notification about some upcoming reforms in the permitting system. One of the changes will be that a few hundred species of insects will no longer require permits in the continental US. The list is full of fairly common insects that are more common in a laboratory than in the pet trade, but there is a section that lists around 30 species of non-native cockroaches. Entomologists have been waiting for this list for over a decade.

The PDF file above is a draft of the list. The list includes species besides insects that are going to be deregulated, such as some fungi and plant diseases.

The changes will go into effect August 9, and up until that date, the species on the list still require permits. There may be some differences between the PDF and the official version when it is published, but the species should not change too much.

Birds of all Types

On the third weekend in May, I went with the Wake Audubon Society to a special property in the Uwharrie Mountains. This property consists of about 600 acres of restored prairie. The focus of the trip was birds and bird banding, but I only recognized about a quarter of the bird species we banded. By the end of the event, I had seen, and released, some incredibly beautiful native birds and deepened my appreciation for the vast variety of birds in North Carolina.

One of the birds I recognized: an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)
Another species I was familiar with: white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus)
A species I did not know: common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
The ornithologists in the group said this was a rare find: a northern waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis)
I have wanted to get a close look at this species for a while: indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Now comes the inevitable report of the insect finds on this property. The best insects I found were huge American bird grasshoppers (Schistocerca americana). I found both males and females, and I am going to breed the ones I captured. I did this last year and it went well (my Phalaenopsis orchid would disagree as its leaves were their favorite snack). I also found a massive, carnivorous beetle that I think is a margined warrior beetle (Pasimachus marginatus). This beetle seems to relish Hikari cichlid pellets. They are 40% protein and only 4% fat. This high protein to fat ratio makes them ideal for feeding many types of carnivorous arthropods, although it only works if their feeding response is activated by smell rather than movement. There were some other insects that I collected for breeding but many more that I did not bother to collect.

American bird grasshoppers mating
A friendly question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis)
According to question marks and common buckeyes (Junonia coenia), dead box turtle (Terrepene carolina) is delicious!
You cannot catch me in the net if I cling to the handle.

Carnivorous, Fast, and Very Green

While at the NC Zoo, I spotted an iridescent insect flying around. At first, I thought it was an orchid bee (tribe Euglossini) because it was such a vibrant green. After I followed it to where it landed just about a foot off the path, I saw what it was: a six-spotted tiger beetle (Cicindela sexguttata). I have been looking for these for a while as I want to try and breed them. They are such a beautiful color and would be amazing candidates for a living display tank. I seem to have gotten lucky as I think it is a female, and she may be gravid. (If any entomologists with expertise in Cicindela come across this post, then feel free to validate or refute my choice.)

The beetle’s enclosure has a substrate comprised of a coconut fiber/sand mixture that I hope is conducive to oviposition. I have read that it is best to collect soil from the habitat where you find a tiger beetle, but she was not near a typical tiger beetle habitat and was flying erratically. There was a thick layer of leaves as well, so I do not think she was trying to oviposit. What I have read is that their larvae thrive in sandy soil. There was no sand nearby.

This beetle loves being hand-fed baby roaches and rice flour beetle larvae. I use tongs to give them to her, and she will run up to the tongs and energetically grab the food off of them. Just like my mantids, she is easy to hand-feed. Also, her diet is nearly identical to the diet of a mantis nymph. I have been giving her a good amount of food for her body size, and she is very active. Hopefully that translates into lots of oviposition.

Cicindela sexguttata eating a rice flour beetle larva.

The larvae burrow and only stick their mandibles above ground to trap prey. They can take a couple years to mature and pupate. Unfortunately, the adults only live a few months at most. During their entire life cycle, they are carnivorous. Their diminutive size means I must find small prey to give them. As I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, I am feeding my beetle baby roaches and rice flour beetle larvae. I tried Hydei fruit flies (Drosophila hydei), but they have the opposite problem: they are a little too small for her. The Ultimate Guide to Breeding Beetles by Orin McMonigle says that young Cicindela larvae require springtails because they are so small. Hopefully, my springtail colonies cooperate with me as I have had issues before with the populations crashing (of course, they do fine until I need to use them).

My six-spotted tiger beetle is an amazing little beetle. She seems quite intelligent (for an arthropod), and I hope I get the chance to raise more of these beetles.

Drosophila as Feeders

Flightless Drosophila fruit flies are common feeders for small insectivorous pets, such as dart frogs (Dendrobatidae). They are also essential for raising many species of mantids in any sort of quantity. Two species within the genus Drosophila are often used as feeder insects: D. melanogaster and D. hydei. The main difference is size. D. melanogaster is slightly over 1/16th of an inch, but D. hydei are about 1/8th of an inch. Both are popular feeders and are sold by some of the vendors in the links section. There are other feeders that are the proper size, but they are more cumbersome to raise. The other feeders are impractical to breed in large quantities, whereas fruit flies are easy to breed. I only know of a few published recipes for raising these as pet food. Most people seem to choose to purchase media mixes from major fruit fly suppliers. I think many people would prefer to make their own media if they had a recipe. I have a recipe that works well. It is not quite as productive as the commercial mixes, but I find that it tends to produce a steadier supply of flies over a longer period of time. I have had cultures last for two months and constantly have hundreds of flies.

The cups used to culture flies are important. I use the vented lids from Josh’s Frogs in combination with 32oz deli cups. Unfortunately, Josh’s Frogs recently modified their vented lids. The new lids have thicker plastic and their logo, but the holes are slightly larger. The hole size is not a problem when keeping most insects in the cups, but the larger holes allow other types of flies into the fruit fly cultures. These other flies can wreak havoc on the culture by out-competing the fruit flies. Unlike the fruit flies, which are flightless, these invaders fly and are extremely annoying. To prevent other flies from invading the culture, I have put fabric lids on top of the vented lids. The vented lids provide the proper amount of ventilation and are easier to clean than the fabric lids (flies make a mess of their culture). The fabric lids keep the pests away. It is annoying to have to use two lids and makes the enclosures harder to stack, but at least there are no invading flies. I have shared my observations with the Josh’s Frog’s staff, so hopefully, the old lids will become available again. I would like to have both available because, while the new lids are bad for fly cultures, they are great for other pet invertebrates. The thicker design of the new lids makes it harder for beetle grubs and other strong-jawed pets to chew their way out.

Here is the recipe for fruit fly media:

  • 500 ml beer
  • 200g Mashed Potato Powder

Mix together until smooth

  • 100 ml White Vinegar

Mix again, and add water or potato power to perfect the consistency. It should be like a soft paste.

  • 1 tsp Active Dry Yeast
  • 3 tsp Methyl Paraben

Mix thoroughly and put into fly cups or refrigerate as one large batch.

This media works for either the D. melanogaster or D. hydei. The only ingredient that is not readily available (for most people) is methyl paraben. Its role is a mold inhibitor, and Josh’s Frogs sells it here. They sell it by the pound, which is sufficient for many dozens of cultures. The vinegar is also a mold inhibitor, but the methyl paraben makes a huge difference. This media can also take additives. For example, since I raise mantids with my flies, I often add bee pollen as it is rumored to be beneficial when incorporated into a mantis’s diet.

Rice Flour Beetles

Rice flour beetles (Tribolium confusum) are small beetles that are used as pet food. The tiny larvae make good snacks for small frogs, ground beetles (referring to carabids), baby mantids, and other animals that require unusually small prey. This beetle is called a “rice flour beetle,” which is a name it shares with other members of the genus Tribolium. The species name “confusum” refers to this species being “confused” on how to fly. In other words, these beetles are flightless. This is a good thing because other rice flour beetles, such as the red flour beetle (T. castaneum), can spread into bags of flour and become a pest. As long as the flightless ones are prevented from walking out of their cup with a lid, they cannot become a pest. The ability to become a pest also makes it an even better feeder because most pests have to breed fast. In order to feed a number of animals, it is good to have something that can breed fast enough to keep up with their appetites.

There seems to be an absence of recipes for nutritious rice flour beetle media. Here is a recipe that works well for me.

  • 1 cup Rice Flour
  • 1/2 cup Wheat Flour
  • 1/2 cup Wheat Bran
  • 1 teaspoon Nutritional Yeast

Mix the ingredients and add them to a culturing cup. Add rice flour beetles and let the culture sit in a dry place for a month or more. By that time, there should be hundreds of offspring in the media. Sift the substrate to harvest them to feed to other pets. The culture will last for a number of months, and rice flour beetles make a good backup feeder because their cultures last so long.

The Sad Truth Behind my Logo

The logo at the top of this site next to the title, “The Mantis Menagerie,” is a picture of one of the most beautiful animals I have ever kept. This is a picture of one of my subadult African spiny flower mantids (Pseudocreobotra ocellata). This picture is about one year old, and it is sad because about that time, I had to get rid of these mantids. I had been researching USDA regulations for months because I had heard rumors saying that mantids not found wild in the US were illegal to keep without the proper permits. After many months of research, I found the contact information for Wayne Wehling, the senior entomologist at the USDA. He confirmed the rumors; although many species of exotic mantids are sold freely throughout the US, possession of exotic mantids without a PPQ 526 permit is technically a violation of USDA regulations under the Plant Protection Act. The reason mantids are still sold is because there is no enforcement of the regulations on mantids. The USDA only enforces the regulations on species they are actually concerned could harm US agriculture. Mantids likely pose a minimal threat to agriculture, but that chance puts them under the USDA’s jurisdiction and the USDA made them illegal by default. The USDA’s claim to regulating them is that, as potential predators of pollinators, they fall under the definition of a plant pest in the Plant Protection Act. According to the act, any non-human animal that directly or indirectly harms plants is a plant pest, and eating pollinators could indirectly harm plants.

I gave the mantids to a local museum that had the proper permits, yet I continue to research the USDA’s regulations on other species. I am hoping to obtain permits for these mantids and keep them again. Unfortunately, the permits require certain conditions that are difficult for the average person to meet. To keep these relatively common pets legally, you must have a containment facility, which is a special room designed to be impervious to plant pests. I personally think this is too prohibitive. These mantids have been kept as pets in the US since before the Plant Protection Act was even instituted in 2000, and I have yet to see any reports of exotic mantids found wild in the continental US. The common exotic species kept as pets simply cannot survive our climate. (I am referring to the cooler regions of the continent. I support the regulations in places with more suitable climates for exotic mantids to become invasive, such as south Florida and parts of California.)

The reason I believe that exotic mantids, particularly ones from tropical regions (the most popular pet mantids, such as Hymenopus coronatus, Deroplatys sp., come from these regions) cannot tolerate temperate climates is simple. I have given this topic much thought, and I have come to the conclusion that since tropical mantis oothecae, which is the stage in which mantids diapause, are naturally hung on plants and other structures above ground, the oothecae have minimal protection from cold weather. The other life stages are inconsequential. Even temperate species are vulnerable to freezing weather when in the nymph and adult life stages. Tropical mantids have not have had the selective pressure in their evolutionary history to develop the ability to diapause in their oothecae as a means of surviving winter. Therefore, outside of the aforementioned areas in the continental US with favorable climates, exotic mantids, particularly ones from tropical regions, should have no possible way of surviving winters.

Unfortunately, the USDA does not share my opinion. Mantids get lumped with the plant pests. Until someone is successful at revising the regulations, we need to adhere to them. I have found the USDA-APHIS site to be frustrating when researching the regulations on common pet insect species. I am attempting to construct a page, here, on this blog that can be an informative reference for navigating regulations.

Damon medius

I am giving my only amblypygid the honor of being the subject of the first post on The Mantis Menagerie. Amblypygi are an ancient and strange-looking order of arachnids. Among their members are the longest-legged arachnids in the world with leg spans exceeding two feet! My amblypygid is not one of the truly massive species but still has a leg span that exceeds a foot. My specimen is an adult female from west Africa, and I purchased her at a Repticon show in November 2018.

The most obvious characteristic of amblypygi are the large raptorial “arms.” Technically, though, those arms are not actually arms, but rather, they are called pedipalps and are the same type of structure as a scorpion’s pincher.

When I purchased her at the show, she was carrying an eggsack. I wanted to see the baby amblypygids hatch, but unfortunately, she decided to eat the eggsack. Since she had been well-fed and had no great need of the nutrients in her eggsack, I am guessing that she knew it wasn’t going to hatch. I was sad, but I plan to find her a male eventually, breed them, and try again.

Care of these animals is extremely easy, as long as basic tank construction requirements are met. These requirements do not necessitate a high-quality glass tank or special lighting. Indeed, I keep my amblypygid in a five-gallon bucket with a vertical piece of styrofoam. To mammal or reptile owners, this may seem like a cruel setup, and you would be right for most mammals, reptiles, and some amphibians. Invertebrates are different. First, their brains are not as complex as the aforementioned vertebrates. This means they cannot be bored from a simple enclosure, and as long as they can follow their instincts, they will be content with the setup (food is a different matter sometimes). Second, many of the aforementioned vertebrates require ultraviolet light to make vitamin D for regulating Calcium and therefore bone growth. Invertebrates do not have calciferous bones and do not have these requirements. Finally, amblypygi like the dark. Some species are even troglophilic, and therefore, in captivity, they are perfectly content sitting in the dark. My amblypygi is hard to get out of the bucket. She darts back and forth over the styrofoam, and it takes two hands to corral her a get her to crawl on one hand. Now you can see that the bucket setup, while possibly sounding like a cruel enclosure, is not at all cruel if used for the right animal. I mentioned a vertical piece of styrofoam in the bucket. The most important part of an amblypygi enclosure is having something for the residents to molt on. Molting is an essential process in the amblypygid’s life. In order to molt properly, amblypygi must have a surface they can grip well and is at least vertical if not leaned backward a little, so the amblypygi can hang from the surface and stretch its delicate legs. This is not a problem for most species as they never get large enough, but make sure your amblypygid can fully stretch its legs in the enclosure without hitting the walls. One final thing to watch with molting is humidity. There needs to be a moist substrate, such as coconut fiber, to maintain high humidity. Once you have a secure enclosure, a substrate to hold moisture, and a good place for the amblypygi to molt, your setup is ready.

The daily, or more like weekly, tasks associated with pet amblypygi include misting to keep the substrate wet and the humidity high, feeding crickets or roaches, and removing the occasional droppings.