How to Choose the Pet Bug That's Right for You - Atlas Obscura

How to Choose the Pet Bug That’s Right for You

Consider the millipede.

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Entomologist Sammy Ramsey was initially scared of bugs as a kid, then read some books and became enthralled for life. (Photo: Julian Vankim)

Sammy Ramsey, 27, an entomologist and Ph.D student at the University of Maryland, didn’t grow up with kittens and puppies, or even fish or turtles. All of his pets had exoskeletons and sadly short life spans. Still, if you ask him what bug makes the best companion, his answer comes immediately.

“If you had a permit, I would recommend getting your own little LeRoy―out of everything I’ve ever raised, he’s still my favorite.” LeRoy was Ramsey’s 15-inch-long giant African millipede. In high school, Ramsey would come to school with LeRoy around his neck and wait until people slowly noticed that his necklace was moving, then panic and freak out, and afterwards, become deeply intrigued. Ramsey loved how LeRoy gave him an opportunity to proselytize, to tell people about the wonders of bugs and debunk their fears and misconceptions

“He was a really charming creature,” says Ramsey, noting that LeRoy lived for five, full years. “He was actually really docile, like having a little puppy.” 

Sammy Ramsey hanging out and reading with a few of his pet bugs. (Photo: Julian Vankim)

Like any pet, there’s a lot to consider with bug ownership—time, money and space being key concerns—and there are trendy pet bugs as much as their are trendy designer dogs. Ramsey’s journey began with books, and a lot of trial and error to figure out what kinds of food and living conditions different bugs required (errors oftentimes resulting in dead insects). Since his first pill bugs and earwigs, Ramsey has raised nine different species of praying mantis and several species of millipedes, spiders, and (really huge) stick insects, to name a few. Four giant silk moths currently flutter around his office space.

“Bugs are the most fascinating creatures you’ve ever stepped on in your life,” says Ramsey, who is hard at work studying the massive honeybee die-offs taking place across the globe. He points out that bugs are by far the most dominant organisms on the planet, making up three times the total biomass of human beings.

Eurycantha calcarata (Thorny devil), giant stick insect

The giant prickly stick insect offers some great finger cuddling. (Photo: Greg Hume/CC BY-SA 3.0)

These days, you can buy bugs of all shapes and sizes online. The praying mantis has been growing in popularity―the ghost and orchid mantis, for example―as well as different types of tarantula and scorpion. According to Peter Clausen, who runs Bugs in Cyberspace, the most popular bugs tend to be the largest or most fierce looking.

Currently in Japan, beetles such as the stag beetle are so popular that you can find them sold in dollar stores. Be aware, however, that certain bugs are illegal to own in certain places; for example, in New York City, tarantulas, black widows, and other venomous spiders cannot be kept as pets.

Sammy Ramsey with his wandering violin mantis. (Photo: Julian Vankim)

Hollywood has a huge effect on bug demand, says Traci Roach, who handles bug upkeep, packaging, and shipping for Ken the Bug Guy, currently the largest bug supplier in the U.S., according to Roach. When the Harry Potter movies came out, for example, they saw interest in the tailless whip scorpion skyrocket. Nature shows like those on the Discovery network also spike new interest in certain critters, says Roach, while the spread of social media has made a big impact on both the hobby and the business. Roach hopes that it can spread a greater acceptance and awareness of the great diversity of bugs out there.

gooty

The brightly colored Gooty ornamental is a popular pet tarantula.  (Photo: Søren Rafn/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Roach says that their customers go for the oddball and eye-catching items, such as the Gooty sapphire ornamental tree spider, a metallic blue tarantula native to India. Their store sells at least 200 species of tarantula alone, as well as 40 to 50 types of scorpions, various millipedes and roaches.

All together, Roach takes care of over 100,000 animals in their facility―monitoring moisture levels and feeding each bug a handful of crickets once each week, a painstaking feeding process that takes two people a total of 40 hours. Shipping the bugs involves checking that the critters aren’t missing any legs or otherwise damaged, and slipping them into vials lined with toilet paper which then go in padded boxes. They do overnight and two-day shipping to all 50 states (thought not for beetles―it’s illegal under state law for them to transport them over the Arizona border) and closely monitor outside temperatures. Roach currently has a folder in her email of all the customers waiting for their region to drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so that their bugs can be delivered safely.

stag beetle

Stag beetles are extremely popular pets in Japan. (Photo: Daniel Davis/CC BY 2.0)

Some bugs should just never be shipped, says Ramsey. For a creature like the wandering violin mantis, Ramsey will drive to a halfway location and do a hand-off with the breeder. But not everyone can own a wandering violin mantis―certain creatures require strict government permits. A number of Ramsey’s bugs are technically not pets, but outreach insects which he uses in educational programs through the university.

LeRoy the giant African millipede “had a great life and was loved by all.” (Photo: Julian Vankim)

But if you’re not lucky enough to have a giant African millipede permit, Ramsey suggests keeping an herbivore (such as a stick insect), unless you want to regularly spend time capturing stray flies. Predator bugs are very high maintenance, and Ramsey says that feeding them crickets and mealworms is like keeping them on a fast food diet; if you can’t get them the type of insects they would eat in the wild, it’s best not to raise them at all.

If you want to go really low maintenance, Ramsey says your best best would be cockroaches―for example, the Madagascar hissing cockroach, one of the world’s very few auditory insects. They’re communal and friendly, and thus can be kept in the same cage (unlike mantises), which means everyone in your office could have one of their own.

madagascar hissing cockroaches

Madagascar hissing cockroaches make for easy going friends. (Photo: Husond/CC-BY-SA-3.0)

To really bond with your bug, though, you have to go beyond the cage. For the most part, Ramsey’s beloved LeRoy had a closed cage at night, but during the daytime, Ramsey would let him roam around his room. (Ramsey’s freshman year roommate at Cornell was so terrified of Ramsey’s bugs that he had to live in the RA’s room for most of the first year, though he eventually got over it.) Ramsey would bring back salad from the dining hall (“a little cucumber, green peppers, and pear, and you’ve got yourself a really happy millipede”), and despite ample opportunities, LeRoy never tried to escape, not even to look for a girlfriend.

Everyone in Ramsey’s dorm fell in love with LeRoy, and when LeRoy passed away, they held a viking funeral, putting him in a shoebox with a bunch of his favorite things, lighting it on fire, and pushing it over a waterfall. 

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the USDA has since put regulations on ownership of giant African millipedes in its efforts to prevent the damaging of ecosystems by non-native species. Ramsey, however, with his entomologist privileges, has just secured a permit to raise one again, and has been looking for a way to have one imported from Africa.

This is what an entomologist looks like. (Photo: Julian Vankim)

So, if you’re not ready for a dog, cat, or skink, why not consider a bug? You could even keep multiple different species―for, as Ramsey says, it’s easier to see an insect’s personality when you have a lot of them. “I wouldn’t say they would recognize you as a person giving them love,” he says, “but they can recognize you as the person giving them food.”

What more, really, can you ask?