Kentucky Bugs: Care and Feeding
A Guide to Keeping Kentucky Insects (and Their Relatives) in Captivity
Kentucky insects and spiders are not as large and attention-getting as popular exotic arthropods (like tarantulas and hissing cockroaches), but they are still fascinating to observe, especially in a classroom setting. Not all Kentucky arthropods make good pets, but some of them do well in captivity when given the right conditions. Be aware that, because many Kentucky insects and spiders die at the end of each summer, many will only live for 1 year or less in captivity, even when treated with the best of care. Some, though, like wolf spiders and caterpillar hunters, will live for several years. Listed below are some of Kentucky's most interesting and easy-to-care for arthropods. Each entry contains care information, life span, and other useful tips.
IMPORTANT Keeping and caring for wild insects, spiders, and their relatives is great way to observe these fascinating creatures. It is also a big responsibility. Never keep an animal in captivity unless you are prepared to provide the proper living conditions. Also, never keep an animal in captivity unless it is a species that is capable of thriving in captivity -- the reason we prepared this list is to help you find wild arthropods that DO thrive in captivity.
ALSO - It is illegal to collect any animal (including insects and their relatives) from certain nature preserves, parks, and other properties. The best place to collect insects is from your own yard, garden, farm, or other property where you have explicit permission to collect.
Praying mantids are a favorite among insect enthusiasts, and are one of the best insects to keep in captivity. Mantids are fascinating to observe and easy to care for. Because they tend to remain still most of the time, mantids don't require much space. The biggest problem with praying mantids is that, like many Kentucky insects, they will not live for more than a year, even when kept under ideal conditions.
Container: A mantid can be kept in any container that is taller than the praying mantid is long, with a depth or diameter of 6 inches or so. A very large mason jar (1/2 gallon or more) is a good choice. A 5-gallon aquarium or a medium-sized clear "critter carrier" (sold at many pet stores) is also ideal. Make sure that the lid has holes so that the mantid can breathe and so that the inside of the container does not get too damp.
Housing Features: Mantids will want to hang upside down from some kind of perch several inches from the bottom of the container. Lean a dried stick inside the container and secure it so that the mantid can hang from it without knocking it over. It is best if the stick has a few branches. Line the bottom of the container with an inch or two of moist garden soil (pesticide- and fertilizer-free soil) to help maintain a medium-high humidity level.
Food: Mantids are predators, and are built to capture harmless flying insects like large flies and moths. 1-2 moths or flies per day is usually sufficient, but the prey must be alive and mobile when released into the mantid's cage. Mantids will also eat caterpillars and crickets, but because these creatures do not fly, the mantid may not be able to capture them easily. If it is necessary to feed crickets or caterpillars to a mantid, it is best to hold the prey close to the mantid with a pair of tweezers. Always remove any uneaten food after 1 day.
Water: provide water to the mantid by misting its cage daily.
Temperature: room temperature or warmer, up to about 85 degrees F.
Life span: Less than 1 year: in Kentucky, mantids hatch from eggs in early summer and live until late fall in the wild. In captivity, a well-cared-for mantid may live until November or December.
Species: There are three species of praying mantids in Kentucky, the Carolina mantid, European mantid, and Chinese mantid. They are all cared for in the same way. Note that the European mantid and the Chinese mantid are not originally from Kentucky, and are not technically "native" insects.
For more information about mantid biology and for tips on where to find mantids, visit our Critter File: Praying Mantids.
Although assassin bugs are not closely related to praying mantids, they have very similar behaviors and are cared for in almost the same way. Like mantids, they are slow-moving, and need very little space when kept as pets. Assassin bugs are very interesting to observe, and some species make excellent pets, when handled carefully.
DANGER! Assassin bugs CAN and WILL bite fingers! Never handle them. Instead, use a stick or a leaf to "herd" an assassin bug into a container. Normally, the bite is very painful, but harmless; however, an assassin bug bite can be dangerous to people with severe allergy problems. Assassin bugs move slowly, and bites can usually be avoided.
Container: Any small, escape proof container can be used, as long as there is enough room for the assassin bug to move around.
Housing features: a few sticks and leaves for the assassin bug to climb on. Use moist garden soil (use pesticide- and fertilizer-free soil) to line the bottom of the cage to maintain a medium-high humidity level.
Food: Assassin bugs wait in ambush for crawling prey. Earthworms and large caterpillars make excellent food. Feed assassin bugs 4-5 times a week. If the prey items are very small (less than 1/2 the assassin bug's body length), feed every day. Remove any uneaten food after 1 day.
Water: an assassin bug will get most of its water from its food, but it will benefit from a light cage misting every other day.
Temperature: room temperature or warmer, up to about 85 degrees F.
Life span: Less than 1 year. Kentucky assassin bugs hatch from eggs in early summer and live until late fall in the wild. In ideal conditions, a captive assassin bug may live through most of the winter.
Species: There are many species of assassin bugs in Kentucky, and most of them can be cared for in the same way, but it may be difficult to find small prey for small assassin bugs. The best assassin bugs for captive observation are the wheel bugs. Wheel bugs are large (2") and gray, and are very common in Kentucky.
For information on assassin bugs, including how to find and identify assassin bugs, visit our Critter File: Assassin Bugs.
There are hundreds of different kinds of beetles that live in Kentucky. Although most of them do not thrive in captivity, listed below are 2 interesting types that do well in captivity when properly cared for.
Caterpillar Hunters (aka Fiery Searchers): Caterpillar hunters are large beetles in the ground beetle family (Carabidae). They are about 1 1/2 inches long with metallic-green wing covers and purple legs. They are predators that feed on caterpillars and earthworms. Caterpillar hunters can be cared for in the same way as assassin bugs (see above), except that at least 2-3 inches of loose, moist garden soil should line the bottom of the cage -- these beetles spend much of their time burrowing. Like assassin bugs, caterpillar hunters are able to bite fingers. The bite is not dangerous. Caterpillar hunters can live for several years when kept in ideal conditions. Read more about caterpillar hunters at our Critter File: Ground Beetles.
Hercules Beetles (aka rhinoceros beetles, unicorn beetles): Hercules beetles are the largest beetles in Kentucky and are always interesting to observe. They can be kept and raised in captivity, but it is a very demanding process. Details on the keeping and rearing of Hercules beetles is covered in full at our Critter File: Hercules Beetles.
Honey bees aren't normally called "pets," but many people maintain bee hives to get honey and to observe colony activity. For information on keeping honey bees, read our ENTfact: Starting an Observation Honey Bee Hive.
Aquatic insects make great additions to freshwater aquariums. For more information, visit our special section devoted to Aquatic Insects.
Most Kentucky spiders do not thrive in captivity. Many of our spider species build large webs, and most kinds of containers do not allow these types of spiders to build webs of the proper shape and size. Wolf spiders, though, do not build webs. Instead, they are active hunters that search the ground for prey. Because of this, wolf spiders do not need special housing. Wolf spiders are also easy to find, easy to feed, and can live for several years in captivity. In fact, because of their life-span and ease-of-care, wolf spiders make some of the best captive arthropods.
Note: Although wolf spiders are not aggressive, they are able to bite people, and should not be handled. Their bites are normally not dangerous, but can threaten allergic individuals.
Container: A wolf spider needs only a few square inches of space. A small (1 pint) mason jar or similar container is large enough for most wolf spiders. A 2.5 gallon aquarium would also make a very attractive home for a large wolf spider. Make sure to have an escape-proof lid that provides some ventilation. Be aware that wolf spiders are very fast: whenever their cage is opened, they will try to escape. Be ready for an escape by opening a wolf spider cage within another, larger container.
Housing Features: Line a wolf-spider habitat with an inch or so of moist garden soil that is free of pesticides and fertilizers. Also add a few large, dried leaves, chunks of bark, of pieces of moss for the spider to hide under during the day.
Food: Wolf spiders will feed on almost any living insect or worm that is about 1/2 their own body length. Houseflies, small moths, and caterpillars are usually easy to find outdoors. "Pinhead" crickets, as sold in most pet stores, make especially good prey. One small prey item every other day is sufficient for most wolf spiders. Large species may eat up to one small prey item per day. Make sure not to feed the wolf spider wasps, bees, other spiders, or anything else that might injure the spider. Never leave live prey in with the spider if the prey isn't attacked within a few minutes -- even a small cricket can potentially injure a wolf spider if the spider doesn't attack first.
Water: Wolf spiders will get most of the water that they need from their prey, but will benefit from a daily cage misting. Although it is good for their habitat to be humid, do not allow it to be sopping wet.
Temperature: room temperature or warmer, up to about 80 degrees F.
Life span: up to 3+ years, depending on species.
Species: Wolf spiders are in the family Lycosidae. This family contains dozens of species that live in Kentucky. Some of these spiders are very small, less than 1/4." It is difficult to find small prey items for these wolf spiders. Large (1/2 - 1") wolf spiders are the best to observe and fair the best in captivity. Please note that Nursery Web and Fishing Spiders, although very similar to wolf spiders, are not recommended to keep in captivity.
For more about the biology and identification of wolf spiders (and where to find them!) visit our Critter File: Wolf Spiders.
Millipedes are more difficult to keep in captivity than other arthropods listed on this page. They are very picky about temperature, humidity and food. They are gentle and fascinating, though, and a patient caretaker will be rewarded.
Container: Millipedes do not need much space. Any container that is twice as long and wide as their body length is large enough. The lid should be escape proof, with a lid that provides some ventilation, but which traps humidity inside the cage.
Housing Features: Millipedes need 2-3 inches of moist garden soil. Make sure the soil is free of pesticides and fertilizers. Millipedes also need hiding places, such as large dried leaves or pieces of bark. Clean the cage by removing any uneaten food or moldy leaves.
Food: Millipedes are picky eaters, and may want very specific food, depending on the species. Most millipedes eat decaying organic material or fungus. To determine what to feed a millipede, you must first identify the millipede species and then research the internet and field guides to determine the appropriate food. Some millipedes cannot be kept in captivity because of their diets.
Water: Provide water to captive millipedes by lightly misting the inside of the container daily. Do not allow the container to become sopping wet.
Temperature: between 65-70 degrees F.
Life span: 1+ years, depending on species.
Species: There are many millipede species that live in Kentucky. The largest ones are the most popular to keep in captivity.
Read our Millipede Critter File for tips on how to find millipedes, plus identification and biology information.
The Southern Devil Scorpion is the only scorpion species found in Kentucky. It is common in Southeastern Kentucky, where it lives under rocks and logs. These scorpions are small (less than 3"), slow-moving and will thrive in captivity under the proper conditions, including high humidity and relatively low temperatures.
Stings: Like all scorpions, the Southern Devil Scorpion possesses a stinger on the ends of its tail, and should not be handled. The stings are not very painful, however, and the venom is only dangerous to people with severe allergic reactions.
Container: A container about half the size of a shoebox is large enough to house 1-5 Southern Devil Scorpions. The lid should be escape proof, and should allow some ventilation while maintaining a high humidity.
Housing Features: Southern Devil Scorpions need 2-3 inches of moist garden soil. Make sure the soil is free of pesticides and fertilizers. Scorpions also need hiding places, such as dried leaves, pieces of moss, or chunks of bark. The container should be kept humid enough for the soil to stay damp. If the soil gets dry after a few days, adjust the lid to reduce evaporation. Clean the cage by removing any uneaten food or moldy leaves.
Food: The best food for Southern Devil Scorpions are small (1/2") "pinhead" crickets, available at most pet stores.
Water: Provide water to captive scorpions by lightly misting the inside of the container daily, but do not spray so often that the container becomes sopping wet.
Temperature: between 65-70 degrees F.
Life span: 2-3 years.
Read our Scorpion Critter File for more information about Kentucky scorpions.