Looking out the window recently, I noted a mosquito-sized bug on the screen that upon closer inspect was not a mosquito.
Turns out it was a tiny walkingstick, the smallest version of our largest insect that I had ever seen. If it was a common walkingstick (also called a northern walkingstick), it had to have been a fresh hatchling just out of the egg.
Walkingsticks are weird bugs. They are inoffensive and quite harmless, but because of their considerable size and strange appearance, they come off as rather creepy to us.
Walkingsticks or stick insects have to be considered highly successful bugs. There are more than 3,000 species of them around the world, surviving nicely on every continent but Antarctica. They might even survive in Antarctica, too, except that the frozen continent has no trees, the key to walkingstick existence.
The slow-moving, non-flying, nearly defenseless walkingstick lives on a tree or trees. If you see him hiking along slowly on the ground, he’s trekking from one tree to another. His diet is leaves, and oak leaves are a favorite. Hereabouts, one big oak or a few of them could be his entire world.
Over eons, walkingsticks evolved to fit perfectly in their world. They came to look like skinny twigs with six even-skinnier twig-like legs. On a tree branch where a walkingstick might commonly be found, it looks like just another part of the limb.
Without being able to fight off predators and being slow and unable to escape them, walkingsticks persevere by camouflage. They can look just like the habitat in which they live.
The walkingstick has six frail legs and a pair of hairlike antennae. At rest, the bug’s front pair of legs are lifted and extended along its antennae, which themselves can be two-thirds as long as the twig-like body.
Walkingsticks are most often brown in color, but different species at varying stages of life also may be green or a combination of green and brown. Again, the brown and green colors fit in perfectly to resemble twigs and shoots growing on trees.
The most routine of these twig-mimicking bugs in this part of the world is that common (or northern) walkingstick. The males of this species grow to about 3 inches, while the females grow another .75-inch longer.
The largest species in the U.S. is the giant walkingstick, more common southwest and west of our region. The females of this species can grow to about 7 inches long, enough to cause real panic in a person with a creepy-crawler phobia.
If that isn’t enough, there is a walkingstick species found in Borneo that grows to more than 20 inches long. It, indeed, is the largest insect on earth. The giant walkingstick of the U.S., at a mere 7 inches or so, is the largest bug on our continent.
Hollywood uses what repulses people in films. In “The Temple of Doom” of the Indiana Jones series, the scene in which Indy and his leading lady are grossly covered up with huge bugs is dominated by harmless-but-chilling walkingsticks.
The lifecycle of our common stick bugs is pretty unremarkable among insects in general. They tend to mate at this time of year, and shortly afterward, females lay eggs, dropping them from up in the trees to fall to earth below.
Eggs don’t hatch right away but survive the coming winter by settling into the leaf litter. Some eggs hatch in the spring, but others linger and hatch later, essentially a year from the time of mating. (The tiny walkingstick that I recently spied very well could have been one of these later hatchlings.)
Walkingsticks don’t exactly grow like the twigs they mimic but rather by molting. Our stick bugs may molt six times to reach their full size. They do that over a lifespan of perhaps two years, including survival of at least one winter in a hibernation-like state.
Our walkingsticks are sometimes confused with praying mantises, but other than being large, elongated insects, they don’t have much in common. The mantis is a flying bug with wings, front legs that are developed to catch prey, and a clearly defined head with jaws with which it kills and eats other insects. The walkingstick, on the other hand, looks more like, well, a stick with legs.
There is really nothing negative about the presence of stick bugs. They apparently aren’t numerous enough to do significant damage to the trees by eating their leaves. They don’t trouble us in any way but looking scary.
Not many people want to take them in hand, but for those who do, walkingsticks don’t bite nor can they administer any kind of sting or any other painful resistance. Some walkingsticks can be provoked to release a foul-smelling liquid if confronted by a predator that sees through the twiggy camouflage. It is the hope of the stick bug that this will put off the attacker.
Because of the bug’s creepy appearance factor, a big walkingstick possibly could have the same effect on some insect-shy people.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at email@example.com.