Stick Bugs: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on January 20, 2023
5 min read

Stick bugs are a fascinating insect variety. They have uniquely camouflaged bodies that make them fun models in science education. But their eating habits can devastate trees and damage forests. This is why they’re considered pests in some areas. 

Learn how to recognize the different types of stick bugs in your part of the world so you know what to do if you find one in your yard.

Stick bugs are members of the order Phasmatodea. They’re found in multiple genera. There are over 3,000 species of stick bugs alive today. 

Stick bugs are also commonly called: 

  • Stick insects
  • Walking sticks
  • Bug sticks

These names are all based on the fact that the stick bug’s long body resembles a living stick or the stalk of a leaf. This body style is a form of camouflage that helps them avoid predators.

Lots of animals like to eat stick insects — particularly birds and bats. Because of this, the creatures have developed a number of other strategies for deterring predators. Some secrete liquids that smell terrible or temporarily blind predators. Others can drop their legs and then regrow them at a later time. 

Some species have even adopted a behavior where they stop and sway back and forth — moving like small sticks in the wind.  

One fascinating stick bug fact is that they’re parthenogenetic. This means that females can lay unfertilized eggs that grow into functional adult females. Newly hatched stick bugs undergo multiple molts before they reach their adult size. 

What do stick bugs look like? A stick bug’s exact features depend on its species.

Most of them have special adaptations that help them blend into the trees in which they live. For example, the common walking stick has a long, almost cylindrical body. Their small, square heads are topped by long antennae. They have slender, segmented legs. Males from this species are brown, and the females are brown with a hint of green. 

Different species range in size from 1 to 12 inches long. They’re some of the largest insect species in the world. One individual measured over 20 inches long with its legs fully extended. The females are usually larger than the males. 

What do stick bugs eat? Leaves are the stick bug’s main source of food. They particularly like the leaves on oak trees. The insects eat so much so quickly that they tend to completely “skeletonize” leaves. This means that they eat everything but the veins. The leaves resemble mere skeletons when the insects have finished.

Some of the plants they prey upon include: 

A wide variety of stick bugs exist throughout the world. Two interesting examples:

Diapheromera femorata. This species is also known as the common American or Northern walkingstick. They’re found along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. and as far west as New Mexico. They prefer to eat the leaves on oak and hazelnut trees. They range from just under 3 inches to 3.75 inches long. 

Megaphasma denticrus. This is commonly called the giant walkingstick. This species is most commonly found in southern U.S. states. Their bodies are greenish to reddish brown with pale legs. Individuals can reach up to 6 inches in length.

Stick bugs prefer temperate and tropical climates. But you can find them on every continent except Antarctica. 

They spend most of their lives hiding in trees, so they prefer forested areas. Some individuals can also be found in agricultural areas and urban gardens. 

You may not notice that you have an outbreak of stick bugs in your area until you start to see skeletonized leaves on your trees. If you just see small holes forming throughout your leaves, then these are probably caused by another insect. But when the majority of a leaf’s greenery has been consumed, you should begin to suspect the stick bug. 

The most likely reason that you have stick insects is that your yard has trees that a particular species uses for food. 

The main threat that stick insects pose is to the trees in your yard. In years when they’re plentiful enough to infest an area, they can kill entire tree branches by eating the leaves. 

In fact, they’re one of the insects responsible for partially deforesting the Ozark Mountains, which are located in Arkansas and Missouri. 

Do stick bugs bite? Most species of stick bugs don’t bite. For the most part, they shouldn’t be dangerous for you to interact with. 

Are stick bugs poisonous? Some species of stick bugs can emit fluids that are meant to ward off their predators. You should avoid getting these fluids into sensitive areas — like your eyes. For example, the two-striped walkingstick emits a fluid that can cause pain and temporary blindness if you get it in your eye.  

For your own sake, it’s probably best to avoid eating stick insects.

For the most part, you won’t experience any physical harm from handling stick insects. 

But you should get medical attention if you experience any problematic symptoms after interacting with a fluid that one has produced. You should also always keep your eyes out for signs of an allergic reaction after interacting with a new creature. Signs include difficulty breathing, swelling in your throat or face, and hives.

The easiest way to get rid of stick bugs is to spray them with a commercial pesticide. But this method can create new problems. For example, the pesticide will also harm insects that you’re not trying to target, which can lead to even more problems in your ecosystem. And many pesticides are dangerous for your health and the health of nearby people and pets. 

If you decide to go with a pesticide, do your research and carefully select a chemical that’s safe for your environment. Then thoroughly read the label and follow all application instructions exactly. 

Otherwise, you can attempt to use a more holistic pest reduction approach. The way that this works will differ from one environment to the next. Examples of strategies that you can try include: 

  • Eliminating sources of food and water that would otherwise help the stick bugs survive
  • Removing or cleaning up places where they might find shelter
  • Talking to local pest management experts — for example, professionals at a local nursery may have useful advice for your area's particular species

Stick bugs are interesting insects to find when you’re out for a walk in the woods. But nobody wants them to destroy the trees in their yard. Every infestation is different, so you’ll need to decide what to do about your stick bugs on a case-by-case basis.