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Suriname... Surinam ...'nams

Updated: Apr 18

A brief look at the species that is a cornerstone in the OIF collection

A question I'm occasionally asked is, "What is your best feeder insect?" and rather than the short, concise answer the person inquiring expects, my reply is always, "Depends. What are you feeding?...also, what kind of setup do you keep it in? Oh, and how many do you have? How old are they? What's your feeding schedule like for them?" By the time they start backing away, long past regretting even having asked, I am usually coming to the point where I am starting into the need for variety within a captive herptile's diet and how food is one of the primary methods of environmental enrichment for them. To answer as concisely as possible; "best feeder" means different things to different people, and what may be ideal for one situation is 'anything but' for another.

So, to start, there is no "perfect" one-size-fits-all feeder insect on the market. Such a silver bullet does not exist and all insects that we use as feeders for our animals have their pluses and minuses. There is definitely ranking though and I think many people could rank what they consider the top 5 and there'd be a lot of agreement on what makes the list (although I'm sure it'd get contentious when it came to what deserves the #1 slot, or even their order). As we can mostly all agree there are some feeder insects which truly rise above and mark themselves as top tier feeders. Among that legendary league I would like to nominate the humble surinam roach. This article will be exploring the ups and downs of this insect in greater detail, and is less focused on their captive care and more on the features which I feel make surinams are great contender for one of the top 5 slots. As mentioned, no feeder is perfect and it would only be fair to see when they cause problems and fall short

First, I want to give a big shout out to surinams, "thanks for not being crickets!" As many of you may have gathered or already know, I hate crickets. Despise, disdain, dislike, disparage, and offer nothing but derision towards those loothsome insects. Specifcally house crickets and banded crickets, I have no beef with spring or fall field crickets, camel crickets, Jerusalem crickets, or most other kinds. It is an intense basket of negative feelings towards those awful creatures but narrow in scope to really just two species. However, that is a topic for another time. I merely bring it up because it was all the stupid and awful things about feeder crickets that really spurred me to explore options and alternatives for those filthy bugs, starting as early as the end of high school. A few years into that quest to "find a better bug" I collected some surinams (yet another story for another time) and in the ensuing decade+ have come to be quite familiar with these phenomenal feeders.

The obvious positives; these roaches don't chirp. In fact, they don't really make a sound except that of their bodies moving. This means a colony of thousands, at its loudest, sounds softer than a rain in the forest: soft rustling and movement on leaves. For me, the silence is gold, and so mark 1 point up for the 'nams.

Building upon what any would consider a strong opener, their next plus is the ease of care.

The most basic setup that this species accepts: a container with a lid, only a few small holes needed in it, and 2 to 4 inches of substrate.

That's it.

If you want to get fancy then maybe a piece of egg carton or bark for them to hide under when they go above the soil surface, but really, I've had colonies do fine with just the basic few inches of substrate. Now, to be clear, they do require some form of substrate that holds moisture. No going substrate-less like some other feeder roaches...regardless, even here the 'nams aren't picky: peat, sandy loam, coco fiber or chunks, fine cypress mulch, even organic potting soil. They just need a couple inches to be as happy as a pig in mud.

"What are we to feed them?" you may ask, to which I simply reply, "greenery...oh, and the fruit, even if it's started to spoil, and is light on mold. Oh and wood parts too...if they're soft and decayed a bit. Plants, just feed them plants."

The beauty of this roach is that they will accept virtually any plant-based food; produce (fresh or overripe, doesn't matter), leaves (fresh or dead), decaying wood, cardboard, egg carton, grass clippings, cooked rice and potatoes, and so much more. While they like "hot" compost items that are high in calories like fruit, they will grudgingly survive on egg carton or decaying wood if necessary. As an added bonus, unless the body is heavily molded, these roaches eat their own dead, kind of a self-cleaning feature. It is their hunger for any plant-related food, coupled with their sparten caging requirements, which make them a truly maintenance free feeder. Yes, yes, there are some insects which may appear to give the roaches a run for their money, say cowpea weevils...BUT in this one surinams still reign Supreme. That is because even though other feeders like cowpea weevils may stand to be of equal ease to set up, you best keep an eye on those cultures: miss your chance to start fresh ones within the finite window that exists upon seeing the decline you can easily lose your colonies to mold. Those surinams you forgot months ago? Doing just fine...better than fine in fact, since you left the colony with dead leaves and wood to chew away at. Turns out they not only survived...but exploded in numbers.

Another nice feature of these gals is that they are relatively long lived. House and banded crickets complete their entire lifespan in the space of 120 days. They are the broiler chickens of insects and if you buy adult crickets don't expect them to last longer than a week or two if they aren't eaten or find another way to kill themselves (drowning in the smallest amount of water for example). To contrast surinams live to a ripe old age of 307 days on average. Surinams actually grows quicker than crickets, taking 6 to 7 weeks vs 8 to 10 weeks respectively. Where they fall behind is their speed of reproduction. The surinam is limited to 30 to 36 babies every 30 days, whereas a female cricket can just pop out egg case after egg case.

While the speed of breeding for the singular surinam is admittedly a bit slower, their method of reproduction is actually another great aspect to these insects - they're pathenogenetic, which is just fancy 'science talk' for self-cloning. All the individuals in the colony are self-fertile females which, after reaching maturity, give birth roughly every month for the rest of their lives. So with an average life expectancy of 307 days, minus time for growing of 49 days, and given an average litter size of 34 are birthed every 30 days, the typical female surinam will probably give birth to just shy of 300 babies (292 by my math) by the time she dies. No mating required. No need to fuss over male:female ratio or the age of your breeders, because there's only one sex to manage and she's all of the ages at once. With surinams your colony expands at an exponential rate and under favorable conditions it rarely takes even a year to reach what I call, "peak roach." Peak roach is a stage your colony reaches when you have such numbers present in all age brackets that you can remove as many adults as you want in a single feeding and the rate of growth in your colony remains virtually unaltered. Eventually, numbers in your colony get so high that unless you harvest heavily and regularly, the average size of your adults will start to decrease. The reason behind this is a convergence of two factors: one being the decreasing amount of space available, and the other, probably more central one, is the increased competition for food resources. These are completely inverse at the start of the colony and that is when you tend to see the largest adult sizes. Once the stage is reached where space and food are at a premium the average adult size decreases notably. If you are only interested in using the smallest nymphs then crowding isn't as big an issue, but be sure to note that other issues arise at this stage.

Once conditions get crowded in the colony a group of adults and subadults get the wanderlust. As the most well suited to leave given their developed exoskeleton and, if adults, wings to covering the body these roaches set off in search of greener pastures.

While they can be contained using a slip barrier in tandem with a lid, the possibility of escapees is a question that comes up. Thankfully there is good news on that front - regardless of their age, this species has absolutely terrible water retention. As a soil dwelling species they lost need for thick exoskeleton, which in turn means they cannot easily stop moisture from leaving their body if the surrounding air is drier than they are. In the Canadian home this is almost guaranteed and so once a surinam leaves the safety of the soil a countdown begins - if the roach cannot make it back to soil by the time the unseen "timer" runs out they are fated to die of dessication. For nymphs in their first couple instars this can be a matter of hours. For older nymphs and adults this extends to as long as a few days. Regardless, all stages perish if they can't make it back to the cover and safety of a moisture holding substrate.

Due to this feature females almost never even birth their brood away from substrate since it spells certain doom for their babies. I suspect the inability of young nymphs to climb smooth surfaces is likely tied to this fact as well - why leave the soil if you were guaranteed to die by the end of the day?

The only way this roach survives should they manage to get out is by finding soil with enough moisture to stop losing water, such a potted plant to post up in. There they will feed on the roots and there is enough moisture for their longterm survival. The simplest way to deal with a rogue group upon discovery they've made a satellite colony is to pitch the plant outside. So here is a warning: if you have any plants you particularly are fond of I recommend keeping them away from your surinam colony. You don't want your houseplants to become refuges for any escapees and potentially have to toss it.

Regardless, their biology means this species will not and cannot become a pantry pest, yet another feather in their proverbial cap. To circle back around to an earlier point their soft exoskeleton which is low in chitin means they make excellent feeders for groups like amphibians too!

Their biology and behavior, which makes them destined to NEVER become pantry pests, is also (in my opinion) their most annoying feature: burrowing roaches gonna burrow. It would seem that as soon as they touch substrate their instinct is to dive deep for refuge from the dangers that roam the surface.

While they resurface eventually, it could a minute, hour, day, or longer. This in turn means you don't know when or if your animal ate, and it inevitably throws off their feeding schedule.

There are two solutions I have come to which offer reasonable options for those who chose to use them. The first is to feed them directly to my animals using tongs. I actually prefer this method since it hells my animals become used to my presence and connect that to a positive experience. This is perfectly captured in the video below:

The second is to "deadhead" the roaches by crushing their heads. From that point they can be offering in a dish or tossed right in for your animal(s) to find and feed upon. These roaches kick and move about like a beheaded chicken, and continue to do so for quite sometime. That feature is great for species which require at least some movement to stimulate a feeding response.

This is where we come to a situation that I advise as strongly as possible to avoid - if you have a planted terrarium/vivarium, do NOT offer the inhabitants any live surinams using the second method and still very cautious using the first, but more importantly do not, under any circumstances put live surinams in there.

I have spoken with one individual who made this mistake. A beautiful planted terrarium and animals that readily accepted their new food...except one surinam managed to escape unseen into the substrate. In the warm of the heated terrarium, with endless roots to feed upon, the single surinam started giving birth in what was basically a paradise to it.

Time passed and with it a notable decline in the appearance of the plants in the tank as her children had children, and in turn those had offspring of their own and so forth. All generations fed upon the same thing - the root system, and since that was mostly all that was available the toll it took became increasingly greater with time. While the original inhabitants readily fed upon any surinams which crossed their paths, it still proved woefully inadequate to try to reduce their numbers. Eventually the owner reached out to see if I have any advice, solution, or as they eventually concluded, it meant they just had to restart. Everything; every little bit of soil, rooted plant, and tank decor had to be tossed or heat sterilized. All it would take is a single nymph, even just one newborn i1, to eventually lead to the plague of 'nams one day returning. The new nymphs are so small that any attempts to do a less than painstakingly thorough job of clearing the tank ran a high risk of a repeat.

Now, this ability to establish in the substrate of terrariums other than their own colony has been viewed as a positive by some - it does create a always present source of food for your animals within its habitat. If you don't have live plants, or just plants you don't mind replacing, this can actually be desired.

Regardless, it is an important feature that I feel people should be aware of when using this insect.

So all this is finally conclude: the surinam has clearly earned place among some of the best feeder insects currently in the Canadian market. It has its shortcomings, as every feeder insect does, but if we assess them as a whole (ease of breeding and rearing, longevity, acceptability as prey, etc) there are so many positive attributes it's hard to deny their wide utility.

I know the word "roach" has a lot of negative connotations, and have met people who literally won't even consider them because of it. I am here to say - yes they ARE roaches, but are so distantly related to pest species, both taxonomically and in characteristics, that it would be no more sense to say a duck is the same as a peacock. There's a lot of similarities, but some key differences.

In fact, I would argue it is BECAUSE they're roaches that they have so many positive attributes. Give them a try and join all the others who have left the filth, torment, and disappointment that is crickets in the past for a better way to feed your pets.

This last video was sent to me by a customer from Toronto. He bought the Surinams as feeders for his puffer fish and says they are a big hit! See for yourself 👇

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