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Raising Mealworms: A Beginner’s Journey
If you’re completely new to the idea of raising and eating insects, the general consensus is that mealworms are the way to go. They have a high protein content and a relatively low fat content, they reproduce very quickly and in large numbers. Adult females usually produce hundreds of eggs at a time and the same adults can then be used to reseed a new supply of eggs every few weeks for the next 1-2 months, until their reproductive output becomes too low. Another advantage of using mealworms as your insect of choice is that they can be stored in the fridge for months if needed, provided they are taken out for feeding once a week.
Before I continue, it is important that you understand the life cycle of the mealworm. Mealworms aren’t really worms at all – they belong to the order Coleoptera, which makes them beetles. Mealworms themselves are actually the larval form of blackworms. Beetle species make up 40% of all insects on the planet, and people most often raise mealworms, mainly for animal feed.
After breeding, adult female beetles lay their tiny eggs in the soil. They come with a sticky outer coating to collect soil particles to keep them hidden from predators. Once they hatch into their larval mealworm form, baby mealworms start eating and growing—that’s pretty much all they’re programmed to do. Mealworms, unlike the larvae of some insects such as butterfly caterpillars, have tough exoskeletons, which means they have to shed them periodically to keep growing. Mealworms will continue to molt repeatedly to grow from the size of a grain of sand to over an inch.
Once they reach larval maturity, they will begin to pupate and enter their third pupal form, in which their enveloped bodies turn to mush so they can be re-assimilated into their adult structural form. The time it takes to undergo this metamorphosis depends on the environmental conditions – high humidity and medium temperature are ideal. The adult will eventually emerge small, soft and white from the pupa and over the course of a week will eat and grow as its exoskeleton hardens and turns black. A week or two later, the adults will reach sexual maturity and begin to reproduce, thus completing the life cycle.
Small-scale cultivation of mealworms
After doing a lot of research into the practicalities of starting a small mealworm farm at home in the UK, I kept coming across the popular idea that “separation is key”, keeping the adults, larvae and eggs away from each other. Productivity is the reason for this as both larvae and adults will eat the eggs and the adults will also go for the young larvae, which ultimately reduces the overall yield.
So, the process. I used a number of example templates to formulate the most efficient way to run a mealworm farm. For starters, you’ll need something to hold the mealworms in. I recommend a plastic cabinet with six drawers. Each tray will be used to house mealworms at different stages of development. Some people cover these drawers with duct tape to keep the inside dark, as this is particularly preferred by bugs. Others also drill a few holes in the plastic for ventilation, but many believe that regularly opening the drawers to change food sources ensures adequate ventilation. The drawers I use are quite deep and not completely sealed so their inhabitants don’t run out of air without these holes.
Then you’ll need a good amount of chick food pellets for their litter and the bulk of their diet – some people use oats and others wheat bran, but ground chick pellets seem to have a lower risk of mold growth, a particularly key thing to look out for be careful when using potato slices as a source of moisture and food. You can go old fashioned with your pellets and grind them with a pestle and mortar or you can get one of those mini blenders to speed up the process.
Once you have everything set up, head to your local pet store and get your first batch of mealworms. A few hundred will be enough to get you started (if you follow this small scale method). Just before they arrive, grind enough chicken balls to evenly cover the bottom of the lowest drawer to a thickness of just over an inch. Add mealworms and a few sources of moisture (I use apple slices and whole carrots) and start the waiting game. At this point it is up to you to save the pupae as they form, as some mealworms are known to suck the pupae. Either way, you’ll end up with a nice collection of reddish-brown beetles. Let them ripen for a week or so until they turn black.
Now it’s time for your first bug transfer. Grind your pellets, fill the next tray in the row as you did before and place it on the table next to the bug tray. An expert tip for transferring the bugs is to add a fresh slice of apple and wait for them to crowd onto it, allowing you to just pick up the slice and shake them off into a new tray. You can also filter the entire contents of the tray over a bucket, through a sieve or a plastic strainer. The bugs should be all that’s left in the sieve so just put them with the rest in the new drawer and put the drawer back in the cabinet.
More waiting… but in the meantime you can wash out the old drawer and don’t forget that the beetles need to be replenished with food more often because you will notice that they go through it much faster than mealworms (which also eat bedding). The basic rule is every day or two for bugs and a little less often for mealworms, but just keep an eye out for mold along the way.
After a few weeks, it’s safe to say that your beetles will reproduce and lay their eggs, but you should keep an eye out for such tiny newly hatched mealworms in case the process is faster than expected – the beetles will eat them as soon as they see them. When the time is right, repeat the apple slice transfer method to move the bugs up one level. You can always filter them again, which is faster, but you’ll need to make sure your sieve has holes big enough for your tiny grubs to pass through. Some think it is not good for larvae of this size, nor for the eggs. If you use a strainer, make sure the bedding goes back into the same drawer (not the bin) because of course there are precious eggs in there. If necessary, add more freshly ground pellets.
All you have to do now is repeat the same steps, moving the beetles up one level every few weeks until they reach the top. When they do, start again from the second lowest drawer. Just keep the bottom drawer out of cycle, where you can put all the rescued pupae. When these become mature beetles, just add them to the beetle tray so they can start breeding. Whenever your brood of mealworms in a particular drawer reaches a decent size, use the filtration method and discard the old bedding. You can then either store your mealworms in the freezer or feed them to your chickens, regardless of the desired result. Just remember to wash them before cooking if you’re going to eat them!
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