Mealworms are probably the most popular insect species (alongside crickets) used as feeder insects for pets such as rodents, reptiles, fish, and birds. They are easy to acquire and very nutritious. Unlike other feeder insects such as crickets, mealworms are not noisy and do not attack/bite pets.
Additionally, they live much longer than most other feeder insects. There are less likely to escape their enclosure since they can’t move quickly. All of these make them an advantageous choice. While purchasing mealworms is the go-to choice, this has several downsides to this.
For instance, if you are not fastidious with your trips to the pet shop, you may be out of mealworms during feeding time. Also, commercially farmed insects may not be raised to the same high standards as homegrown insects since they may not be fed as nutritiously as homegrown insects are.
Lastly, a DIY mealworm farm saves money and can be an interesting project.
Table of Contents
What Are Mealworms?
Although they are called mealworms, they are technically not worms. In fact, they are the larval form of the darkling beetle (scientifically known as Tenebrio molitor).
Mealworms prefer to live in environments with 70 percent humidity level and a temperature range of 76 to 81 F. They start out as eggs. After about 4 to 18 days, they transform into mealworms (larvae) for 6 weeks to 6 months.
After that, they transform into pupae and remain as pupae for 6 to 18 days. Finally, the pupae develop into adult darkling beetles (imago). The female adults lay eggs and the cycle repeats. After about two to three months, the adult beetles die.
Why Farm or Raise Mealworms?
Although wild beetles are considered as pests since they feed on grains (grown and stored by humans). For this reason, it isn’t prudent to release extra mealworms into the wild especially if they are not native to the locality.
However, mealworms are edible and are enjoyed by people all over the world where they are baked, fried and even made into candy for human consumption.
As already mentioned, mealworms are also popular pet food. They are highly nutritious and are 21 to 23 percent protein. They also contain more vitamins by weight than beef. Additionally, they contain appreciable levels of zinc, iron, selenium, sodium, copper, and potassium.
How To Make A Mealworm Farm
Materials Needed to Start a Mealworm Farm
- 1. Mealworms – Start with about 500 to 2500 mealworms, they are usually cheaper when bought in bulk. These are darkling beetle larvae. The BASSETT’S CRICKET RANCH Live Mealworms from Amazon are an excellent choice. They are healthy and breed well.
- 2. Three large rubber containers – The mealworms, the pupae, and the adult beetles will be housed in these containers. The size of the containers should be about 12 x 24 x 12 inches (15 gallons). I recommend the Sterilite 15 Gallon rubber box as it is durable and works well as a mealworm enclosure. Drill some holes in the top lids for ventilation. An alternative is the Rubbermaid.
- 3. Dry oatmeal, wheat bran, or cornmeal – The DC Earth Wheat Bran Mealworm Bedding is an ideal feed for the insects.
- 4. Fruits and vegetables such as sliced carrots, potatoes, and apples. These foods provide moisture and vitamins. Additionally, they don’t mold quickly. Mealworms can also be fed with kitchen scraps such as celery bottoms, carrot tops, and potato peels.
- 5. Cylindrical cardboard tubes – These can be found in rolls of toilet paper or cardboard egg cartons. Other scraps of cardboard work as well. The cardboard scraps provide insects with places to hide.
Steps Needed to Create a DIY Mealworm Farm
Part 1 – Setting up
The first step involves gathering all the needed ingredients and supplies as listed in the materials needed section.
Label the containers for easy identification. The container for the mealworms should be labeled as larvae. Similarly, label the two other containers adult beetles, and pupae respectively. As they grow from larvae (mealworms) into pupae and finally adult beetles, you have to move them to the appropriate containers.
Since you will most likely start with larvae (mealworms), only a single container needs to be prepped. However, as time passes, you will need to prep both the pupae and the adult beetle containers.
Create a layer/bedding of wheat bran (1 to 3 inches deep) in the various containers (only the mealworm container initially, you will do the same to the ‘pupae’ and ‘adult beetles’ containers eventual). The mealworms and subsequent beetles feed on the wheat bran. Additionally, the wheat bran layer serves as bedding.
Place slices of fruits or vegetables in the rubber container. Carrots and apples are recommended as they take longer to rot and mold than other fruits take. Carrots especially take extremely long to mold.
However, any type of vegetable or fruit can provide the needed water and nutrients. You can scrapings of vegetables and fruits that would otherwise be thrown out. Check on the vegetables and fruits regularly and replace them before they start to mold or rot.
Add live Mealworms
Place the live mealworms into just one of the containers, the container labeled larvae or mealworms. The other containers will later on house the pupae and beetles.
Have a few cardboard scraps in the larvae rubber container. The mealworms can hide underneath and within the cardboard rolls.
Securely fasten the lids to the containers and place the containers in a dark and warm place. The warmer the temperature, the faster the mealworms will pupate. Changing the temperature allows you to regulate the life cycles of the little worms/beetles.
I recommend you keep the temperature of each container at 76 to 81 F. Similarly, if you wish to slow down the darkling beetle life cycle, keep the temperature at 72 to 76 F.
If the temperature in the room is below 72 F, use an incandescent bulb, a heat lamp such as the 60W Ceramic Heat Emitter, or a heat mat and a thermostat such as a is the iPower Reptile Heat Pad and Century Digital Heat Mat Thermostat Controller combo to keep the insects warm and happy.
Part 2 – Breeding
The containers with the mealworms, pupa, and beetles need to be check on regularly. As a beginner, it is a good idea to do so daily. As you gain experience, you can create your own system. Some mealworm farmers even check and maintain their farms just once a week.
Remove rotten food
Replace all moldy and rotten fruits and vegetables from the containers. Similarly, remove all clumps of mold, and dead mealworms, pupae and beetles. Move the wheat bran bedding around to prevent mold from forming.
Check for Pupae
Watch out for pupae. It can take between a week to two months before the mealworms transform in pupae. As such, you can wait for a while before setting up the pupa container.
When pupal stage is near, you may notice that the mealworms are paler and whiter in appearance. Also the larvae curl up and their segmentations disappear.
The mealworms will then shed/molt several times before they turn into pupae. The process is referred to as pupation.
Transfer Pupae to container
Once they turn into pupae, transfer them into the pupae container. Place them on a bedding of oatmeal, cornmeal, or wheat bran just like you did with the mealworms. Pupae don’t eat. Additionally, they barely move.
Because they hardly move, they are defenseless and can easily be eaten or harmed before they turn into bugs if kept in the same container as the adult beetles. As with the larvae stage, the pupal stage lasts several weeks depending on the temperature of the enclosure.
As they approach the end of the papal stage, they darken in color. You can place slices of vegetables in the container. Although the pupae won’t feed on the vegetables, they provide moisture which helps keep humidity levels.
As the pupae develop into beetles, you will have insects at several stages of their life cycle. It is necessary to check regularly and move the insects into the right boxes.
Move the Beetles
Soon enough, the larvae turn into beetles. Beetles eat pupae, so you need to move them immediately to reduce casualties. The beetles go into the adult beetle container. Since beetles lay eggs, provide a deeper wheat bran bedding for them to nest in.
Check for eggs in bedding
Soon the adults will begin to lay eggs. Check the wheat bran bedding regularly for eggs, which are usually found at the bottom of the rubber tub.
You don’t need to move the eggs since they can hatch on their own. Depending on temperature levels, it will take anywhere 3 to 20 days for the healthy eggs to hatch. A single female beetle can lay up to 500 eggs.
Move the Hatchlings
To prevent the beetles from eating the hatchlings, move the hatchlings into the mealworm container as soon as they hatch. This can take a lot of work. However, you will have a healthy supply of mealworms to feed your pets. Likewise, you can also eat them yourself.
It is not uncommon to have more mealworms than you need. If that happens, do not release them into the wild especially if they are not endemic to where you live.
Darkling beetles are pests that feed on grains and seeds. There are several ways to humanely cull extra mealworms. You can freeze them before you dispose them. You can also cook and eat some yourself. lastly, you can feed the extra pupae to the adult beetles.
Lessons from Mealworm Breeding
Advantages of Farming Mealworms Instead of Buying
The first advantage is the reduction in the cost of feeding captive-bred reptiles. As a hobbyist, the cost of feeding a couple of reptiles such as turtles, and lizards may not be insignificant. However, for reptile breeders, the cost of feeding a large number of reptiles can be high.
You can cut feeding cost down by rearing feeder insects. Mealworms, in particular, eat very little. It takes a very long time for them to consume the wheat bran provided them. You can supplement this with scraps of vegetables & fruits which would otherwise be disposed of.
Most of the cost that goes into the farming process is down to the initial stage which involves acquiring materials needed to set up the farm. From there, maintenance costs are little to nothing.
It is important that feeder insects are fed nutritiously because these same nutrients are transferred to the pets when they feed on the mealworms.
However, most commercially farmed mealworms aren’t well-fed and as such lack the needed nutrients in the right amount. This is normal as commercial farmers are in it to make profit. However, DIY farming allows you to produce high-grade organic food for your pet.
This is another major advantage of mealworm farming. A feeder insect farm allows you to have an ample supply of insects. You don’t need to make a long trip every time you need food for your reptiles.
Disadvantages of Farming Mealworms Instead of Buying
The one disadvantage of mealworm farming is the time you have to put in. However, this isn’t much as the insects require very little attention. Many farmers check on their mealworms just once or twice a week.
While the pros of creating DIY mealworm farm outweigh the cons, the deciding factor is down to the number of reptiles you keep as pets. If you have a single turtle or just a couple, buying seems to be the more viable option, as mealworm farming will produce more mealworms than the pet can eat.
However, if you breed/raise reptiles or birds (such as chicken), a DIY farm is a great way to provide the reptiles or birds with high-grade food on the cheap.
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