A Beginner’s Journey: Live Mealworms!

Having been inspired by a good friend that now makes his living as Co-Founder of one of the most progressive and respected up-and-coming edible bug companies in the US, I have taken it upon myself to spread the good word back in the UK. Not knowing much about the current state of global bug farming, I had to do a lot of research and I’ll get to much of this in later posts. For now I’d like to give you a couple of examples of how bugs can easily be farmed by anyone at home, and I’ll use my friend’s company as the first case study.

He, along with two other San Fransisco residents, head up Tiny Farms, which as you can see from their page, already command considerable respect for the work they are doing in the entomophagy community. Features in the New York Times, Forbes and the BBC (to name just a few) are testament to this. The most exciting part of their work, for myself at least, is their Open Bug Farm project, an open source community providing the opportunity for collaboration between bug farmers, researchers and hobbyists who “want to change the world with edible insects”.

Open Bug Farm

If you’re completely new to the idea of farming and eating bugs, the general consensus is that mealworms or crickets are the way to go. They both have a high protein and relatively low fat content, reproduce very quickly and in large numbers. As far as mealworms are concerned, female adult beetles commonly produce hundreds of eggs at once and the same adults can then be used to re-seed new stocks of eggs every couple of weeks for the next 2-3 months until they die. One other advantage of farming live mealworms is that they can be stored in the fridge for months if necessary, provided they are taken out once a week to be fed.

Open Bug Farm Mealworm Farm Kit
Open Bug Farm Mealworm Farm Kit

Open Bug Farm’s first venture into bug farming was with live mealworms for those very reasons. They have now developed and are selling the Beta version of their mealworm farm kit (pictured right) which incorporates the popular idea that ‘separation is key’, keeping adults (beetles), larvae (mealworms) and eggs away from each other. Productivity is the reason behind this since both the larvae and the adults will eat the eggs and the adults will also go for young larvae, ultimately reducing the overall yield.

The mealworm farm kit makes use of separate breeding / nursery bins and ‘grow bags’ in which the live mealworms are allowed to develop. The basic idea is that the first stock of mealworms are kept in the breeding bin to allow to pupate and eventually turn into their adult beetle form. They are then allowed to breed and lay eggs, after which the adults can be moved to another bin so they can get busy again. The first bin then becomes a nursery where the eggs can hatch and the young larvae grow for a while before being transferred with their feed to a grow bag. There they can grow to a harvestable size and this whole process can be repeated with the parallel population in the second breeder / nursery bin. For more detailed instructions, you should have a look at the Open Bug Farm Wiki where you’ll find a whole bunch of information on everything bug farming (and not just mealworms).

As I mentioned above, although their mealworm farm kit fully serves its function as a small-scale farm, it’s still in development so the owners are keen to accumulate what they call “early adopters” to test the product, and most importantly, provide them with feedback to further enhance the future of the bug farming community. I encourage you to click on the image above so you can see exactly how these kits are put together and especially if you are based in the US, you could take your very own kit home! If you intend on selling live mealworms back to pet stores or reptile/bird enthusiasts, you could end up making more than your money back in less than four farming cycles. Not only that, but you’ll of course be part of the new revolution! Speaking of which, one last thing to reiterate that’s been a great help for my research is the community they have over there – check out the Open Bug Farm Forum to see what I mean.

Edible Bug Farm’s Beginner Method for Farming Live Mealworms

After doing a fair amount of research into the practical aspects of getting a small mealworm farm up-and-running at home here in the UK, I stumbled upon the video below. Ignoring the dodgy one-handed camerawork, this guy actually has a really efficient setup in place – one which could easily be scaled up for anyone that feels they could take on more responsibility (which isn’t much at this level). Check out the video and then I’ll show you in diagram form how I’ve adapted the concept for my purposes.

I hope you can appreciate that the concept is fairly simple, but I’ll walk you through it anyway. Click on the image below for my schematic. Note that cycles 1 and 2 both use the same setup so you would only need one six-drawer tower (or two three-drawer desk towers like the guy used in the video).

Before I go any further, I should mention that I have not yet tested this method myself, but I will start a couple of runs within the next month. I should have a good idea of how it works and the amount of time involved by the beginning of the new year (2015). In the meantime, please let us know of your experiences raising live mealworms using our Contact Page. If you have tried this method or are using the kit from Open Bug Farm, please let me know how it’s working out for you, including any issues that may have come up along the way.

[UPDATE: Check out the lessons I’ve learnt so far in Day 1: Dried Mealworms]

So now, the process. To begin with, you will need something to keep your live mealworms in. I recommend a plastic six-drawer tower, much like the one in the link below (I’ve included links down there from Amazon for everything you will need so you know where to start looking). Some people cover the drawers in duct tape to keep it dark as the beetles in particular prefer this, so I’ll probably be doing the same. Others also drill a few holes in the plastic for ventilation, but many believe that opening the drawers regularly to change out the food / moisture sources provides adequate aeration so I’m not bothering with this. You will then need a good amount of chicken feed pellets for their bedding and the bulk of their diet (link below) – some people use oats and some use wheat bran, but it seems that ground chicken feed pellets have less of a risk of mould development, an especially crucial thing to keep an eye out for when you use potato slices as your moisture source, and even more if your farm is outside. You can go old-school with your pellets and grind them with a pestle and mortar or you can get yourself one of those mini blenders mentioned in the video (again, there’s a link below).

Morphy Richards 48415 Easy Blend - White

by Morphy Richards

Price: £29.99

Duffields Chickens Choice Layers Pellets, 20 Kg

by Duffields Chickens Choice

Price: £12.99

Once you have the whole setup in place, get in touch with your local pet shop and get hold of your first batch of live mealworms! A kilogram or so will do to start off with (if you’re following this small-scale method). Just before they arrive, grind up enough chicken pellets to uniformly cover the bottom of your lower tray to just over an inch thick. Add your mealworms and a couple of moisture sources (I go for apple slices or carrots) and you begin the waiting game. At this point it’s up to you whether you rescue the pupae as they appear as some mealworms have been known to go vampiric on the pupae! Either way, eventually you’ll have yourself a nice collection of reddish-brown beetles. Allow these to mature for a week or so until they turn black.

Now it’s time for your first transfer – better get used to it because you’re in for many more to come! Grind up your pellets and fill the next tray up as you did before and place on a table alongside the beetle tray. A decent tip for transferring your beetles is to add a fresh apple slice and wait for them to chow down on it, allowing you to just pick up the slice and shake them off into the new tray. Some won’t bite so you can filter the entire tray contents through a sieve or plastic colander over a bin. The beetles should be all that are left in the sieve so just put them with the rest in the new tray and put this back in the tower. More waiting… but you can give the old tray a rinse in the meantime, and don’t forget that the beetles need food replenishing more often as you’ll notice they go through it much faster than the mealworms (who also eat the bedding). The rule of thumb is every day or two for the beetles and slightly less often for the mealworms, but just keep an eye out for mould.

raising mealworms diagram
Raising live mealworms

After a week or two, it’s safe to say that your beetles will have bred and laid their eggs, but you should keep an eye out for the ever-so-tiny newly emerging mealworms in case the process is quicker than expected – the beetles will eat them as soon as they see them. When it’s time, repeat the apple slice / hand method to move the beetles one level up. You could always filter them again, which is quicker, but you’ll have to make sure that your sieve has large enough holes for any of your tiny larvae. Some think that doing this isn’t good for the larvae at this size, nor for the eggs. If you’re using the sieve, make sure that the bedding goes back into the same tray because, of course, there are precious eggs within. Top it off with more freshly ground pellets if needed.

That’s pretty much it. All you have to do now is repeat the same steps, moving the beetles up a level until they reach the top. Just keep the bottom tray out of the cycle, into which you can put any rescued pupae. When these become mature beetles, just add them to the beetle tray. Whenever your mealworm progeny in a given tray get to a decent size, go for the filtration method and discard the old bedding. Your live mealworms can then either be stored directly in your freezer (wash them when they’re dead – it’s kinder), fed to chickens or used as live reptile food.

Happy insect farming!

[UPDATE: Check out the lessons I’ve learnt so far in Day 1: Dried Mealworms]