You know you are officially a chicken lover if you decide to farm mealworms. Several years ago, I definitely would not have expected to be the proud owner of a mealworm farm. There is a lot of talk about raising mealworms in the chicken owner/homestead/reptile owning community and I wanted to provide a single source of information. There are tons of videos on YouTube about this, as well as endless articles on Google. It is important to research the methods and pick the best one for you.
A Little Background
Mealworms are actually the larval form of a mealworm beetle, also called a darkling beetle (Wikipedia).
There are several stages of life for a darkling beetle; egg, larva, pupa, adult.
Darkling beetles remain in their egg form for anywhere from 4-19 days. They then enter into their larval stage, which they remain in for 12-54 days. Next, they enter the pupal phase, which lasts around 20 days. In this phase they are a creamy white color. Lastly, they transform into their adult form; a black beetle. In this phase, they reproduce. There is a big variance in the time they spend in each phase because darkling beetles are sensitive to temperature. We will discuss this in a bit.
Mealworms have a variety of uses, some of them may surprise you.
- Chicken treats
- Wild bird food
- Bait for fishing
- Food for reptiles
- Food for Sugar Gliders
- Human consumption (yes, for real! Here is a recipe for Chocolate Mealworm Chip Cookies)
What we will be discussing here focuses on raising mealworms for chicken consumption (methods to raise mealworms are the same though for each purpose).
There are a few methods to raising mealworms. I have picked the main important points to discuss.
Use a slick container that the worms (and later beetles) cannot climb up. The plastic storage type containers work great. Having a top or not is up to you, if you decide to go without a top, ensure that you are using a deep enough container so nothing can get in or get out. If you choose a top, make sure you have air holes.
Multi-level or single story system:
With both of these methods, make sure to choose the one that you can handle the best. Mealworms are very low maintenance in general, but the multi-level system involves more work.
Multi-level system is the method I chose. I like this method because it is more organized in my opinion.
This is what mine looks like:
The purpose of the three stories are to separate the phases of development. If you’ll remember from above, there are actually four stages, but the larva and pupal stage are lumped together in this system. The mealworms and pupa are kept together and once they turn into beetles, the beetles are moved to a different drawer. Once the beetles lay eggs and begin to die you will be left with eggs. Once the eggs hatch, move the larva mealworms to a separate drawer. One drawer for eggs, one for larva/pupal and one for beetles.
With the single story system, there is not much to be done, but observe their growth. Cannibalism tends to be higher with this method.
If you are planning on keeping organic mealworms-for organic chickens-a good bedding to use is Red Mill Oat Bran. Be advised, there is a non-organic version (pictured below) and an organic version (has a green label that states “organic” on it).
Mealworms eat grain. This makes them a huge pest to grain farmers.
The bedding supplies them with their main food source. Other folks have also used oatmeal, chick starter feed, and leftover breakfast cereals.
A word of caution with buying bedding. If you buy a type of grain/bran that is not made for human consumption you run the risk of introducing another critter (like mites) to your mealworms.
In the right temperature, these little wigglers can reproduce very rapidly. Mealworms’ main purpose in life is to eat, occasionally drink and reproduce (what a hard life!). As the mealworms eat, their bedding turns into mealworm castings (mealworm poop). This is great to use in your compost and garden.
Once you notice the bedding has pretty much turned to castings, it is time to change the bedding. You can do this by a few different methods. This is another reason why I prefer several drawers. It makes it easier when it’s time to change the bedding. One method is to pick out the mealworms/beetles by hand. This is good if you have a small farm. You can also sift out the mealworms/beetles with a sifter (just don’t use one from the kitchen, buy a separate one), change the bedding and then replace them. Lastly, you can put a tasty morsel in with them, wait a bit, and the majority of worms will be attached to the morsel. Simply lift it out, change the bedding and replace mealworms. This is also a good method when its time to harvest them.
Mealworms do not need an obvious source of water. No bowls or dishes of water. Their hydration comes from what they eat. In addition to their bedding (grain/bran), you will have to supply them with a few (depending on how many mealworms you have) vegetables. Most people use potatoes, but these mold quickly. Once anything starts to mold, remove it immediately. Carrots seem to work better because they don’t get the bedding wet. If the bedding gets wet, it will mold and that is not good for the mealworms. You can also put wetter vegetables on something to keep it up off the bedding. I use a piece of parchment paper.
Temperature & Light
Mealworms are sensitive to temperature and how quickly they develop depends on it. Mealworms like non-humid heat, around 75 degrees. Most people keep mealworms in the house because room temperature is adequate for raising them. You can also place a heat lamp over them to encourage quick growth, just remember around 75 degrees is ideal.
In all stages of life, especially the latter stages, mealworms like the dark. It is a good idea to put some pieces of cardboard or newspaper down for them to crawl through and hide under.
If you want to save mealworms for a later time, you simply put them in the refrigerator and they will go dormant. This means their life cycle slows significantly. It is still recommended that you provide a source of food. Some folks say you can leave them in the fridge for a month or so. When you are ready for them to begin their life cycle again, simply take them out of the fridge and let them gradually warm up to room temperature.
Given adequate temperatures, food and hydration, mealworms will be mealworms. They will eat, grow, reproduce and die without any assistance needed.
You can technically feed your chickens darkling beetles in any stage, but mealworms are the tastiest. Alive, adult darkling beetles can give off a defensive fluid that chickens don’t prefer.
Once you have a pretty solid farm in place, you can harvest the mealworms for whatever purpose you intend. You can feed them to your chickens live or dry them. The method to do this can be found HERE. Dried mealworms keep for around a year.
Where and How Much
Most people buy their mealworms from a local breeder or purchase online. There are quite a few places online. I have heard several bad reports on Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, so I would stear clear of that company.
Online companies will offer different sizes of mealworms. Small to medium are adequate. Do not purchase the “giant” mealworms, as they have been fed artificial supplements to get them to that size. If you have a few chickens, I would recommend getting around 500 to start with. You will pay around $10 for 500 mealworms, including shipping. You will lose quite a bit of mealworms during shipping and through the natural hazards of being a mealworm. If you get way more than you want, just feed the extras to your flock.
The Ick Factor
I am going to address the ick factor of mealworms. There is not much on this lovely planet that grosses me out. Being a nurse, I have had my hands in and on things most people wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. However, insects give me the creeps. They just have too many legs and too many eyes for my taste. Mealworms though, are a little on the cute side. They aren’t slimy and they can’t bite you. The one thing that may give you the creeps is the munching sound they make while they are eating. Overall, the ick factor is pretty low.
I do want to mention that over time, a few people develop pretty significant allergies to these little critters. I would caution anyone with a lung dysfunction disease (COPD, emphysema) or severe allergies in handling mealworms without a mask on.
Mealworm farming is a great way to provide tasty treats to your flock and requires little care and continual cost. I would love to hear your experiences and tips about mealworm farming. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
Homestead Redhead, contributing author