Everybody knows that chickens love mealworms.
They are also used as snacks for lizards, caged birds and fish.
Those wiggly little grubs are packed full of protein which makes them a healthy treat.
Making your own mealworm farm is not that labor intensive or time consuming and it can be fun, educational and rewarding.
In this article we discuss exactly how to make your own DIY mealworm farm in 6 simple steps.
Contents and Quick Navigation
- Mealworms 101
- How To Start A Mealworm Farm
- Benefits Of Feeding Mealworm To Chickens
- Common Problems When Farming Mealworms
- FAQs About How To Grow Mealworms
Mealworms are actually the larvae of the Darkling beetle (Tenebrio molitor).
They have been around for a very long time and evidence of the beetle was found in Bronze Age settlements in Turkey.
In the West we think of them as a grain beetle and therefore a pest. However they do occur naturally in many other places in nature and do a wonderful job of reducing decaying matter into compostable soil or debris.
Most importantly though, chickens love them!
Your backyard chickens will eat them up like they have not eaten for a week. They are very nutritious and are high in protein and trace elements such as copper.
Just remember to only feed them to your chickens as a treat though – around 10% of their total food intake.
Mealworm Life Span Explained
Just like many other insects, the mealworms have definite stages of life through which it passes.
The first stage is the egg.
Once an egg is laid it can take from 4-18 days to hatch. The warmer the temperature, the quicker the egg will hatch.
Larva is the form which is most commonly fed to chickens and other creatures such as lizards. The larval stage can last anywhere from 6 weeks to 9 months, again it depends on the environment. These larvae enjoy warmth, darkness and a humidity around 70%.
Once full maturity in the larval stage, the insect will start to transform into a pupa. This stage will last from 6-18 days before completion.
In the pupal casing the worm-like larva is transforming into a beetle. In the later stages of the incubation, you can make out the legs and antennae as the beetle starts to change color from a waxy yellow to black.
When the pupa is ready to open you may see movement inside the shell as the beetle starts to break out.
The beetle is the adult and final stage of life.
A female beetle can lay around 200 eggs in her lifetime which is a short 2-3 months. Although the adults can fly, they rarely do. They much prefer to burrow through the warm darkness of a grain sack.
How To Start A Mealworm Farm
Step 1: Get A Container
The first thing you will need to make a mealworm farm is a container.
An old aquarium, plastic tote or something similar is an excellent choice since you can see through the sides. Do not use anything like cardboard or styrofoam because the larvae will eat it.
You will need to make sure the container is clean and dry before you add your substrate. It will need to measure around 12″x24″x12″.
The sides of the container should be at least six inches tall, have slick sides (glass or plastic) so the beetles cannot crawl out, and a lid or covering to keep out other insects or rodents. You will need to punch or drill small air holes to allow fresh air into the container.
Step 2: Add Your Substrate
Next you will need substrate.
Wheat bran is quite cheap and easy to use for these insects. Most grocery stores sell it or if you cannot find it there, online is a good place to look.
You should spread it out evenly to a depth of three inches.
Step 3: Get Your Mealworms
Now you need to add your mealworms to the container.
You can buy them online and depending on how big you want your farm to be you can buy anywhere from 500-10,000 larvae.
It is probably best to start with 500–1000 larvae for one container.
Step 4: Set Up Your Mealworm Farm
You should sprinkle your larvae gently around the container. They should be liberally spaced and not in clumps or heaps. If you have extra larvae you can feed them to the chickens or keep them in the refrigerator (make sure the container lid is tight).
Now is the time to add a few slices of potato for moisture.
You will need to think about where you are going to put your farm. It needs to be somewhere that is constantly warm, dark and not likely to be knocked over – you do not want hundreds of beetles marching across the dining room floor.
In northern climates you may need to supply some sort of heat source to keep the insects warm and growing. They won’t die in cooler temperatures, but it will take much longer for them to develop. Some folks use a reptile heating mat underneath an aquarium, others put the farm in a room with a radiator.
Step 5: Feeding
You can feed them as frequently as you want to but they do not need to be fed daily.
Your only job is to make sure your bran level stays around three inches – if it drops down, top it up.
The more you feed them the bigger your larvae you will get over time.
Step 6: Harvesting
Larvae should be harvested when they are about 1½ inches in length. Using a sieve you can easily remove them from the bran (and eggs), and place them in a separate container with a lid. You can feed them to the chickens live or you can choose to refrigerate them so they do not wiggle away.
Remember that the beetles will eat their own young, so to ensure a good survival of eggs and larvae, it is best to remove your beetles to another container where they can continue to lay eggs. This will also help start your second farm.
You should put in some fresh larvae once every few months to make sure they continue to breed prolifically. The male beetles can smell close relatives and are not as inclined to breed with them as they are with new beetles.
Mealworm farming is not labor intensive, they actually require very little from you. If you keep the right temperature and humidity they will proliferate pretty quickly. You should check them every few days to make sure all is well – do not panic if you cannot see them, they tend to burrow down in the bran.
If your temperature and humidity are right, you can expect them to start pupating in about six weeks or so.
You should top up the bran when the level falls below three inches and more frequently as desired. If your larvae are still larva and the bran starts to look pale, then add a little more bran to the top layer then mix it in.
They need a little moisture in the form of potato slices or similar. Do not use open water containers as they will drown.
Once the slices start to look dehydrated or moldy, you can replace them with fresh slices.
Benefits Of Feeding Mealworm To Chickens
Does feeding your chickens with mealworms provide any benefits?
Mealworms are packed with protein so they make a great treat for your flock. They are especially nutritious during times when they need a protein boost (such as molting). Just make sure treats do not make up more than 10% of your flocks’ regular diet.
Not only do they provide lots of protein, but you know what you are feeding them. When you are growing your own mealworms there are no hidden surprises such as pesticides lurking undetected.
It also helps to keep your chickens busy and active – this helps reduce chicken bullying.
Throwing a handful of mealworms into the bedding of the coop will keep them entertained for quite a while. They will happily dig through the bedding, raking it up and turning it over for you.
Finally, it is cheap!
Once you start up your own farm you will notice how much money you are saving over time. The cheapest dried mealworms I found online were $17.00 for 5lb (around $3.50 per pound). Your homegrown mealworms are going to cost you cents per pound.
Common Problems When Farming Mealworms
Making a mealworm farm is fairly straightforward and you should not expect to run into too many problems.
Perhaps the biggest problem is changing out the old substrate for clean fresh bedding.
If your mealworms start to smell then you need to change out their bedding. You can sieve out the beetles and larvae into the new container fairly easily. It is best to move the beetles when they are newly hatched since they will not have started laying eggs yet.
Another common problem is the larvae taking a long time to hatch out.
You will need to increase the temperature.
Mealworms do best at a humidity of around 70% and a temperature of 75-80F°F. They do breed at lower temperatures, but it takes longer for them to develop.
The last issue to watch for is mold.
Mold can be an issue with your mealworm farm if you have too much moisture in the tray. Use slices of potato or carrots for moisture but keep an eye on them for mold. If you see any mold you should remove it and replace it with a fresh slice.
FAQs About How To Grow Mealworms
How long do mealworms take to grow?
The exact speed at which they grow is determined by heat, humidity and darkness. In ideal circumstances your mealworms should be ready to eat in 6-7 weeks.
What do I feed mealworms?
Wheat bran, cornmeal, oatmeal, breakfast cereal such as Cheerios (not too much sugar), crushed dry dog food or a mix of any or all of the above. They will also need some sliced potato, apple or other veggies or fruit to provide water. Do not provide a water bowl as your mealworms cannot swim.
Where can I buy mealworms?
You should be able to buy them locally at a bait or pet shop. You can also find them online too.
500 mealworms will cost you between $5-$10 and this will be enough to start your own farm.
Building your own mealworm farm will save you a lot of money.
You also get the added benefit of knowing exactly what your chickens are eating. You can choose whether or not you grow them organically or with regular bran. In all honesty, the chickens won’t care and will eat either!
Kids love bugs so maybe you can persuade them to become farmers in their own right. It could be a fun and educational project for them to do.
Who knows? Perhaps starting your own little farm might lead to having a small and thriving business. Several folks have made a decent living out of supplying their mealworms to other flock keepers, fishermen, fish keepers and folks who keep lizards.
Let us know if you have any questions in the comments section below…