My chickens love mealworms. In fact, they gobble them up at such an alarming rate that a few years ago I decided it would be more economical for me to try to breed my own. So I found a guy who sold them in bulk and bought a huge box of live ones. I was so excited about this new venture. After all, what could be better than a continuous, free source of healthy protein for my chickens?
Unfortunately, my venture was over before it started. I opened the box, took one look at the mass of squirmy wrigglers inside, panicked, and tossed the entire box into the run with my chickens. In the blink of an eye, all 40,000 worms were gone! And my chickens went to bed very happy - with crops stuffed with mealworms.
So I went back to feeding the chickens dried mealworms. They love them - and I didn't have to worry about worms that moved! But over the years, I've been asked so many times about raising and breeding mealworms that I've decided to share with you how to do it, in case you are more brave than I!
The Ramirez family, who follow me on Facebook, explained how they breed their mealworms. The kids are in charge of the "farm". They have a three-tiered plastic storage bin with drawers set up for different stages of the worms' life cycle.
The mealworm life cycle takes several weeks, so it does take a while to have plenty of mealworms for your chickens, and you always have to make sure you leave enough mealworms to mature into adult beetles to complete the life cycle over and over again. As their Dad says, the boys have their buggy science and the chickens have their healthy treats.
The life cycle goes like this:
-Darkling beetle lays eggs which hatch in 1-4 weeks.
-Larvae (mealworms) hatch and remain in this stage for 8-10 weeks.
-Worms turn into pupae and begin the metamorphosis into a beetle which takes 1-3 weeks.
-Beetles live for 4-16 weeks.
Put your live mealworms (larvae) in the bottom drawer in in inch or so of a mixture of corn meal, flour, and oatmeal (or other ground grains you have around the pantry). Put a vegetable or fruit in to provide moisture, but nothing with too much water that will rot. Half an apple, half a potato, a bit of lettuce, cabbage or celery works great. Put half an egg carton or some pieces of cardboard into the drawer. The worms like to hide under them and wriggle around on them.
Clean out and replace the grain mixture once a month. Use a plastic fork periodically to sift through and find any pupae - which get moved to the top drawer to hatch into beetles.
The top drawer needs to have the plastic bottom cut out and replaced with a screen [to allow the beetle eggs to fall through into the middle drawer]. It isn't absolutely necessary to move the pupae like this, but the beetles will often kill and eat the pupae - and it allows you to better observe them as they change into beetles. Metamorphosis never gets old! The pupae you have placed in the top drawer will eventually turn into beetles and lay their eggs. The pupae don't eat or drink, but you''ll need to give the beetles some lettuce to eat and put some pieces of cardboard and egg carton halves into the drawer. The beetles like to hide under them as well.
The middle drawer needs the same grain mixture and veggies in it for the mealworms that hatch from the eggs to feed on. Once the mealworms grow large enough, you can feed them to your chickens, but be sure to leave enough worms to replenish the bottom drawer to let mature into pupae and eventually beetles, and therefore continue to life cycle.
So you can use the middle drawer for "feeding" and the bottom drawer for "breeding" and just keep dividing up the mealworms between the two bottom drawers and scooping out the pupae and moving them to the top drawer.
You can also dry the mealworms to use later or just put them in the refrigerator. This will prevent them from moving into the pupae stage and will preserve them as mealworms. Trust me, your chickens will love the worms no matter whether they're live, dried or just chilled!
My friend Brandon also raises worms for his lizards. In fact, I once "babysat" for his mealworms when he and his wife went on vacation. I have to say, since they were already set up in their container, and all I had to do was add more veggies if they ran out, it really was pretty easy and didn't gross me out (very much). Brandon had some thoughts to share with me as well on raising worms. He commented:
"I have seen those [tiered] breeder setups you were talking about and from what I can tell, it looks like they work. I have bred mealworms, but for the couple of reptiles I have I can't keep up with how fast they multiply. Now I raise superworms. They are just a different, larger worm/beetle and for reptiles they are better because they have a softer exoskeleton, higher moisture content and can have better results while gut loading. I'm sure the benefits would work for chickens as well.
They do breed a little slower. I have found carrots and kale work best for the "water" they need. Both are high in the vitamins my reptiles need and both "rot" with out mold or smell (if that makes sense)."
A few more things:
- darkling beetles breed best when they are kept in temperatures between 70-80 degrees
- mealworms molt more than a dozen times during their 2 month life cycle as they grow
-dead beetles and mealworms should be removed periodically and discarded
-A beetle lays as many as 500 eggs at a time - so be prepared for LOTS of mealworms once you get going!
Thanks to the Ramirez family and my friend Brandon for their insights into raising mealworms and super worms. And I hope some of you decide to give it a whirl yourself! It seems pretty easy, the worms don't smell, and it's very inexpensive once you get going.
However, if you still aren't convinced that you should start your own mealworm farm, fortunately you can buy dried mealworms from Chubby Mealworms.