Sometimes the best way to save a buck on feed is to make it yourself. A do-it-yourself mealworm farm is a cheap and easy way to make treats for your farm fowl from the comfort of your own home.
Mealworms are grub-like larvae of darkling beetles that are a protein-filled feed perfect for chickens. They are also used as feed for other domestic birds, reptiles and fish.
Adventurous homesteaders can even grow mealworms to eat themselves.
Robert Nathan Allen, president and founder of the edible insect education nonprofit Little Herds, describes the flavor of mealworms as “buttery, oaty, toasty, almost breakfast cereal-y.”
Allen recommends mealworms for first-time bug farmers instead of other popular critters like crickets.
“Mealworms are a little less noisy,” he says. “Crickets chirp when they are at the age when they start reproducing.”
How to start a mealworm farm
Home-growing mealworm starter kits are available for purchase from several companies, but it is easy to put together your own. Start with a plastic tub: An 8-by-12 inch tub that’s no more than 6 inches deep should do the trick. If it has a lid, poke a few air holes, but if not, covering the open top with a fine wire mesh and sealing it with duct tape will do the trick. Mealworms aren’t the escape artists that crickets are, but like crickets, mealworms thrive in higher temperatures and humidities. A small humidifier and heat lamps to keep the space around a balmy 80 degrees.
“The great thing about mealworms is they don’t fly and don’t jump,” Allen says. “You can keep them in a cabinet, aquarium, closet, garage or shed, as long as you’re keeping that temperature and humidity in a good range.”
You also need bedding, which will serve as a substrate for the mealworms to live in, breed in, and eat. Add a 2- or 3-inch layer of dry oats to the bottom of the bin for this purpose. Check the bedding frequently to prevent mold from working (mixing the oats with rice is a good way to remove excess moisture) and change it out every few weeks.
Once your micro-farm is ready, buy a couple hundred mealworms and add them to the container. Mealworms will lay eggs about one to two weeks into their adult lives, so if you treat the critters right, you will have a self-sustaining population with a new generation in no time. If you only plan on using the mealworms for chicken feed, you can purchase them at bait shops or pet stores, but any mealworms you plan to use in your culinary experiments should be sourced from farms that produce mealworms specifically for human consumption.
What do I feed mealworms?
Besides their oat substrate, mealworms munch on the scraps of potatoes, apples and carrots. Best of all, they do not need an additional water source; they use the moisture from their food.
When to harvest mealworms
After about a month, your first generation of mealworms will darken in color. In another week, they will morph into small black beetles. These beetles will lay eggs, which will hatch into light colored mealworms within a week or two. Freshly hatched mealworms are prime for harvesting, which can be done by hand, though the process is tedious. Shaking handfuls of mealworm-occupied bedding through a sifter will help separate the mealworms from the oats and frass, or insect poop, faster.
How to cook mealworms
For first-time mealworm chefs, Allen recommends tossing the harvested mealworms in some oil, spreading them out on a cookie sheet, and sprinkling them with spices. Spice mixes like garlic parmesan chili lime and cinnamon sugar are some of his favorites. “The cinnamon sugar ones, if you do it right, taste like Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” Allen says. Roast the mix for an hour or two at two hundred degrees until golden brown. The result: a pub-grub style snack with the consistency of popped rice and a kick of flavor.
Mealworm cuisine is an adventurous experiment, though some still squirm at the thought of eating worms. Even if you don’t plan to add mealworms to your diet, your chickens will thank you for the locally sourced treats.