“People have a fear of the unknown. Insects have different senses than us, different amount of limbs and their body structure is very different. It’s hard for us to really relate to them and understand them.” ~ Dominic Monaghan
Last year, Mr Eight’s teacher Mrs Gibson, sent home a plastic chinese-takeout container filled with black beetles. Technically, they were the beetles of mealworms, Tenebrio molitor, and were leftover from a science project on insect life cycles. And my eldest son become a bit enamoured with his bugs. He didn’t want me to feed the lot to the chickens. Now, they’ve grown on me too.
Mealworms are lovely. They are clean and neat little creatures. After they outgrew their takeout container accommodations, we upgraded them into a compact set of document trays. But now, they’ve outgrown their document tray. And it’s time to move again into bigger digs.
As it happens, Mr Eight is an enterprising young bloke. And he had a plan for those mealworms all along. Ever since he saw a small bag of dehydrated mealworms at the pet store for $15, he did the math, and he now believes mealworms are his ticket to owning his very own Lego Mindstorm. He has a grand plan to breed mealworms up and sell them online.
He’s even designed a logo. Snazzy, no?
Mealworms are incredibly useful insects. They’ll happily eat your vegetable scraps. If you have chickens or other birds, mealworms are a high protein treat. If you are instead inclined to amphibious or reptilian proclivities, the same goes. Fancy a bit of fishing? Mealworms are excellent bait.
Sure, you could buy dehydrated mealworms from the pet store. But they are pricey! And I think it’s better for your animals to consume them all fresh and wiggly.
Speaking of which, if you’re feeling a bit peckish, then mealworms are the nutritional jackpot. Protein wise, they are equal to beef plus contain eight essential amino acids, vitamin B12, riboflavin, magnesium and zinc.
Mealworms even provide more bang for the environmental buck than beef. Cows consume 8 g of feed to gain 1 g in weight, whereas mealworms can require less than 2 g of feed for the same weight gain (Science, 327:811, 2010)
While humans consume about 40% of arable land on Earth, another 30% of our planet grows pasture and feeds livestock. Mealworms can be farmed in much smaller areas, produce much less greenhouse gas and waste, plus they consume far less water than livestock. Mealworms don’t compete with humans for food and can eat all kinds of food waste that we can’t.
Mealworms are such a sustainable source of protein, don’t be surprised if in a few years time, McMealworms are on the menu.
But back to our mealworm farm. I searched through Gumtree, looking for a suitable chest of drawers, 5 drawers deep to convert into mealworm apartments. Surprisingly, there was not much on offer and I wasn’t sure where I would put it anyway.
It wasn’t long before I realised I had the perfect solution, right under my nose!
The kids playroom was fitted out with these drawers from IKEA many moons ago. They were overflowing with toys the kids don’t really use much anymore as they are now all in school. A clean out of the playroom and 5 bags of donated toys later, we had our perfect farm!
They are ideal because they are easy to remove for sorting, easy to clean and the lids ensure no one can escape, while the hole in the lid allows for ventilation.
We set up our mealworm farm as follows…
Beetles live for 2-3 months
Beetles live in the top drawer. As you can see, I have mine in a big sieve that empties into a tray below. As the beetles mate and produce eggs, these eggs fall through to the tray below.
I have a narrow jar filled with water (covered with towel) in an attempt to increase the humidity in the drawers, which apparently increases their egg output.
We feed our beetles rolled oats and fresh vegetables that are placed on a plastic tray (cut out from a clean milk bottle) to stop them from moulding and spoiling the oats.
Eggs hatch within 4-10 days
The egg tray sits directly under the sieve. The eggs are much smaller than the oats and beetles and naturally sift to the tray as the beetles move through the oats. The egg tray is emptied into the baby mealworm tray…
Baby mealworms are usually about 0-14 days old.
Baby Mealworms! As the eggs hatch, they emerge as tiny worms. These baby worms are fed bran, plus a little bit of fresh vegetable scraps too.
Mature Mealworms are usually between 2-8 weeks old.
As the mealworms grow and moult their exoskeleton (up to 15 times), they are sifted and seperated from the baby worms and transferred to fatten up in the mature mealworm tray. This tray contains rolled oats, bran and chicken pellets for extra protein. The worms also love fresh vegetable scraps.
This is the stage that the mealworms are harvested.
As the mealworms pupae, the pale pupae are collected and placed in the fourth drawer.
Pupae can take up to 3 months to transform into beetles.
Pupae look like aliens and they freak me out when they wiggle as I handle them. I’m getting over it though! The pupae retire to the bottom drawer, placed under an egg carton in wheat bran, until they emerge as beetles after about 20 days. At which point they are rotated to the top drawer! You do not need to feed the pupae, they are too busy transforming into beetles to eat.
Check for beetles, they will be coffee brown as they pupate, darkening to black as they mature. Beetles will eat remaining pupae if left in the fourth drawer too long, be sure to rotate them up as soon as you spot them.
A healthy, clean, dry, well ventilated mealworm farm doesn’t produce any odour. Remove any mouldy scraps immediately. But if your mealworm empire starts to get a bit whiffy, sift the entire contents from top to bottom drawer. You can rinse and dry the drawers, replace the feed and the beetles, worms and larvae. Mealworm manure is called “frass” and is an excellent fertiliser.
So how about you? Do you think you will give mealworms a go?
In the meantime, watch this space, Mr Eight is now working on his website and online mealworm empire. As soon as he launches, you’ll be the first to know!