Updated: Aug 30
Have you ever gone to do a DIY or follow a Pinterest pin that looks completely idiot-proof only to spend hours creating an epic fail? Well, that was my first attempt at raising mealworms. I found an article on Pinterest and to summarise, it said get a container, add some oatmeal, put in your meals worms, and there ya have it. So, that’s what I did and confident in my success, I sat back and had a cocktail. Less than 24 hours later I had a whole mess of dead mealworms.
Back to the Drawing Board
So, I did what I do best, research! What I discovered was that it takes a little bit more than a container and some oatmeal to keep mealworms alive and happy, but not much. First, I was assuming that the oatmeal covered all their needs. But Duh, just like every living thing these little creepers need a source of water. No, not a water dish, but moisture in the form of apple, carrot, or potato slices.
I also discovered that both mealworms and darkling beetles will eat mealworm eggs so if you leave them all in one container you’re likely to simply end up with well-fed beetles instead of mealworms to feed your chickens.
A (Very) Brief Overview of the Mealworm Lifecycle
The first place I went wrong was failing to understand the lifecycle of the mealworm. In my defense, I also have a colony of red worms that are being raised for my garden. And they only need a single container, moist bedding, and your kitchen scraps to be happy. But, the mealworm is a little more complex. And, honestly, I didn’t even know they came from beetles I thought they would reproduce as the red worms do. My bad. So, as promised, the lifecycle of the mealworm:
The female darkling beetle lays up to 500 tiny white eggs.
The eggs hatch in 1-4 weeks.
Tiny mealworms emerge from the eggs and spend the next 8-10 weeks eating and shedding their exoskeleton as they grow.
Next comes the pupa stage. A pupa has no mouth so it does not eat during the next 1-3 weeks as it transforms into a beetle.
Once transformed the beetle will be white and soft but will darken to brown than black as its exoskeleton hardens.
These darkling beetles will live for 1-3 months, starting to reproduce after about 2 weeks.
Creating the Mealworm Farm
With all my new learning, I set out to make a functional mealworm farm, almost as easy as putting them in a container and walking away, but not quite.
3 tired plastic drawer system
1 container of whole oats
An Exacto knife, box cutter, or other SHARP cutting instrument
A medium-size piece of screen mesh
A quality glue (I used E6000)
Toilet paper or paper towel tubes
An apple, potato, or carrot
This first step is the hardest, not going to lie, it kinda sucked. Take the top drawer out of the organizer and cut out most of the bottom. I tried first with a kitchen knife, nope. Then, I tried scissors which is what finally worked in the end but I think a box cutter or Exacto knife would probably be the right tool for the job. As you can see from the photo I wrapped my cut edges in tape because they were very ragged and I figured soft little bodies and sharp plastic weren’t going to mix well. But if you get clean cuts you shouldn’t need to do that.
Once you have the bottom cut out, cut your screen to size and glue it in place. I used E6000 glue but it was rather smelly. So I left the drawer out to de-stink for about a week since none of my worms had started the process of transforming into beetles yet. The reason for the screen is so that when your beetles begin to lay eggs, they will fall through the screen and into the drawer below to safely mature into tasty (to a chicken) mealworms.
Next, put your whole oats in the food processor, grind them to a chunky flower consistency, and cover the bottom of each tray with about an inch of ground oats. This will be both food and bedding for your worms.
After you have each tray filled you can add in your fruit or veggie slices, throw in a toilet paper tube, they like to hide in and under them, and then add in your worms. I got mine from a local bait shop but you can also try pet stores that specialize in lizards, or order them online.
And that’s it. This time when I made my mealworm farm and had a cocktail I did not wake up to dead worms. It is important to note, that your colony will require a little maintenance. As you can see by the three-tier setup, the top layer is for darkling beetles, the middle drawer for eggs, and baby worms, and the bottom tier for mature worms. I started with my worms in both of the bottom tiers and as they had yet to turn into pupa. As they change, I move them to the top drawer to finish turning into beetles. (I have a large spoon for this purpose, no touchy, touchy.) I also regularly inspect for worms that may have died, you’ll know because they will be darker in color. These I simply place in a container and keep in the freezer to feed to the chickens later. Waste not, want not. (My baby chicks arrive next month, and as soon as they are old enough for treats they will be very happy girls I’m sure.)
Are Mealworms Good for Chickens?
The short answer is yes. The tiny mealworm contains the additional protein and nutrients your flock needs to grow happy and healthy and produce lots of eggs. The average laying hen requires 16% to 19% protein in their overall diet, and mealworms are a great high protein treat.
However, remember that your flock, just like you requires a balanced diet, and mealworms should be given as a treat or meal supplement, but they should not be the only thing your birds eat. Best practices say they should be given no more than a few times a week and you should switch up treats to maintain a varied diet.
Can Chickens Eat Darkling Beetles?
Your chickens can eat the mealworm at any stage of their lifecycle from larvae (mealworm) to pupa to beetle. However, if feeding the beetles to your chickens it is best to feed them in small quantities, as they are not as easy to digest as the worms are. Additionally, I’ve read that if the beetles get into your coop, they can eat your feed and become a nuisance so it’s probably best to only feed the dead ones to avoid this calamity.
Why Grow Mealworms When I Could Just Buy Them?
Good question. One, dried mealworms cost about $15 - $20 per pound while live ones are around $12 for 1000. And, since each of those could potentially lay up to 500 eggs, a one-time investment of $12 could mean that you never have to spend another dollar on mealworms. When you add up how many of those little buggers a chicken can eat in its life you can see that it’s a huge saving!
Two, live mealworms have more nutrients and protein than dried mealworms do. Additionally, if dried mealworms are not fed as part of a complete and balanced diet, they can cause problems with the liver as well as egg production. Again, all things in moderation. Mealworms are around 30% protein when alive compared to around 50% when dried. Chickens will eat both but live mealworms offer more complete nutrition similar to what your flock would find naturally in the wild.
Worming Our Way to the End
So what are your thoughts, would you be willing to try raising mealworms for your flock? I'll be honest, when I first opened that top tray and saw it swarming with black beetles, I got a little squeamish. But, I persevered, they really don't ask for much, so I just leave them to themselves and change out the fruit slices every week. If you have your own colony of darkling beetles, we’d love to hear how it goes, tell us everything in the comments below. And, as always, until next time,