I had the hardest time titling this post and project. What would you call it? Mealworms don’t “grow” like a vegetable and you don’t really “raise” them either. Mostly, you throw them in a box and hope to god that they reproduce to the point that they become useful. In that sense, I suppose mealworms are some sort of creepy-crawly crop. Or at least they have the potential to save you a few bucks in chicken or quail treats.
That’s where I come in. Apparently, mealworms are quite easy to “grow” and make a great feast for chickens and other poultry and game birds. Mealworms are also high in protein. Your birds will thank you I’m sure. The best part is, however, that you can raise them in nothing more than a lidded box and some oatmeal.
Here’s what you’ll need to become a mealworm farmer:
• plastic box, tub, or drawer
• lid to the box you are using; it needs to fit tightly (we will be cutting this)
• fine mesh or screening (buy by the foot or use an old window screen)
• duct tape
• tall canister of oatmeal (opt for the cheap stuff)
• paper egg carton
• two carrots or a potato cut into large pieces
• 400 or more live mealworms (look at bait shops or pet shops as lizard food)
Make sure the box or drawer you choose has a well-fitting lid. It doesn’t need to seal or anything since the worms and beetles we will be raising will not crawl that high, but it is nice to know that if they do, the creepy bugs won’t get out. I’ll be honest, this whole project creeps the bejesus out of me.
First, cut a decent size hole from the box lid.
Cut your screen or fine wire mesh to fit over the hole, overlapping on all sides by about an inch or two. Many hardware stores sell window screening by the linear foot or if you have a random old window screen laying around, you could use that. Recycle folks!
Now duct tape the screen onto the lid. I taped around all four sides both on the inside and outside of the lid. It helps me to sleep at night knowing that mealworms won’t be getting out of the box.
Fill the box about 2-4 inches deep with oatmeal. I don’t usually purchase those large cardboard canisters of rolled quick oats, but I figured that the mealworms wouldn’t care much if the oats were organic or not and I just picked up whatever was on sale. I heard no complaints.
Toss in a few hundred mealworms to get you started, lay some carrots and/or potato chunks around for them to eat, cover them up with an egg carton for some much preferred darkness, and you’re good to go!
Once a week, check in on the mealworms and replace their oat bedding and food as needed. Mealworms do not need added water as they use the moisture from the foods you give them. The oats, oatmeal, or wheat bran, is used as a substrate for the mealworms to live and breed in. They may consume small quantities of the oatmeal so it does not need to be replaced or added to very often.
After about a month or so, you may notice that the mealworms have become a much darker brown. In another week, they will morph into small black beetles which will lay the next generation of eggs. The eggs will hatch into more, lighter colored mealworms within a week or two. The age of a mealworm is best estimated by its color.
Light mealworms are freshly hatched, a golden color is prime harvest age, dark brown is about to morph into a beetle, and then the beetles breed and lay the eggs. If you gauge your numbers just right, you can have a steady supply of mealworms ready to harvest for chicken snacks.
Mealworm beetles do not typically fly so don’t worry too much about escape. They also prefer cooler temperatures and are ideally raised in a basement or under a deck or porch. Just don’t forget about them! It is also important not to dispose of the oat or bran bedding once the beetles have matured, or else you will loose all of the very tiny mealworm eggs with it.
Try to start your little colony with at least 400 live mealworms. More mealworms means a faster turn around for harvest-ready larvae. Doesn’t it sound so appetizing when I say it like that? Larvae.