A Fun Hobby for Kids!
Chickens Love Them!
If you’ve ever visited a farmers market in south Snohomish County and stopped by the Egg Song Farm booth, chances are you met Holly Winters, the owner. Besides raising pasture-raised chickens and selling their eggs, she has another passion. Mealworms!
On her table, you may have seen a bin of writhing, live insects called mealworms! Bravely, you or some kids might have even put your hands in the mealie bin with the harmless critters, and had a fun sensory experience for your fingers! Mealworms aren’t slimy, and they don’t bite. In fact, they aren’t even “worms” at all!
What are Mealworms?
Mealworms are the larval stage in the life cycle of the darkling beetle. Mealworms are often farmed by poultry keepers because they provide a healthy, tasty, protein supplement for our egg-laying chicken friends.
“They can also provide extra dietary nutrition to reptiles, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and other exotic pets”, Holly says.
Kids Love These!
Mealworms are easy to farm and thrive in a variety of environmental conditions, although they prefer a dark, tropical environment of warmth and humidity to grow at an optimal rate. As larvae, mealworms are partial to living in a substrate of milled grain, such as wheat bran, cornmeal, oatmeal, etc., hence the name “mealworm!”
Darkling beetles are prolific egg-layers. One adult female darkling beetle can lay up to 500 eggs in her lifetime! So it doesn’t take a very large colony of adults to produce an explosion of tens of thousands of mealworms to feed to your chickens as treats! It does, however, require a little bit of time and patience for your farm to get growing, as all farming endeavors do.
How Do You Start?
Provide a deep plastic tray or bin – there’s no risk of them crawling up the sides of the bin to escape – filled with wheat bran one to two inches deep for your darkling beetles. They will burrow down and lay their eggs throughout their food substrate. Darkling beetle eggs are tiny, microscopic really, so it is impossible to see the eggs and pick them out of the bran.
Instead, sift the beetles out of the substrate every couple of weeks, place them in a fresh bin of milled grain, and set the egg-laden wheat bran bin aside to allow the thousands of tiny eggs to hatch out into larvae.
How Long Does it Take?
It takes anywhere from four to eight weeks to be able to see the hatching mealworms with your naked eye, but if you swirl the wheat bran around with your hand and then look closely for a few moments, you will see the substrate moving as though experiencing a tiny earthquake! If your mealworms are being kept in ideal conditions at around 80 degrees and approximately 65% humidity, they will reach a nice plump size at about three to four months of age. Even if they aren’t kept that warm they will still grow, just a bit more slowly, and be ready to harvest closer to five or six months.
Why the Carrots?
Humidity can be adjusted in individual bins using a piece of starchy vegetable to add moisture in dry climates. Mealworms don’t drink water, rather, they stay hydrated by munching on pieces of carrots, potatoes, banana peels, celery, etc. You can even keep your mealies hydrated simply by spritzing water on the surface of the wheat bran while they’re super tiny, so that uneaten food pieces don’t shrivel up and dry out, going to waste.