Chicken Treats – How to Raise Mealworms and Superworms
In my middle school classroom, my students have learned how to raise mealworms, superworms, and Dubia cockroaches for years to be fed to our pet bearded dragon: Bob Ross. During the summer, I bring the colonies home and they make an excellent treat for my poultry. When searching for what can chickens eat as a treat, many people cringe when the results include black soldier fly larvae, crickets, and beetles. But, molting chickens welcome the extra protein.
Learning how to raise mealworms and other insects for your chickens is cost-effective and ensures their treats are high quality. Mealworms and superworms, compared to raising crickets for chickens, will not smell. Crickets have this horrible habit of going to the bathroom all the time. Mealworms and superworms don’t chirp or jump. And if my students can raise them and get over their phobia, so can you!
How to Raise Mealworms (Tenebrio molitor)
A container 20 inches long and 10 inches wide is a good size to start a colony of 1,000 to 5,000 mealworms. I find plastic tubs are perfect as you can easily see the health of the colony and they are easy to clean. Cutting a large hole in the lid and attaching a screen prevents items from falling into the container. The beetles will not be able to crawl up the smooth plastic sides. I prefer plastic tubs over glass aquariums because the surface area is more important than depth. Our containers are four inches tall. Adequate airflow prevents the mealworm’s food from spoiling quickly.
Add a few inches of wheat bran, corn meal, bone meal, crushed bran flake meal, or store-bought mealworm bedding to the bottom of the container. Another option is using chicken feed as the substrate. If using chicken feed, freeze for a few weeks to kill unwanted pests and beetles.
The price for 1,000 mealworms will be between $14 and $20. Mail ordering will be cheaper than shopping at a local pet store.
What Do Mealworms Eat and Drink?
Part of learning how to raise mealworms for poultry snacks includes feeding them. Mealworms do well on a diet of root vegetables, vegetable and fruit peels, and other vegetative scraps. The higher quality food the beetles receive, the more nutrients for your chickens. This is a great reason to breed your own bugs. Dried mealworms, sold as chicken snacks, are often only fed a diet of white potatoes. The more food you give the beetles the more offspring they will produce.
While the mealworms do best with consistent moisture, many colonies fail because of excess moisture. Do not provide a water bowl. Fresh greens or vegetable scraps will provide enough moisture. Sweet potatoes and kale, for example, provide high water contents and often do not promote fungus or mold.
The ideal temperature for breeding the worms is 70 to 80 degrees. Only feed the larvae (worms) to your chickens, as you will want the pupae to mature and the beetles to lay eggs. Usually, the beetles will stay on the surface of the substrate. When they bury themselves, it can be a sign of egg laying. A female beetle can lay 500 eggs in her lifetime. After the eggs hatch, it may take two to three weeks to see the tiny larvae. Feed them ample food to grow to the desired size before feeding them out.
If you start feeling overwhelmed with a surplus of mealworms, your chickens or other backyard poultry will happily help you out. A friend of mine, who after one year of feeding wild songbirds mealworms as treats, was able to get a Mockingbird to take mealworms from his hand. The mockingbird, who has raised many broods, is still hanging out and landing on his hand after ten years! If for some reason you want to slow down the breeding, and not feed the worms out as a treat, the mealworms can be kept in refrigeration. This extends their larva stage by a couple of months and stops breeding.
If you are feeling famished as you feed the tasty mealworms to your chickens, snack away! In Southeast Asia, mealworms are baked, deep fried and added to a stir-fry. And although larva from a moth is usually associated with tequila, mealworms are sometimes added to tequila-flavored novelty candy. Bon appétit!
Raising Superworms (Zophobas morio)
Superworms are super compared to mealworms. Measuring up to 2.25 inches, they are nearly double the size of mealworms. Also a member of the darkling beetle family, they share 20,000 cousins with mealworms. Their housing requirements are similar to mealworms. Allow at least five inches for the height of the enclosure to prevent escapees. Unlike mealworms, superworms should be separated into containers for pupae, larva, and beetles. Never put superworms in the fridge. They do best at 80 to 85 degrees, although they will survive and reproduce at room temperature.
Start with 100 superworms for your breeding colony. The price range is around $5. Superworms naturally take a long time to pupate. You can expedite the process by placing worms individually in film canisters or small drawers from hardware containers. We have had great success with the clear grid jewelry organizer boxes. Add a small breathing hole per cell. Place the containers in a dark area, like a closet, for ten days. The superworms will curl up and pupate. Once they change into a pupa, place them in a container designated as the nursery. This will prevent the beetles and larvae from eating them. It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Once the pupae turn into beetles, place them in the breeding container. Feed them as you would mealworms.
Superworms will also lay around 500 eggs in their lifetime. The eggs will attach to the substrate and a week later will hatch. You can then move the baby superworms into the third container. It is easier, however, to remove the adult beetles after a week or two of being in the breeding container to allow the eggs to hatch and the larvae to grow up where they were laid. Adult beetles will eat the eggs and may prey on the baby larvae.