If you are looking for a way to raise your own protein cheaply, easily, and with almost no space or infrastructure, look no further than mealworms. When food is scarce, you’ll want livestock that are efficient, take up small spaces, and can easily be hidden.
Protein is one of the most expensive supplements to buy, and yet it is an essential component of any omnivore’s diet, whether they are pig, poultry, canine, human, or other. We give our mealworms to all of our omnivores, including our dogs, and they all love them. The chicks and ducklings are especially crazy about them, and using them as a feed source not only ensures a very healthy growth rate, but also makes them unbelievably tame.
Mealworms are even a great food for people. They are very tasty, with a slightly nutty flavor and a pleasant texture. You might decide to raise them for your animals, but if push comes to shove, you may be glad to have them for yourself. This could quite possibly be the food of an uncertain future.
Within this article, we will show you how to build a multi-tiered mealworm farm. It costs very little to make ($30), can be completed in a couple of days, uses about 1.5 square feet of space, and will produce about 1-1 ½ pound of mealworms a week. We will also talk about the care and feed requirements of your bugs, and how to integrate them into possible Food Webs.
8 x 8 ft. long 1”x2” lumber
1 ½” Wood screws (x 150)
17 x storage baskets
Aluminum foil (18” wide heavy duty is preferable)
2 x plastic containers (for donuts) – roughly 4” tall that open into two 2” parts
Wheat bran and oats
Wood saw (circular saw is best)
The dimensions of the Mealworm Farm are dependent on the storage baskets you use. We found some at the Dollar Store that are perfect, and cost a dollar each. Use whatever you can find locally, preferably about the same height as ours, and then adjust the dimensions accordingly. To help you do that, here is how we decided on our dimensions:
Remember to account for the thickness of your wood saw when measuring and marking your boards. We use a circular saw, which adds 1/8”. If you’re using a handsaw, you will want to reduce this to 1/16”.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle. There are four main stages in development: adult beetles, eggs, larvae (worms), and pupae. The four should be kept apart to avoid the adult beetles eating any of the helpless pupae or eggs, and to be able to better cater to each stage.
This tower is designed to contain three separate modules, each containing a tray for adult beetles, eggs, nursery, and two trays for growing mealworms (totaling 5 trays per module). There will also be one tray for worms that are ready to harvest, and one for frass (mealworm poop). See the photo for the order in which each tray should be placed. You can change the order to meet your needs, but this is the order we use.
To fulfill the needs of each type of basket, we will be building three different kinds of trays. All of them will have aluminum foil on the sides, as neither beetles nor worms can climb slippery surfaces.
You will have to let some of the worms pupate, so that you are continually replenishing your beetle stock, whose lifespan is two to three months. It is at this stage that they are most vulnerable, and can be cannibalized by either worms or beetles. For this reason, you need somewhere safe to house them.
The system that we came up with is to put them on a raised, plastic platform inside the beetle baskets. The plastic will prevent the beetles from climbing up to get them, and then, when the pupae hatch into beetles, they can walk off the edge to join the rest of the beetles.
So your tower is now ready to produce mealworms. Before we get started on the exact details of managing your farm, you should know a little about the life cycle of this insect.
The Darkling Beetle will go through several stages in its life cycle. Things like temperature and moisture can affect each stage, but to get an idea of the time scale, here is a breakdown:
Ideally, you want about 150-200 beetles per module, of which there are three in the Mealworm Farm. This will provide you with about 1-1 ½ lb of mealworms each week. If you start out with less, you’ll want to let all your worms pupate until you reach your desired population. We originally bought about 20 mealworms, and grew our farm from there, but it took a while.
Here is a schedule for one module. You will then want to stagger the second and third module by a week each to ensure constant production.
To maintain your beetle population, you should wait until a few worms have pupated in the harvest tray. You can improve your breeding stock by selecting the largest and healthiest pupae, as well as the ones that pupate fastest.
Mealworms like a warm and dry environment, so it’s best to set up your Mealworm Farm inside your home, where the temperature stays constant. This unit takes up less than two square feet, so space shouldn’t be an issue. They also prefer it a little dark (hence why we don’t have much space in between the baskets), so you can hide them away in the corner of a back room.
These insects are highly efficient at converting feed into protein, with an FCR of 2:1. The most common food for mealworms is wheat bran, a very cheap byproduct of wheat production. You can also give them rolled oats, dried grass, or almost any other carbon matter. They also love dry herbivore manure, like the pellet-type manure that rabbits, guinea pigs or goats produce. You can mix this in with something like wheat bran at a 1:1 ratio.
Mealworms don’t drink water as such. Instead, they get their moisture from vegetable scraps. Each day we give them peels and rinds from all kinds of fruits and vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, squash, apples, and so on. You don’t want your habitat to get moist, so avoid wet fruits that rot quickly, like strawberries.
Our main preoccupation with food production is the concept of integration. We go into this in a lot more detail in our book “Food Web: Concept”, the first of a series of books on sustainable, integrated food systems, but for the purpose of this article we’ll just give you a brief outline and an example web.
The basic principal is that you can make your resources go a lot further by feeding the waste streams of one node (whether human, animals or plant) to another node that would naturally consume that waste. You can include almost any animal and plant into your web; ours is currently made up of rabbits, different kinds of poultry, earthworms, mealworms, gardens, orchards, and wild plants.
By way of an example, let’s say you live in the city and don’t have much space, but still want to produce your own food. An advantage of living in the city is that you have access to all kinds of waste products, like old bread and wilted vegetables from a grocery store. With these basic inputs, you could raise quail, guinea pigs and mealworms.
You can have a breeding pair of guinea pigs, feeding them fruit and vegetable scraps, and a little grain (from the bread). This pair will produce about 12 babies a year, which you can harvest for meat. They will produce manure (which you can feed to the mealworms, along with some vegetable peels and old bread) and viscera (which you can feed to the quail, along with the mealworms). With such a high protein intake, the quail will give you eggs every day. You can then compost any leftover viscera, eggshells and quail manure, which can fertilize a few flowerpots, giving you some year-round vegetables. Any vegetable wastes from your micro-garden can then be recycled through the guinea pigs and mealworms. So, with very little space and using mostly waste products, you can provide yourself with some meat, eggs, and vegetables. You can also eat any mealworms that the quail don’t want, as the Mealworm Farm described in this article would be enough for a LOT of quail, too many for a city apartment. We eat our worms on occasion, frying them in a little butter and garlic, and they are very tasty. They have a slightly nutty flavor and a pleasant texture, and the kids especially love them.
While the Mealworm Farm will produce protein for humans, it can also greatly improve the efficiency of your other livestock with thoughtful integration.