Mealworms as food

Chickadee getting a mealworm ©Janet AllenChickadee getting a mealworm

Mealworms are a favorite food for many birds. We try to raise as many of our own mealworms as possible since they're a bit pricey and the quality of store-bought mealworms isn't always very good. However, we've often had to resort to buying them when our supply ran out.

"Had to"? Yes, because we don't want to disappoint our chickadees! We very much enjoy watching them. (Although our yard isn't good bluebird habitat, if we did have bluebirds around, we'd gladly share them with bluebirds, too.)

Mealworm ©Janet AllenA mealworm

NOTE: Unfortunately, our chickadees and everything else rejected the convenient, comparatively cheaper dried mealworms. What does eat those things?

If you were a chickadee, you'd be salivating right now (although I don't think chickadees salivate…).

At times, we have enough mealworms that I can frequently feed them to the birds as a very desirable, nutritious, and free source of food. There's never as many as they'd be able to eat, though. We're always amazed at how many mealworms chickadees can fit into what must be a very tiny stomach.

Chickadee getting a mealworm ©Janet AllenChickadee getting a mealworm

One challenge is that we want to reserve the mealworms only for chickadees (and titmice if they happen to come around). What we do NOT want to do is feed these expensive (in dollars or effort) mealworms to our nemesis the house sparrows.

At times, we've managed to escape their notice by putting them in a small feeder attached to the window. At other times, it's a constant battle, and the feeder must be closely monitored—not really the way I want to spend my time. I comfort myself knowing that most people spend much more time, money, and effort on household pets, which we don't have.

Mealworm feeder ©Janet Allen
How we rigged the mealworm feeder to deter blue jays (somewhat the worse for wear at this point

When the blue jay started visiting the mealworm feeder and gulping them down, we had to think of deterrent. This is what we came up with. It works for the bluejay, though not for the house sparrows.

The chickadee (seen inside the feeder at the left) after some initial hesitation, learned to find the side entrance hole.

Mealworms

Molted skin ©Janet AllenMolted skin

Like butterfly caterpillars, mealworms molt and shed their skin. Somehow, it seems a bit more charming when a butterfly caterpillar does it, but it's the same story biologically.

Maybe not thinking of the mealworms as "cute" makes it easier to serve them up as bird chow.

Mealworm beetle ©Janet AllenMealworm beetle

The beetle is the adult stage of the mealworm.

The "worms" (really just a larval stage of a beetle) metamorphose into beetles, and then they lay eggs and become larvae (worms) again.

We start with mealworms and after many months, end up with mealworms— BUT, with any luck, many more mealworms.

How we raise them

Mealworm raised in bran ©Janet AllenMealworm raised in bran

After some initial squeamishness, we have no trouble handling either the worms or the beetles. They're perfectly clean, non-slimy, disease-free, and don't bite. (Schools often have them as science projects to illustrate metamorphosis.)

The beetles do seem to cling to your fingers a bit when you transfer them between containers, but it's easy to shake them off.

Mealworm container ©Janet AllenMealworm container

We purchased a couple of hundred mealworms from a pet store and found that the chickadees have an unlimited appetite for the things, but we have a limited mealworm budget. We decided to raise them ourselves.

We put them in an old dishpan with chick-starter (or baby bird feed) and unprocessed bran. We put some banana peels on top and covered it with a paper towel, then covered the dishpan with cheesecloth.

Bran ©Janet Allen
Bran and baby bird feed

I originally clamped the cheesecloth all around the edge, but I realized that they don't seem to be inclined to leave (thankfully). The only reason I put cheesecloth on the top now is to prevent powdery gray pantry moths from getting out (if they're in the bran) and fruit flies from getting in.

I think some of our problem at various points when they weren't producing was that there wasn't enough moisture, which the banana peels now provide.

They also seem to grow better when they're not too cold (which may be true for most insects).

Saving the extras

Sorting mealworms ©Janet AllenSorting mealworms with Grandpa

Generally we don't have any extras—it's difficult enough to just keep up with the demand. But sometimes conditions are just right (we haven't yet figured out the magic combination, though), and we have a mealworm boom that we want to preserve for leaner times.

Some people may balk at this, but to save your "crop" of mealworms, you can store them in a cool place—for most people, this means the refrigerator. Being in a cool place slows their metabolism and thus their transformation into beetles. We make sure we label the container well so no one looking for a snack freaks out!

Seeing these containers of worms in my refrigerator (along with packets of seeds being cold-treated for later planting) are perhaps the most dramatic symbols of how our lives have changed since we became enthusiastic about habitat gardening!

And when we were first researching mealworms, it surprised us to find that most web references seemed to be about PEOPLE eating mealworms! Evidently, like many insects, they're very nutritious.

Fortunately, we're vegetarians so we haven't felt compelled to check this out … But insects are an important source of nutrition around the world—and undoubtedly much more nutritious and less gross than what we see being served at most fast food restaurants.