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Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Miniature Homesteading: I got worms!

I dream of a home in the country, with sprawling green meadows filled with cows. A dog or two sprawled at my feet and hens clucking in the distance while I drink fresh coffee with a dash of today's milk. I picture an orchard with every kind of fruit tree, with my hens running and digging under the trees. I dream of a wide open space where I can walk the dogs for an hour without leaving my own land. In my mind we have our own pond for fishing, and a creek full of frogs that dries up in summer leaving behind a bed of washed pebbles.

But right now I live in the suburbs on a teeny tiny 140m2 block. This doesn't mean I've put my homesteading dreams on hold.
Day one - 50grams of foam, 50grams
of mealworms, and the wheat bran
they were packaged with

I got worms, they're multiplying!

I read an article recently that said mealworms could digest styrofoam and turn it into usable fertiliser. This coincided nicely with realising that I'd love to have quail, but most commercial feeds don't high a high enough percentage of protein so I'd need to supplement their diet.

Of course, considering I already have chickens, getting another kind of poultry on my tiny property is probably a bad idea. Impulsively buying a half dozen quail would have been a bad idea, but impulsively buying a batch of mealworms was great!

Set up and start up costs

Foam is delicious!
Back in September I started with one small five liter container ($3), 50 grams of foam (free) and a double handful of rolled oats ('free' from my pantry). I bought 50 grams of mealworms ($8) and set them loose in their new home. 

I very quickly found myself having foam donated by my zero-waste friends, and discovered the meal worms will eat husks from bird seed and unpopped popcorn. For the first month of feeding I've spent $3 to purchase a back-up bag of oats so they aren't living entirely on foam. I've also started washing foam trays from meat packaging as another free food source.

Turns out 50 grams of mealworms don't eat much, but they grow super quickly. I've already split them into three new containers to prevent overcrowding, and I spotted my first couple of beetles yesterday!

Wait, beetles, I thought they were worms?

Meal worms aren't actually worms, they are the larval stage of Darkling Beetles (Tenebrio molitor specifically, for the latin buffs). After hatching mealworms take about three months to grow to their full size, when they then pupate. Kind of like cocooning,  meal worms become dormant for a few weeks while they transform into beetles. Approximately two weeks after becoming beetles they start laying eggs. Each female Darkling Beetle lays more than 500 eggs in its lifetime. In warm weather this entire process speeds up.

One month in - big fat worms!
So what does this mean in short? I bought 50 grams of meal worms. They've started turning into beetles so in a couple of weeks I will have 50 grams of beetles, which (if I ask google) will be close to 200 beetles. Given six months to complete a full life cycle, my 200 beetles will lay 100,000 eggs leading to (if my maths is right, and 100% of the eggs hatch) close to 25kg of beetles. In one life cycle!

Realistically this won't happen, because meal worms will prevent overpopulation by, well to put it bluntly, cannibalism. And because nature isn't perfect, so there is no way 200 mealworms will all reach adulthood and have 100% success rate their eggs hatching. Oh, and half the beetles are male and they won't lay eggs ;) However since I will be running at least 4 tubs of meal worms, I expect to end up with a couple of kilograms a month.

Cashed up with bugs

Because this is a personal finance blog, it would be remiss of me not to considering the financial benefits of these little guys. 

All the pupae slowly growing
into beetles
I purchased 50 grams of meal worms for $8. If I can find buyers for my meal worms, I can sell roughly a kilogram a month without depleting my stock. Of course, I will be selling them cheaper than a pet store (to encourage people to drive to my house, rather than a convenient pet store) so I expect I could sell a kilogram for $100, or 50 grams for $5.

Outside of the pet food market, there is also the possibility of selling them for fishing bait, or as recyclers for anyone interested in reducing their waste output - what other creature do you know that can break down Styrofoam?

Worst case scenario? I'm out $11 of supplies, plus approximately $3 a quarter for food. In return I receive an endless supply of chicken treats for my girls, high quality fertiliser and creepy crawly entertainment.

Getting rich while I sleep?  

I might not become horribly wealthy selling meal worms. If I'm lucky I'll cultivate enough regular customers to bring in a little extra money each month. While I don't plan to retire on my insect empire, I look forward to knowing that I have an asset growing in a few storage tubs, literally while I sleep.

I recently swore off side-hustles that take hours of my time and return little money, and even less enjoyment. So far my meal worm colonies haven't made a cent, but they have provided plenty of entertainment for me and my cat, grossed out my friends, fertilised my blueberries, and let me be insufferably smug about my ability to recycle polystyrene.

And in the event of a worldwide crisis (read, Zombie Apocalypse), perhaps people will start wanting mealworms for their own dinner. I should probably wean them of the Styrofoam first though.


  1. Dear LadyFIRE,

    If I lived close to you (not sure where you live but I doubt that we do), I would totally buy meal worms from you!!! The fact that they eat styrofoam has me wanting to get some for that reason alone (not that I regularly buy things in general and/or that come with packaging). However, I'm looking to have chickens (in May) and would love to supplement their diet.

    Can you comment about what you feed yours? I friend told me that she subs chopped/ground egg shells instead of oyster shells (for egg shell strength?). I have a lot to learn before I get them so any advice/information would be greatly appreciated.

    Besos Sarah.

    1. Supplementing their diet is completely optional. I feed them a good quality egg layer pellet as a free choice 100% of the time. Then I dump any food scraps into the pen, any weeds, and any washed and crushed egg shells.

      There's no serious thought about their diet. As long as they have constant access to food and water, they're happy. Everything else is about keeping them busy and entertained - my biggest issue has been hens being fat and lazy. I solve that by throwing in shredded newspaper / straw to give them something to dig around in.

  2. I'll have to keep this in mind for potential chicken feed in future! I'm a big worm fan for fertilising the garden, I definitely didn't know about Styrofoam eating worms before you mentioned them though. The things you learn on the internet...

    1. It's crazy right! They're super easy to raise as well. I forgot about them for a few days and came back to a tub full of beetles (and a few eaten pupa, oops. Darn cannibals)

      Looks like I've have a huge new batch of mealworms in a month or two, and a lot of recycled Styrofoam :)

  3. When you start selling them - I would love to buy some! I love the idea of being able to breakdown styrofoam in my own backyard. We are hoping to get started (finally!) with our worm tower and also our compost bin this growing season. Cannot wait!

    1. Give me a couple of weeks! I'll have some available for you soon :)

      I have compost worms too, but I've only just started up. If I can keep them alive through summer I'll have plenty to spare. I got those started for free with a couple of Broccoli boxes and some worms I got from a friend.


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