Mealworms vs Black Soldier Fly Larva

Mealworms have always been the go to protein treat for chickens, but the black soldier fly larva is becoming more and more popular for many good reasons. Lets see how they both stack up in comparison and which is best for your flock.

The term ‘mealworm’ is really a misnomer. These little bits of wiggly beings are not really worms. They are actually the larvae of a beetle called darkling beetle. They are the second of four stages of life and exist to eat and grow until they have enough energy stored to transform next into pupae and then into beetles. 

The Stages Of A Mealworm

Mealworms can be found almost anywhere where they can find a warm, dark, and damp place such as under decaying logs and leaves. They spend their time burrowing and eating, and while would prefer a diet of grains, will also consume vegetation, spoiled food, and many other types of fresh or decaying organic matter. 

mealworm life cycle
The Mealworm Life Cycle

A darkling beetle undergoes complete metamorphosis. This means that it has several different and distinct stages of life. The four stages are egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The amount of time a darkling beetle spends in each stage can vary somewhat depending upon the environment they are in, but here’s a quick rundown of their lifecycle.  

The life cycle of a mealworm can be divided into 4 stages, these being the egg, larva, pupa and beetle. As noted before, depending upon their environment, completing a life cycle can vary, but usually they will run through the four stages in the span of about 19-31 weeks. 

We start off, not surprisingly, with the female darkling beetle laying plenty of eggs.  Somewhere around 500 eggs are deposited into the ground after fertilization.

  • Eggs

The first stage of life is spent as an egg. The white bean-shaped egg is tiny, actually it is about the size of a speck of dust.  It will take around one to four weeks for an egg to hatch and the larva to emerge. 

  • Larva 

The second stage of life, and the stage whereby hungry consumers, such as my hens find very important, lasts about eight to ten weeks and is spent as a brown larva. This is the stage where the insect is a mealworm. During this stage, the mealworm keeps crawling and growing as it eats vigorously on any vegetation or dead insects.

 The worm will need to molt (shed its hard outer shell) in order to grow. Molts will occur ten to twenty times during this stage of life.  The fully grown larvae (worms) are golden brown approximately a bit over an inch long, with about 200 worms to one ounce of weight. 

A mealworm spends its time eating and growing in order to save up energy for the next transformation, which is called Pupa.

  • Pupa 

The pupal stage is an inactive stage, which, depending upon temperature of its surroundings, can last for a few weeks to a couple of months. The stage will be shorter if the environmental temperature is warmer. The pupa doesn’t eat anything during this stage and appears inactive.

  • Adult

Out of the pupae, adult beetles emerge and start the entire process over. 

How Can Mealworms Benefit Your Flock? 

Just a small handful of mealworms, averaging around 1-10 per chicken, is enough to help boost their protein intake and help your hens lay more consistently, and stay more healthy during times such as molting and winter when more protein is needed.  Dried mealworms are approximately 50% protein, 28% fat, and about 6% fiber. If my chickens’ voraciousness is any indication, they apparently taste incredibly delicious. 

Most mealworms do come from China, a point that must be taken into account when comparing to other forms of larvae supplement, such as black soldier flies, which are produced and distributed mainly in North America.

We have a complete guide on growing your own mealworms if you are interested in this endeavor.

 

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Black Soldier Flies

What they are:  

Black soldier flies, if you want to be scientific, are technically termed Hermetia illucens.. Black soldier flies are most commonly found throughout the Western Hemisphere and also in regions of Australia. As adults, the black soldier fly does not possess a stinger, do not bite, or even have mouth parts, although they are able to drink water. Actually, it seems the adult BSF exists mainly to mate and lay eggs. 

Black Soldier Fly Life Cycle: 

Black soldier flies mate while in flight and females deposit approximately five hundred eggs. The eggs take about 4 days to hatch, and then the larvae will take roughly 2 weeks before they are ready to turn into pupae, and then a few more weeks to become adults. 

The egg-larvae-pupae-adult cycle of the black soldier fly is quite similar to the mealworm life cycle.

As larvae, they eat (and, boy do they eat!) and, like mealworms, are environmentally sensitive enough to vary the time between stages. Two weeks is the average time spent as larvae. 

black soldier fly larva

 When BSFL are ready to transition to pupae, they will find a dry sheltered area to bury themselves, and in approximately two weeks will emerge as adult black soldier flies. 

 The black soldier fly larval stage is what many researchers and farmers have interest in due to their ability to digest large amounts of waste. The black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) are capable of transforming a wide variety of organic materials, from food waste to manure, into a much much smaller biomass. There are many videos made, available on You Tube or Google, which show huge amounts of food and waste (a pizza, oranges, manure, etc) literally demolished by an army of black soldier fly larvae in an incredibly short period of time.The videos are worth a watch!

To add to the allure of the BSFL, they can be grown and harvested without dedicated facilities and are not human pests.  

On the fast track to sustainability, the BSFL industry is starting to emerge as an essential component of various animal food ingredients. The Enterra company, based in Langley, British Columbia is centered around using BSFL as a marketable, sustainable form of protein. Here is the foundation of their theory, and a look into how BSFL can become a surefire nutritional bonus to your chicken’s diet.  

To raise Black Soldier Flies, Enterra uses pre-consumer waste food that would otherwise be sent to landfills. For example, in a restaurant setting, this would be the type of food waste discarded by staff within the kitchen before it gets to patrons. This includes all waste in the kitchen including overproduction, expiration, spoilage, overcooked items, contaminated items, and dropped items.  

When collected and used for black soldier fly larval food, this organic matter which once would be considered waste and throw away, is the starting point for BSFL to eat, decompose the waste into a much smaller size, and grow themselves into a much larger size (3/4 inches on average). The larvae are then harvested and the result is a protein-rich, calcium fortified ingredient that chickens absolutely love. Essentially, companies such as Enterra take nutrient-rich food that would otherwise be thrown away, and puts it back into the system as a base for BSFL to feed upon.  A win-win that turns food waste into nutrient rich animal feed, increases nutrition and decreases waste.  

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These dried larvae (BSFL) are approximately 40% crude protein. Because chicken feathers are about 90% protein, increasing your chickens’ protein during molting will help them during the time they are re-growing their feathers.  During laying time, BSFL can also provide an extra boost of calcium, which helps build strong eggshells.  

In general, when comparing nutritional composition of any larvae, it is very important to note that the exact percentage of nutrients will vary with the substrate food upon which the larvae eat.  For example, the percentage of protein in BSFL that fed on animal manure is a full 4-5% higher than, say, BSFL that fed on waste food from vegan restaurants.  This accounted for, an AVERAGE nutritional table for dried mealworms vs. BSFL will show the following:  

Nutritional Component  Percentage in Mealworms  Percentage in BSFL 
Protein (min)  50%  41% 
Fat (min)  25%  28% 
Phosphorus (min)  0.06%  0.4% 
Fiber (max)  7.0%  10% 
Moisture (max)  7.0%  10% 
Calcium    2% 
*****************************  ***********************************  ***************************** 
Calcium/Phosphorus Ratio  1:2  1.5:1 
     

 It is reasonably agreed that vertebrates in general should have a calcium to phosphorus ratio in their diet ratio of around 1:1.  1.3:1 would be more precise, but for our purposes, I’ve rounded off. 

 As you can see in the chart, dried mealworms as food have a low calcium content and an imbalanced calcium/phosphorus ratio. (1 : 2).  Because the calcium content with respect to phosphorus in the dried mealworm is so low, companies that sell mealworms as poultry or reptile food might dust them with calcium first before bagging and selling.

 By contrast, dried BSFL are a more balanced calcium food source, also rich in protein and fat. The amount of fat is extremely variable and depends on the type of (fat content of the) diet: low valuse from larvae fed on something like poultry or cow manure, and way up to almost 50% from larvae fed on oil-rich food, like restaurant waste. The BSFL are rich in calcium and phosphorus, obviously a big plus for poultry feed. 

As a component of a complete lifetime diet, BSFL meal has been found to support good growth in chicks. Chicks fed a diet containing dried black soldier fly larvae as the protein supplement have been shown to gain weight at a rate of almost double those fed on soybean plus fat meal.  

Because, of the protein and fat content of these BSFL, and the fact that BSFL are the only larva/worm/grub to even come near the ideal calcium phosphorous ratio, its value for the backyard chicken as well as the industrial chicken can be extraordinary. Good strong eggshells and proper endocrine function depend on calcium content and its relationship with phosphorus in food, and these larvae certainly deliver.  

 Black Soldier Fly Larvae retailers have other selling points aside from their value to poultry (as well as other animal food) nutrition. As we move to consider effects on the environment, here are some possible points to consider when choosing what type of larvae to purchase for your flock: 

Biomass conversion 

Looking for a way to convert waste to valuable compost?  It’s been shown that large amounts of organic waste exposed to (relatively large populations of) BSFL can be converted…and quickly… into valuable compost.  For instance, by dining on it, these larvae can reduce the amount of poultry or pig by almost 50%. Household food waste can be shown to decline 65-70%!  Watch a video of BSFL eliminating a whole pizza in record 2 hours! These findings are pretty huge, especially when you figure in that waste equals odor, and elimination of a chunk of waste eliminates quickly the odor that emanates from it. 

 Housefly control 

Black soldier fly larvae are a competitor to common housefly maggots because they make waste more liquid and therefore less suitable for housefly maggots to grow. For instance, they have been shown to reduce the housefly population of pig or poultry manure by 94-100! Anyone who owns a farm will tell you that fewer houseflies/filth flies make the BSFL worth their weight in gold. 

All in all, I have found that my chickens consider both mealworms and BSFL the best chicken treats I can give to them. I have ordered BSFL from Amazon and given nutritional research on the two types of treats, I think I will continue to serve my hens the BSFL over the mealworms as the calcium component alone pushes me towards choosing this product! 

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Comments

  1. Kristin Behr says

    I have recently switched from meal worms to BSFL and couldn’t be happier with the results. BSFL are about half the price of meal worms, they have more calcium and they seem a little larger in size comparison. Plus, my chickens LOVE them! They gobble them up quicker than they mealworms! They all come running when they hear that I have treats! I really appreciate this article beacuse I was wondering the difference between the two “worms” and you helped me figure it out! My chickens and myself Thank you so very much!

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