What Are Mealworms and what birds eat them? Lets find out!

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You’ve probably come across a mealworm before — perhaps while opening a forgotten bag of flour in the back of the cupboard. These seemingly unpleasant creatures are not as bad as they seem, even with their pale yellow, grub-like bodies and creepy-crawly appearance. In, fact mealworms are extremely beneficial to animals, humans, and the environment in a number of ways. Still, you might be asking yourself, “what are mealworms?”

Mealworms aren’t actually worms at all, they’re larva, and eventually they grow into darkling, or mealworm, beetles. They’re a favorite diet supplement to reptile and fish owners as well as avid bird watchers that like to stock their backyard feeders. Insectivorous birds love to snatch up mealworms, and will frequently visit yards and gardens that regularly supply them. For this reason they’re sometimes referred to as golden grubs.  

But what makes them so special? Where can one find them and what kinds of animals enjoy them? If you want the inside scoop on mealworms — read on to learn the answers to these questions and more.

What are mealworms

Mealworms are holometabolic insects — AKA insects that develop in four distinct stages; egg, larvae, pupae, and imago (adult). Each one of these life stages is distinct from one another, making the transformation of egg to adult a complete metamorphosis. Other insects that are holometabolic include butterflies, moths, bees, and wasps. Mealworms are actually the larval form of the adult darkling, or mealworm beetle, Tenebrio molitor.

More about mealworms

The first phase of a mealworm’s life cycle is the egg stage. According to LIVIN farms, this stage lasts about 1 to 2 weeks before the eggs hatch into the larvae. This initial larval form isn’t quite the stage you want to use for feeding most animals and birds, though, you’ll want to wait until the larvae are at least around 1 inch long.

The larval stage lasts from around 6 weeks to up to 9 months. During this time, new larva further develops into multiple stages known as “instars” before they are even 3 cm long.

Mealworms (Image:Oakley Originals/flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The larvae may grow through up to 25 instars before transitioning into the pupae stage. This stage is like the cocoon stage for a butterfly, it’s when the pupae remains immobile as it develops the features of an adult beetle — wings, legs, and eyes. Finally, in the final stage of its life cycle, the mealworm becomes an adult beetle. They live for around 2 – 3 months, during which female beetles may lay up to 300 eggs, starting the cycle all over again.

Mealworms are an incredibly nutritious food source for animals and birds — and some people have even begun supplementing their diet with them, too. These wriggly critters are full of protein and also provide some extra fat and other nutrients. Offering mealworms to wild outdoor birds may help them develop muscle and increases the likelihood of them surviving through breeding season as well as cold winters and other harsh weather. Mealworms are particularly helpful to parent birds looking for a quick meal without having to leave the nest unattended for very long.

Mealworms are great for supplementing the diets of both pets and wild birds, but keep in mind that mealworms are just that — a supplement — they are low in calcium and are not nutritious enough make up the entirety of a bird’s diet. They’re also a favorite treat for other species such as reptiles, fish, and amphibians, since they offer a greater caloric value than crickets, another common reptile feeder. 

Birds That Eat Mealworms

Most people start feeding mealworms to attract bluebirds. Mealworms are the number one way to try and attract bluebirds to your feeders. However, offering mealworms as part of your bird feeding routine may attract all sorts of different birds to your yard, including;

  • Bluebirds
  • Chickadees
  • American Robins
  • Cardinals
  • Jays
  • Towhees
  • Wrens
  • Woodpeckers
  • Flycatchers
  • Swallows
  • Catbirds
  • Thrashers
  • Kingbirds
  • Titmice
  • Phoebes 
  • Nuthatches
  • Mockingbirds
  • Orioles
  • Starlings
American Robin enjoying some mealworms (Image:C Watts/flickr/CC BY 2.0)

Other animals that eat mealworms

Below is a list of some of the other animals that wouldn’t hesitate to accept a tasty mealworm.

Reptiles

  • Geckos
  • Skinks
  • Chameleons
  • Bearded Dragons
  • Anoles
  • Water Dragons
  • Tegus
  • Uromastyx

Fish

Most fish can eat mealworms, so long as the mealworm does not exceed the size of the fish. Mealworms are also excellent bait for catching wild fish.

  • Goldfish
  • Guppies
  • Beta Fish
  • Mollies
  • Platys
  • Pond fish such as Koi
  • Bluegill
  • Bass
  • Trout
  • Perch

Amphibians

  • Frogs
  • Toads
  • Turtles
  • Tortoises

Rodents

  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Squirrels
  • Racoons
  • Hedgehogs
  • Skunks
  • Sugar Gliders

Buying mealworms

When it comes to buying mealworms, the first question to consider is whether you want to purchase them live or freeze-dried. Luckily there are plenty of options for either choice and the decision mostly comes down to personal preference.

Live mealworms vs dried: which is better? 

Live mealworms are very popular with wild birds and reptiles because they move and wriggle — triggering interest almost immediately. However, they require more effort to take care of and can’t be stored away like dried options. With live mealworms you can gut-load them by feeding them a custom diet. This also provides enhanced nutrition compared to dried mealworms with empty stomachs.

Buying live mealworms isn’t very complicated though, and many options get shipped right to your address. Check out Amazon for these highly rated live mealworms out of Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that live mealworms will also grow into adult beetles if left for long enough.

On the other hand, purchasing dried mealworms is very easy. They can last for months when stored correctly and still offer additional nutrients to pets and wild birds — however their nutritional value will likely be less than fresh, gut-loaded mealworms.

If you want to buy in bulk, this 5 LB bag of dried mealworms is one of the most popular and best-selling mealworm products on Amazon. For a slightly smaller option, consider this bag of mealworms from Kaytee coming in at just over a pound.

At the end of the day, a hungry bird or lizard won’t turn their nose up at a mealworm, dry or live. Either choice is still a beneficial supplement to an animal’s diet.

Grow your own

Growing your own mealworms is a straight forward, cost effective alternative to buying them at a store or online. The process is simple and only requires a few materials; plastic bins with lids, live mealworms, egg cartons or cardboard, dry oatmeal, and food. Or you can try out this simple starter kit with everything you need.

First, the bins should be readied before food and mealworms are placed inside. Drill holes in the lids for air and place about an inch of dry oatmeal at the bottom of the bin, this will be an edible substrate for the mealworms as they grow.

Next, put some food in the bin such as sliced carrots or apple — these options will also provide water to the worms. Be sure to check these often once you add the worms, though, and remove any food that looks moldy or rotten. Finally, add the mealworms to the bin as well as some cardboard egg carton pieces to offer them cover as well as something to climb on.

Three bins made the same way can be used to separate larvae from pupae and adults. Keeping all the different life stages of mealworms in the same container will result in the adults eating the larvae.

Lots of mealworms inside of an at home breeding bin (Image: Rhea C/flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

As you see, raising your own mealworms doesn’t require much time or money, and the process is pretty flexible depending on the space you have available and how many worms you plan on raising. For a more in depth look at how to raise your own mealworms, this article from Wikihow has got you covered.


Mealworm bird feeders

When considering what type of feeder to use for offering mealworms there are a few factors to keep in mind. 

First, you’ll want to choose a dish with raised edges so that live mealworms can’t wiggle out. This lip also offers a place for birds to sit while they snack. This basic, dish-shaped feeder has a minimalist design as well as an extra perching area. Another similar option is this feeder from Chewy  that has an aesthetically pleasing, circular design that would look great in any yard or garden.

Second, it’s a good idea to plan for rain, so keep in mind feeders with drainage holes or roofs. This feeder from Amazon is designed specifically for feeding mealworms to Bluebirds. It’s made out of sturdy cedar with stainless steel screws for durability, plus the windows keep pesky birds like Starlings out. Chewy also offers this domed model that provides shelter from rain and prevents mealworms and seed from getting soggy or flowing overboard.

While tray feeders offer a flat platform and can hold a large variety of seeds and mealworms, they don’t protect against the weather and may also attract animals other than birds such as squirrels or deer. Tray feeders are also prone to becoming easily soiled. Hopper and suet block feeders should also be avoided since they aren’t meant to hold mealworms.

For more mealworm feeder choices see our article about the best bird feeders for bluebirds, which include many choices for feeding mealworms. 


Conclusion

Hopefully this article has peaked your interest about using mealworms as feeder food. Whether you decide to use dried or live mealworms, both kinds offer benefits to nesting adult birds and their offspring. Offering mealworms outside will also likely make your at-home bird watching experience more enjoyable by attracting a wider variety of birds to your yard.

Not only are they powerful nutritional supplements to wild birds and pets, but mealworms are easy and inexpensive to raise at home. Get started by purchasing an all-in-one kit, or select some plastic bins yourself and get to it. Raising mealworms will provide you with a fresh, healthy food source for many kinds of pets and animals — if you’re really adventurous they could be a new food source for you, too!

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