Establishing a meal worm colony is easy
Do your wild birds go cuckoo for meal worms? I know mine sure do! Freeze-dried meal worms are useful in a pinch, but the cost can add up and there can be a lot of wastage as they are quite fragile and tend to snap when the birds are munching them.
So I'm growing my own for live feed during the winter. It's really simple and now's the time to get a breeding colony established before the cold sets in!
What you need is:
1) Preferably 2 small tank-like containers (although you just need one to start off). Meal worms can't climb very well and the beetles don't fly and so you could use deep-sided trays if you don't have any spare tanks. Just make sure that their are breathing holes for ventilation. Generally, larger tanks will support more mealies, but meal worms are happy to co-exist in smaller spaces.
2) Buy a tub of healthy looking mealies from a reptile or pet shop. If possible find out how fresh they are. Pet shops often don't feed them and if they've been there a week or two the mealies will be very dehydrated and a lot will have died or will die over the next few days.
I bought a tub of "mini- meal worms" for 2 pounds from a local reptile shop. These "mini" ones are exactly the same as the larger ones, just younger. I opted for these instead of the larger ones as you get a lot more mealies per pence (although it is normally to lose some as they grow through their life cycle) and since I don't need them large now, I can afford to grow them myself. Don't buy Morio worms (these look like super large mealies, with a slightly different colour - creme with dark brown stripes)
3) Sieve or tweezer the mealies out of their container to minimise the amount of waste (dung, dead and shedding) being transferred to their new home.
4) Add mealies to container and add oats/bran or cornmeal. This functions as their primary food source as well as their bedding!
5) Every day or so add a few thin slices of cucumber or raw potato. This provides nutrition and importantly hydration. Remove any left overs after 12 - 24 hrs if uneaten to avoid mould/fungus.
6) As they grow they will periodically shed their exoskeleton, which will tend to culminate on top of their substrate/bedding as well as any unfortunate ones that may have perished (these turn black). After 8-10 weeks these should reach a large enough size to form a purpae. These are white alien-looking critters that can only wiggle.
7) Ideally at this point transfer these to another similar tank with fresh substrate of oats or bran. Eventually they will metamorphose into the darkling beetle. This is a small black beetle doesn't fly or make any noise. These will then begin to mate within the tank and lay tiny eggs, which upon hatching will form tiny meal worms to begin the cycle once more.
It's useful to transfer the pupae or beetles into another tank as it protects the pupae and enables you to eventually empty the original tank once most of the mealies have metamorphosed. Meal worm dung ( tiny brown granules that look like instant gravy ) generally does not smell, but it's worth doing this to provide a healthy environment for the next generation. Obviously the longer you leave it until a complete change the more this odour can build.
Mealies are fun to breed and exceptionally easy and will not only save you lots of money over due course, will provide birds not only with protein and fat, but a live wriggling critter to happily gobble down during the winter.
If anyone has any questions feel free to ask.