When it comes to feeding chickens and keeping them healthy, you want to feed items that are both delicious and nutritious. Options for feeding chickens in the form of both regular meals as well as treats are plentiful, but having an option that is self-renewing is both convenient and easy on the bank account. Being low maintenance is also a plus. One edible item that meets all of these criteria is meal worms.
Mealworms are the larval form of Tenebrio molitor, a species of darkling beetle, and chickens love them! They are also easy to raise and cheap to maintain, but do keep in mind that they should not be your chickens' exclusive food source but rather a supplement, or treat, to go with other foods.
To start raising mealworms, you will need a location to house them. Storage containers that are a few inches tall and have smooth sides are ideal as you don't want the mealworms to crawl out. A lid is not necessary at larval and pupal stages, but if you do use one, be sure it has holes to allow airflow. Once you have your container ready, you need to fill it with edible bedding that is about an inch or so deep. This can be anything along the lines of oats, laying mash, wheat germ, chicken feed, chick starter, or corn meal. Also necessary is something that will provide moisture, preferably an apple cut in half and set core side down on top of the edible bedding. Do not peel this apple as that will allow the moisture to escape outwardly and you want the moisture directed into the bedding. Then, provide a safe place for hiding (such as layers of newspaper or an upside down egg carton) as mealworms are nocturnal and darkness is preferred. Lastly, just add mealworms, which can be purchased locally at sporting goods stores or online.
It takes approximately 12-18 weeks for larval mealworms to turn into pupa, depending on temperature and moisture conditions. Room temperature (in the 60's) is ideal but higher temperatures (such as around the mid-70's) are ideal if you would like to move things along. Around 2 weeks after entering the pupal stage, your mealworms will start turning into darkling beetles. Initially they will be light colored but will become darker with time. Once you start to see beetles, it is time to separate them from the larvae and pupae as the beetles will eat the others. You will also want to move your beetles to a container with a lid to keep your beetles in and other pests out.
The darkling beetles will start mating pretty quickly and lay eggs in the bedding of their bin. Because of this, you will want to move them shortly thereafter so they do not eat their young. The darkling beetles will not live terribly long, however, so you do not have to plan to house them long term (usually their lifespan is a few weeks). The eggs will hatch after about two weeks under ideal conditions and it takes 12-16 weeks for them to reach the pupal stage. During that 12-16 week larval phase is when they are ideal for feeding to your chickens. You can either wait for them to change phases from larvae to pupae naturally to continue breeding or opt to slow down the process by storing larval mealworms in your refrigerator. Some you will want to refrigerate for feeding purposes while others you want to move on to the darkling beetle phase so that more eggs will be laid.
Keep in mind that one beetle can produce up to 500 eggs depending on the conditions in which it lives, so growing a sizeable mealworm colony is very feasible. Simply keep the darkling beetles on the move after they've performed their egg laying duties and things should progress nicely. You can opt to sift out the dead worms and debris, but be sure to replace any lost edible bedding in the process and replace apples as they dry out, spoil, or get eaten. This process takes minimal work and yields great results and your chickens will love you for it. You may not love having worms in your house or fridge but at least you will have that much more money in your bank account!