Insects form a part of many birds’ diets and you can supplement what is naturally available by offering them live or dried mealworms. Mealworms are packed with protein and energy and can be offered to birds throughout the year.

Robins With Mealworms

What are mealworms?

Mealworms are not actually worms but are the larvae of the mealworm beetle, a type of darkling beetle, native to Europe but that is found worldwide. They are a golden-yellow colour and measure about 2.5 cm in length with a hard exoskeleton that it will molt and shed in order to grow. After its final molt it will turn into a pupa ready for hatching into an adult beetle.

As well as food for wild birds mealworms are also used as pet food for captive birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. They can also be consumed by humans and are often used as the worm in tequila-flavoured novelty sweets, although they are not traditionally the worm served in tequila. Mealworms are also used as fishing bait.

Dried or live?

You can buy freeze-dried mealworms from many bird food suppliers and pet shops and these varieties are a convenient way of feeding garden birds without handling live mealworms.

Dried mealworms can be served to birds either straight or mixed with other food such as seeds, nuts or fruit. They can also be melted into suet to form a bird food fat cake.

During breeding season soak dried mealworms in some warm water until they soften to minimize the risk of baby birds choking on the hard shells.

You will probably find that once you start feeding mealworms to birds that they will get through an awful lot and it could become a rather expensive feeding habit. If you’re not too squeamish it is possible to breed your own mealworms.

You will need several hundred mealworms or adult beetles to start with. Provide them with a home in a container such as an old biscuit tin or ice cream tub with some holes punched in the lid.

Line the bottom of the container with some newspaper, cardboard or hessian sacking. On top of the bedding put a layer of bran, oats or other grains and a source of moisture such as slices of potato, apple, carrots, wedges of cabbage or lettuce and some bread. This will help keep the environment at the right humidity for the mealworms to survive.

Introduce the mealworms and keep the container somewhere warm but out of direct sunlight. You will need to maintain a temperature of between 21 and 24 °C to keep the mealworms healthy.

Regularly check on your mealworms and remove any dried or mouldy food and replace with fresh pieces. You will probably need to change the bedding too. If there are any dead mealworms you can remove them or leave them for the surviving mealworms to eat.

After a few weeks the mealworms will turn into creamy coloured pupae and then tiny black beetles. The beetles will lay eggs, which will hatch into mealworms and a new cycle will begin.

To start new colonies transfer some of the food, which will contain beetle eggs, into a new container.

You can feed harvested mealworms to your garden birds immediately or they can be stored in the fridge where they will go into a dormant state. Make sure you allow a few mealworms to grow into adult beetles to begin the next generation of mealworms.

Which birds eat mealworms?

Mealworms can either be placed in bird feeders or served from a ground feeder or bird table. They will attract a variety of insectivorous birds to your garden but will particularly be enjoyed by:

House sparrows
Song thrushes
Blue tits
Great tits

Mealworms can also be fed to hedgehogs. Soak them in some warm water and add them to their own feeding station. Don’t soak them in milk as hedgehogs are lactose intolerant and milk can give them serious digestive problems or may even be fatal for them.

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