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Keeping creepy crawly colonies

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2004

Bugs most people can't stand the sight of them and few would entertain the idea of intentionally keeping and breeding them in their homes.

However, insects are a staple in the diet of many species of reptiles, birds and fish, such as cichlids, that are commonly kept as pets. Even some pet insects, like spiders, centipedes and young scorpions, may feed on other insects.

As such, some dedicated pet owners may try to propagate their own bevy of bugs. This may be done to ensure a source of food for pets is always available, to save a few bucks and trips to the pet shop or just for the stimulation of maintaining your own insect colony.

Regardless of the reasons, it's easy to do.

Meal worms are fed to a wide variety of exotic pets. These one-inch long, golden yellow creatures actually are not worms at all, but rather are the larvae of darkling beetles.

These are a great species to start with since they're one of the easiest to raise at home. A colony can be started with about 50 meal worms.

Plastic sweater boxes, Tupperware or Rubbermaid containers are the easiest to maintain and clean, but five-gallon aquariums also can be used to house the insects. Generally, two to three containers will be necessary to maintain an active colony.

Air circulation is important, so if using lids, make sure they have numerous holes drilled in them. Screen lids also work well.

The substrate of the container is very important since it will serve as food. In entomological circles there is much debate as to which is the right material to use. A mixture of items such as rolled oats and wheat bran with a bit of powdered milk added in usually works well.

Layer the containers with roughly two inches of this medium. Add in some vegetables, which also serve as a food but, more importantly, will be the source of water for the insects. Generally half a potato, apple or carrot will suffice.

Add the meal worms, which can be purchased from a pet shop or online. Store the containers in a warm and preferably dark place. Temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees need to be maintained.

Check the colony every couple of days. Monitors the vegetables closely to ensure they don't become too desiccated and be careful mold doesn't grow, which could contaminate the colony.

After a few weeks, the meal worms will metamorphisize from larvae into pupa and eventually into beetles. An adult beetles will lay 500 to 1,000 eggs. It's a good idea to always keep 20 to 25 adult beetles in each container to ensure a constant supply of eggs, but not many more since they will tend to feed on the pupae.

It takes roughly three months for beetles to change from eggs to adults.

When the substrate starts to appear sandy, change out the mixture.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at clarion@alaska.net.



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