I can hear some of you going “eeeuuugh!” at the very mention of mealworms. But this tasty little snack is loved by many of our native birds. And as part of a balanced diet mealworms can be a great support to insectivorous birds at many times of the year. So let’s take a look at which birds enjoy mealworms, why they are so beneficial, and how even the most squeamish of you can offer them without losing your lunch!
Which Birds Eat Mealworms?
Before we look at which birds eat mealworms, let’s take a closer look at what mealworms actually are.
What Are Mealworms?
Mealworms are actually not worms at all. They are the larvae of a type of darkling beetle, scientific name Tenebrio Molitor.
These beetles are native to Europe but are now present in most parts of the world. They are considered a pest in many places as their primary diet is damp, stored grain. However, as well as grain, they will eat a whole range of things from meat scraps to fruit and veg and even feathers!
The larvae stage – the actual mealworms – lasts around 2 months for most darkling beetles, though they can stay semi-dormant in the larvae stage for much longer if needed. For example, is the weather is cold – or if you keep them in the fridge.
Mealworms are golden brown in colour and about an inch long with up to 12 distinct body sections and six legs when mature.
Why are Mealworms Good For Birds?
For insectivorous birds mealworms are very much a natural food, they are the larvae of insects, so it should be no surprise that they are loved.
They are very high in protein. Dried mealworms are typically more than 50% protein. They also have a high-fat content of between 25 and 30%.
All this makes mealworms a highly nutritious food that fits right in with the birds’ natural diet.
Which Birds Enjoy Mealworms?
Mealworms are enjoyed by a wide range of British Garden Birds. They are particular favourites of the insectivorous (soft beaked) birds and the passerines (perching birds.
- Blue Tits
- Great Tits
- Long Tailed Tits
- House Sparrows
The one group who will not be so keen on mealworms are the granivorous birds. These include doves and pigeons. They may occasionally take some mealworms. But thankfully this is one food that isn’t that interesting for these feathery gluttons!
When to Offer Mealworms?
You can offer your garden birds mealworms all year round. However, winter and nesting season are especially important.
In winter, life is hard for insectivores as there aren’t that many insects around. They move on to berries and seeds. But many of these don’t offer the high protein content of insects. So protein-rich mealworms in the lean times of mid-winter are very much appreciated.
During nesting season too, the high protein content of mealworms keeps up the energy of busy parents. But unlike many foods that we offer to our garden birds mealworms will also be taken by parents and fed directly to nestlings, since they are a natural food. If you are using dried mealworms, it’s especially important to soak them during the nesting season as baby birds don’t drink water and rely on the moisture they get from their food.
How to Serve Mealworms
Mealworms should only ever be part of the birds’ diet, they do not offer a complete nutritional package in themselves.
If you want, you can mix them in with seed blends, or buy seed mixes that include mealworms.
You can also buy or make suet products that include mealworms.
Both these methods will help to make the mealworms last longer and ensure that the birds are taking them with a mix of other foods.
Mealworms appeal to ground feeders like robins and blackbirds as well as perching birds like tits. So you should offer them in a variety of situations. Put some on your bird table, on ground feeders and hanging feeders.
Because they are so popular some people sprinkle them quite widely around the garden to give as many birds as possible a chance at getting some.
If you are feeding live mealworms, you will need to put them in something that will stop them making a run for it!
Choose a smooth-sided dish with sides at least 2 inches high to stop them crawling out. Go for glass, plastic or china. If you use a rough-sided container like mesh or wood, they will grip on and wriggle out.
You can also buy specialist mealworm feeders.
At the end of each day, check that there are no live mealworms leftover – unlikely! But if there are, be sure to store them away as rats love them too.
How Much to Feed?
Birds will guzzle down mealworms and will eat as many as you offer them. But they shouldn’t have too many, and they should be just part of your feeding.
So for most people putting out around 100 worms a day should be sufficient.
Dried or Live Mealworms?
Given a choice between dried and live mealworms birds will always go for the live ones first – they are just that much more juicy, fresh and delicious.
Given no choice, they will happily peck up the dried variety. Dried mealworms offer just the same nutrition as live worms, and some of the moisture can be replaced by soaking.
Dried mealworms tend to be cheaper than live ones. Once you start offering mealworms, you will soon realise that this is a real consideration. They disappear fast!
The dried varieties are also easier to store, they don’t need to be kept in the fridge. And they don’t wriggle!
So for many people, dried mealworms are likely to be the best option.
On the other hand, it is pretty easy to breed your own mealworms for those of you who are not squeamish. Doing this, you can have a steady supply for a very low cost.
How To Grow Your Own Live Mealworms
Growing your own mealworms is not going to be for everyone. If you’re squeamish about squirmy, wiggly things now is the time to look away.
But if a few bugs and wrigglers don’t bother you this could be a fun project – especially if you are locked down and homeschooling. You get to see an insect go through all 4 stages of its metamorphosis – pretty amazing stuff!
It will take 3 to 4 months to get a large enough colony of mealworms to supply your bird table daily. But, like a sourdough starter, once you’ve got it going, it will keep on as long as you look after it. And you could even have mealworms to spare for your friends.
- First, you will need some live mealworms, around 200 is a good start.
- Take a plastic bucket, an old fastball container would be ideal, and make some holes in the lid for ventilation.
- Line the bottom with newspaper then add a layer of oats or bran at least an inch thick. This will be the primary food source.
- Add some structures for the adult beetles to lay their eggs on. Broken up egg boxes are perfect.
- Add a couple of slices of fruit or veg. Darkling beetles don’t drink, but they need some moisture, they can get what they want from a slice or two of carrot or some small pieces of apple.
- Now add your mealworms.
- Store in a warm dark place where they will not be disturbed. A temperature of around 25 degrees centigrade is ideal. So a nice warm cupboard in the house could be perfect. Get them too hot or too cold, and they will start to die.
- Check on them every few days. Clean up, remove any food that is rotting or starting to look mouldy. Top up the layer of oats or bran if it’s getting low. Add more moist fruit and veg as needed.
- The mealworms will first turn into pupa, then adult beetles will emerge. These, in turn, will lay more eggs, which will hatch into larvae. The whole metamorphosis from egg to adult beetle takes between 10 and 17 weeks on average.
- After about 8 weeks you should be able to start harvesting decent-sized mealworms to feed to your birds. Try to only harvest those which are over an inch long. And always remember to leave a few mealworms to progress to the pupa stage and then to adult beetles who will lay your next batch of eggs.
- After a few months, once the colony is producing the amount of mealworms you need, set up a second bucket. Move all of your growing mealworms, adult beetles and pupae to the new bucket. The old bucket will still contain eggs and immature larvae. Allow all the eggs to hatch and harvest the larvae as they mature. When the bucket is empty of mealworms, you can give it a good clean out and start the process again.
- If you need more worms, just reduce your harvest for a couple of weeks and use the mature larvae to start a second colony.
Storing Your Mealworms
Dried mealworms should be stored in a cool, dry place along with the rest of your bird food. Check the best before date, but they will generally keep for a few months.
Live mealworms really need to be kept in your fridge at 5-8 degrees c. This will send them into a semi-dormant state, where they are still alive, but don’t need feeding. They can be kept in this way for up to 8 weeks. But be careful of the temperature. Warmer or cooler can kill them, then they will spoil.
If you are growing your own mealworms and have too many, you can also store them in the fridge this way to save them for later.
WARNING! Not for Hedgehogs!
Please don’t feed mealworms to hedgehogs (this is another good reason to clear any leftovers up in the evening. Mealworms are high in phosphates, which can stop hedgehogs from properly metabolising calcium and lead to bone deformities and skeletal weakness.
Mealworms – a Birdy Favourite.
So we’ve seen in this article that mealworms with their high protein and fat levels are a great source of nutrition for many birds, especially in the winter and the nesting season.
They are loved by a wide range of birds, but thankfully won’t be of much interest to pigeons and doves who may gobble up lots of your other bird food.
You can easily buy dried mealworms, either on their own or as part of a feed mix or suit products. Live ones can also be purchased, or if you are up for a project, you can even grow your own!
We hope you’ve found this article interesting and informative. Do you have questions or suggestions? We’d love to hear them: leave us a comment below.