Crickets or Mealworms? Which is the better feeder insect?

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Crickets Vs Mealworms

crickets or mealworms for bearded dragon

When it comes to your regular feeder insect, it is very important to ensure that the species you choose will be fulfilling the needs of your leopard gecko, bearded dragon, or other insect-eating pet!  From your human's perspective, all feeder insects look alike.  But for your pet, that is not the case.  

In this article, we directly compare crickets and Mealworms by looking at their protein, fat, mineral, and fiber content. Plus, we look at which insect your pet will prefer and how you can incorporate different insects into a more-balanced and engaging diet!

Nutritional Profile

Experts suggest that the following nutritional profile is optimal for most insectivorous and carnivorous reptiles and amphibians:

Typical Carnivorous Reptile Diet

  • High in Protein (30-60%)
  • High in Fat (40-70%)
  • Low carbohydrates and Indigestible Fiber

Keep in mind that this particular nutritional optimum is for reptiles and amphibians that eat only insects. Omnivores, while they will get a similar nutritional benefit from a small and variable selection of insects, often have different dietary profiles. For example, while Bearded Dragons like many kinds of insects, their overall diet includes high levels of fiber found in fruits, vegetables, and greens. 

Ideally, insects should be high in fat and protein, while being very low in fiber. Low fiber increases how accessible the nutrients are, discussed in the section below on digestibility. 

We can compare Sand Mealworms directly to this ideal insect by looking at the findings of a large study of insect nutritional composition:

Mealworms Protein and Fat Content

  • Protein - 50%
  • Fat - 31%

Crickets (Adults) Protein and Fat Content

  • Protein - 66%
  • Fat - 22%

    It's clear that crickets care more protein and less fat than mealworms.  If you feeding a younger bearded dragon, then crickets are a great option because of their lean protein.  But they do fall short on the fat requirements, so it's necessary to supplement your crickets with a few superworms or BSFL because of their superior fat content.  If you're caring for an egg-laying female, then crickets likely won't provide enough fat for your pet.

    Mealworms do a better job offering the nutrients that your pet needs.  Their protein content is the sweet spot for your reptile.  But their fat content is a little light.  Although better than what crickets offer for fat, it's still a good idea to supplement your mealworms with some fatty superworms or BSFL.

     

    Mineral Content

    Likely the most common supplement used by reptile hobbyists is calcium. Calcium is extremely important to your pet, and many insect species simply do not contain enough calcium. Interestingly, reptiles and amphibians need another mineral - phosphorus - in order to process calcium. So, both nutrients are very important. 

    While many insects have a very similar fat and protein content, insects can vary wildly in their calcium and phosphorous content. Mealworms and crickets are an excellent example of how two very different insects can contain very different mineral content.

    Experts recommend a calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in feeder insects that is somewhere around 2:1. Here are the actual mineral contents of crickets and mealworms:

    Crickets (g/kg) Calcium to Phosphorus Ratio

    • Calcium - 2.1
    • Phosphorous - 7.8
    • Ratio - 1 : 3.7

    Mealworms (g/kg) Calcium Ratio

    • Calcium - 1.2
    • Phosphorus - 14.2
    • Ratio - 1 : 11.8

    Mealworms do not have a balanced mineral content for most insectivores. Most pet leopard geckos and other insectivores would need a calcium supplement of 20+ grams of calcium per kilogram of mealworms to make the ratio balanced - that’s a lot compared to crickets.  For this reason, mealworms should never be the only food provided to your pet.  A diet deficient in calcium can cause terminal health problems like metabolic bone disease.  

    As you can see, crickets are clearly much closer to this optimal ratio. But they are still lagging behind what reptiles prefer.  So, in order to get the ratio up to 2:1, all you need to do is use a calcium supplement - generally available as a dust or as a gut-load for your feeder insects. With this supplementation, crickets would then have the perfect balance of calcium and phosphorous.  

    If dusting insects is something you prefer to avoid, then BSFL are the only feeder that naturally offers the correct calcium-to-phosphorus ratio.  

    Digestibility

    As a rule, carnivorous animals have very short digestive tracks. This is true of ferrets and cats, as well as geckos, chameleons, and other insectivores. Simply put, protein needs to be broken down fast or it will begin to massive bacterial growth that will steal the nutrients. On the other hand, herbivores often need a very long digestive tract because they need a healthy microbiome to help break down complex fiber molecules.

    Long story short: insectivores cannot process fiber as well as omnivores. Insects contain fiber mostly in the form of chitin - a material that makes exoskeletons rigid. Less fiber makes an insect easier to digest because the protein and fats inside can be easily accessed. 

    Here is the fiber content of crickets and mealworms:

    Crickets Fiber

    • Fiber - 12%

    Mealworms Fiber Content

    • Fiber - 5.7%

    Mealworms, while they have worse mineral content, have a less complex, thinner exoskeleton and are likely much easier to digest. If you have a sick pet or one that does not crunch it’s food a few times before swallowing (chameleons, some leopard geckos) - mealworms may be easier to digest.

    That being said, crickets have a better mineral content, but are pretty high in fiber content.  This is mostly for the older crickets who's exoskeletons have matured by the time they are 5 weeks old.  For most pets, especially Bearded Dragons, turtles, and others that like to crunch and chomp their food, crickets are still a good feeder option, because that will help breakdown the bodies of the crickets.   

    Other Factors to Consider

    When it comes to rearing insects in your home (or garage), almost nothing is easier than mealworms. Mealworms have a peculiar smell that is not necessarily unpleasant, but certainly musky. Essentially, mealworms can be successfully reared on a substrate of oats or cornmeal, supplemented with wedges of fresh vegetables to provide moisture. 

    The adult beetles can be separated out and will lay eggs in a new container. Ideally, you feed off the oldest larvae and only let a few pupate into beetles - minimizing the chances any will escape.

    Rearing crickets is a simpler process because they do not go through a metamorphosis like mealworms.  However, it is important to keep the larger crickets separate from the younger crickets.  The larger crickets will prey on the younger crickets and eat them.  Something else to consider with crickets is that they have a strong odor due to their high protein content.  This odor is unpleasant for a lot of people.  So if breeding crickets is on your bucket list, then you might want to take the operation into a garage.

    One noticeable difference between crickets and mealworms is that crickets cannot tolerate cold temps like mealworms.  Crickets cannot be refrigerated, or they will perish.  But mealworms can be refrigerated.  

    Which Insect Will My Pet Prefer?

    When it comes to picking the perfect feeder insect, one of the most important questions is how engaging that insect will be to your pet. When it comes to helping your lizard display behaviors like stalking, chasing, catching, and handling prey, crickets are going to make them much more active.

    This means crickets are a better choice for most active, adult pets that need as much engagement and entertainment as they can get. crickets even like to dig under bedding, and some pets will stay active for hours looking for hidden roaches. 

    Mealworms can provide an easy prey item for juveniles, elderly pets, and pets that will not take other forms of insects. While their mineral content is not perfectly balanced, it can be supplemented with calcium powder. Mineral worms are also easy for you to handle, which can be useful if you are trying to train your Bearded Dragon or Leopard Gecko.

    Don’t Forget Variety!

    Crickets are more balanced as a regular feeder insect. They contain high levels of accessible calcium and are harder for your pet to catch - keeping pets engaged for longer and helping burn calories. But, crickets are not perfect.

    If the crickets you have are too large or your pet does not process them properly, your pet may not be getting all of the nutrients they need. In the wild, this basic problem is overcome with variety - many different kinds of insects are targeted.

    Mealworms can help supplement any insectivore diet, as they are easy to handle, keep for a long time, and most pets love any insects that resemble grubs. They have high levels of protein and fat, both of which are easily accessible. 

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