Table of Contents
Which Feeder Insects are Good for Chickens?
Feeding and caring for chickens can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. There are folks who will build a coop out of scrap and others who spend thousands building a henhouse. There are no wrong answers, as long as your hens are happy and healthy.
This goes double for feeding chickens. Chickens can eat just about anything, with a few exceptions. Giving them things like kitchen scraps can actually be great for their diets.
In the wild, chickens mostly eat insects. This fact has inspired lots of backyard chicken keepers to start using feeder insects instead of store-bought feed for their birds.
In this article, we’ll discuss all the benefits of giving your chickens a diet of healthy insect protein. This will give you a nice spread of options to choose from, so you can feed your chickens in the healthiest, most sustainable, and cheapest way possible.
Why Feed Chickens Insects?
Put simply, the chicken is an omnivore/scavenger who can subsist on just about anything. They will happily peck up corn grains, but if you offer them meat, they’ll gobble it up with just as much enthusiasm.
If you also keep reptiles, this might remind you of how bearded dragons eat. And in truth, beardies and chickens have fairly similar diets. Ideally, they should get a mix of protein-rich meat and veggies full of vitamins.
This nutrient mix is simulated in store-bought feed. Most store-bought feed is made of grains and enriched with nutrients. But like with most animal feeds, producing chicken feed wastes a lot of water.
In fact, growing feed for agricultural use is one of the largest drivers of widespread drought in the US. But lucky you, there’s an alternative that uses a tiny fraction of the resources needed to grow grains for feed. We’re talking about a wide array of insects.
Because insects consume all the water they need in their food, most feeder insects consume almost no water while maturing. That’s a huge benefit to the environment. Growing grains can also leech harmful pesticides and fertilizers into the soil. But raising insects does none of that.
Onto the next question: which is healthier? We’ve already covered that chickens are omnivores, but how much of a difference is there, really?
For starters, insects like black soldier fly larvae, mealworms, crickets, and earthworms all contain more essential amino acids than grain feed. This promotes better overall health and longevity in chickens. Insects also tend to have a nutrient profile that aligns better with a chicken’s dietary needs (high protein, low fat).
But the essential takeaway is that chickens are omnivores, and that means they need variety. Insects alone are better than grain feed alone, but the ideal chicken diet is a mix of insect protein and vegetable matter.
You can always supplement your chickens’ diet with kitchen scraps. Carrot shavings, apple cores, and cooked rice or beans are great options to round out your hens’ diets.
Costs and Benefits
But surely if raising feeder insects is better for the environment, it must be more expensive, right? Not necessarily. Depending on which bugs you choose to raise, it could even be free after the initial setup.
Roaches and black soldier flies are particularly low-maintenance. They eat compost and require very little space. All roaches need to survive is an enclosed space like a plastic storage box and some egg flats.
Compare this to the average bag of chicken feed. A 10-pound bag of chicken feed is cheap, at around $12 per bag. But a flock of 10 chickens could easily go through a 10 pound bag every week. Suddenly, feed begins to add up quickly.
When compared to the care and feeding of a roach colony, which may take an hour per week, the difference in cost is a no-brainer.
Best Chicken Feeder Insects
Long story short, feeder insects are a healthier, cheaper, and more sustainable way of feeding your chickens. But which feeder insect is right for you? Let’s compare and contrast to see the benefits of each.
Black Soldier Fly Larvae
It’s no secret, we’re huge fans of the black soldier fly (BSFL). There are so many issues they can solve, from reducing your carbon footprint and waste to getting rid of common house flies to feeding all of your animals entirely for free. Chickens especially love them, and BSFL provide a great nutrient profile to keep them healthy.
We’ve covered raising BSFL in depth before. But the basic concept is that the larvae are great composting grubs, and can eat almost anything that comes out of your kitchen. Veggies, meat, dairy, citrus, you name it. They can even digest animal waste, ridding it of disease and turning it into food.
Black soldier flies are probably the most sustainable, highest-yield feeder insect out there. They’re also one of the healthiest. The tradeoff is that they can be a little more work to take care of. Building a BSFL compost bin is a little more complicated, takes a few more parts, and a little more effort to produce.
But in the end, you’ll have an unlimited supply of feed and “black gold” fertilizer to use in your garden. The greatest benefit of black soldier flies is that they help produce more food for themselves, which turns into more feed and fertilizer, and so on. This is what we call circular agriculture], and it’s the gold standard for sustainable farming.
In our opinion, black soldier flies are A-1, the best of the best when it comes to feeding your animals.
Though they may not look like it, common mealworms and superworms are actually baby beetles. They’re commonly used as reptile feed, but lots of people also feed them to chickens.
Here's a video that shows how much chickens love superworms:
Because of their needs, raising superworms or mealworms is quite a bit more complicated than roaches or black soldier flies. Many people will buy them by the bag as a dried option, and use them as a dietary supplement along with normal store-bought feed.
If you don’t have the time to raise insects to feed your chickens, this is a great way to give them some variety and extra nutrition in their diet. You’ll quickly realize how much your birds love bugs once you start feeding them mealworms.
But if you do decide to raise mealworms or superworms, there are some real benefits. One of the biggest is that you can dehydrate and grind them into a powder. This is a bit like a protein mix for chickens. It keeps forever and can be used to enhance your chickens’ diet.
If you don’t have a lot of chickens and don’t need a ton of insects to feed them, this is a great way to go.
Everybody knows how excited chickens get when they find an earthworm in the yard. Earthworms are a healthy option for chickens and are very low-maintenance to raise.
The main investment you’ll have to make with earthworms is a worm composting box. These run from $50 to $150, depending on what you get.
To raise earthworms, you’ll just need to make sure they have rich organic matter to eat. They need their environment to be damp, but not soaked, or they’ll drown. So as you add compost for them to eat, sprinkle it occasionally with water. They also need it to be a certain temperature. Keep your worm composter between 55° and 77°F for best production.
Another benefit of earthworm composting is that they can be raised with very little space, indoors. They don’t need much attention once they’re in a good environment. You’ll just add food scraps (or even newspaper) and water occasionally.
Like black soldier flies, earthworms also produce liquid “black gold” fertilizer. This is why most worm compost bins have a spout on the bottom. Every so often you’ll get a good amount of liquid fertilizer, which you can mix with tap water and spray on your garden.
The downside to earthworm farming is that you won’t get as many earthworms as you would with other bugs. Having a small earthworm setup works better to give your chickens a snack now and again, rather than replacing their normal feed.
If you have limited time and space, but still want organic plant fertilizer, earthworms are the way to go. But it's been well documented that black soldier fly larva are superior to earthworms.
Roaches are the go-to feeder insect for lots of reptile owners, and for good reason. Roaches are simple, healthy, and they produce a ton of feed.
Regardless of the species, raising roaches is easy. For beginners, we recommend using dubia roaches. Dubia are easy to work with because they can’t fly, are terrible climbers, and will die if they escape their habitat.
All you need to raise roaches is a plastic storage tub, some egg carton flats, a heating pad, and dry breakfast cereal. In a nutshell, you put the roaches in the tub with the egg flats. They need a temperature of at least 85°, which you can create with a heating pad under the tub. The roaches will hide in the egg flats and eat the cereal. Then they’ll start to reproduce.
Before long, you’ll have a lot of roaches of different sizes on your hands. You can wait for them to get larger to feed them to your chickens, but leave a few of the big ones. The ones you leave in the habitat will keep reproducing and giving you more feed for your birds.
Occasionally, you’ll want to clean out the habitat. You can move all the egg flats into a separate plastic tub before dumping out their poop (or frass). Frass is a good fertilizer and can be added to potting soil to produce better crops.
There are lots of species of roaches that work well as feeders. The three main species people use for reptiles are dubia, discoid, and Madagascar hissing cockroaches. These have minor differences in nutrition, but in general, they’re high in protein, low in fat, and contain lots of vitamins and minerals.
If you have some spare time, and want to save money on store bought chicken feed, raising roaches has a very high return on investment.
Similar to roaches, crickets are very low-maintenance to raise. They’re also cheap to buy if you’d prefer to buy them outright. They move around much more than the other feeders on this list, which gives your hens a fun challenge in catching them.
The easiest way to breed crickets is to keep them in a large plastic storage tub. Like with roaches, you can feed them basic grain-based cold cereal. Give them some egg flats to hide in, some time to reproduce, and you’ll have a colony on your hands. Crickets can handle a wider range of temperatures, so keeping them at room temperature is viable.
Like with roaches, they’ll produce frass. Every so often, transfer them to another container, shake out the droppings, and you’re good to go.
Crickets are also a very healthy food source for chickens. They have a high protein to fat ratio and are very hydrating. They also contain a lot of fiber and other micronutrients.
Crickets are another easy option for people who want to raise their own feeder insects. They will keep your chickens entertained and have good nutritional content.
However, you may want to use them as a snack more than a primary food source. Chickens need a lot of calories to survive, and it would take a ton of crickets to give them all the energy they need.
In our humble opinion, the black soldier fly is the best all-around feeder insect. However, it takes some time and effort to raise them. If you would prefer a more low-maintenance option, roaches and crickets are even easier, but you will get fewer of them. Earthworms are much easier to raise, but you won’t get as many. Mealworms work well as a snack, but they are difficult to raise and fairly expensive to buy dehydrated.