Bugs by mail order

“Would your bird like the Alphitobius diaperinus (that’s the lesser mealworm to lesser mortals) or perhaps a Galleria mellonella (waxmoth) larva for the axylotl? The Locusta migratoria is high in protein with medium fat levels … “

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Leonie Gentry is a food supplier to the small pet world. Her modest Papakura garage houses many thousands of protein-rich creeping things. She supplies, according to her sales brochure, “the fattest, juiciest live insects at realistic prices” to pet shops and breeders of birds, fish, frogs and reptiles.

The manager of “Bugs-aLugs” is as down to earth as a Lumbricus (an earthworm), though a recent request about what to feed a pet spider caused a momentary shudder. Spiders? Ugh! Most of God’s creatures she can more than cope with. But spiders are not favourites. Besides, she is fresh out of flies.

Now if it had been the other way round-live spiders to feed to something further up the food chain she would have overcome repugnance and obliged.

For the past 11 years Gentry has been breeding locusts and mealworms to feed her finches. “Mum and I are finch nuts from way back,” she explains. There’s an aviary of the vivid little birds in the back garden. Two handsome yellow Indian ring-necked parrots grace the lounge. She is convinced that feeding them live food makes their plumage shine and has made the finches prolific breeders.

“Live food enhances their life-as it does ours. You have a lousy diet, you look lousy.” Two years ago, Gentry was made redundant from her job as a store detective. After unsuccessful job hunting attempts, it occurred to her that her hobby might be turned into something more lucrative. She had, after all, been giving surplus supplies away to finch club members for years. “I thought, ‘Blow this! I’ll try something different for a living, something that I know’.”

She approached the Franklin Enterprise Agency, which helped her put together a business and cashflow plan. Now she has stepped up her numbers of locusts a year to around 20,000, and estimates that she breeds about 60,000 mealworms each year, too. Her customers come from between Northland and Canterbury. The consumers, in order of voraciousness, are birds which eat about five mealworms each a day, with a few locust nymphs for variety-then turtles, fish, skinks and frogs.

As a line of business, bug-breeding is unusual enough to be viable, though it won’t make her a rich woman. Not in the short-term, anyway. We peer into a tank of African locusts (Locusta migratorial).

These insects already occur here naturally mainly in tussock and grass country in the lower half of the North Island and the top of the South. (They are common in places such as Abel Tasman National Park.)

They are the same species that causes the swarming plagues in subtropical regions of the world, but lest any well meaning person thinks that the same thing might happen here, they can relax. Special climate conditions are needed to trigger the behaviour in which millions of them group together.

Locusts are the least hardy of all Gentry’s insects, and have to be kept at a constant temperature of 25°C. Thirty pairs, raised from neonates, are used for breeding. It takes a female locust around three hours to lay an average of 60 eggs, of which 70 per cent will survive for petfood. The incubated eggs hatch in 16 days and go from neonate to nymph to adult in a six week life cycle. The hatchlings are transferred from the incubator into another tank and fed bran flakes-otherwise they tend to eat each other. Their parents average three breeding periods in a six month lifetime.

Gentry regards her adult locusts with some fondness. “They’re very tame,” she says. “It’s like having a pet, you just can’t help but pick them up and stroke them. And yes, I don’t mind admitting it, I do talk to them.”

Gentry has acquired her knowledge of the insect world through reading, trial and error and by picking the brains of professional entomoligists. They solved one particularly tricky problem for her. She had been told that it was best for the locusts to lay their eggs in plastic Chinese food containers. But her locusts found them a little steep to climb into, and too shallow. “If you have less than 10cm of sand in the container they won’t lay, ” she explains. “When they put their abdomen down to measure the depth and touch plastic, they abandon the container and lay their eggs all round the tank.” And that’s no good because the eggs dry out. The answer? Plastic dog-food containers. A little lateral thinking makes all the difference.

Around three to four hours a day are spent overseeing the breeding process. A major task is counting out larvae in job lots. Orders are individually counted, and carefully packed in shredded newspaper into ventilated plastic containers for despatch.

A container of 500 standard-sized locust nymphs will set you back $72. “People tend to buy smaller numbers though around 50 locusts at a time-or a pot of 1000 or so mealworms.”

We move on to the lesser mealworms in bran. “Just about anything eats these,” Gentry comments. She holds out a sieve which at first sight appears to be bran flakes; on closer inspection it seethes with whitish worms. In addition to fresh bran, they’re partial to a little apple or carrot now and then.

These worms-coveted by kiwis when they are in their own habitat-turn into rather pretty little darkling beetles. If they were flying free they would be a tasty target for fantails. They’re good frog and turtle food too, apparently.

Gentry opens a cupboard. Wax moths prefer darkness. They are fed a mixture of Farex, granulated yeast, glycerine and beeswax. Their name arises from the fact that caterpillars of this moth flourish in old abandoned bee hives. The honey provides the sugar for energy, but also contains pollen, a good protein source-everything a growing baby wax moth needs.

Houseflies and blowflies are welcome at Gentry’s place-as long as they land in the special bait container she’s set.

Most of the insect species she breeds are pests. Customers are asked to be responsible, and recycling is rewarded. People can send unused or unwanted bugs back to her and get a discount off their next order.

Ideas for expansion include the possibility of exporting insects for human consumption (locusts and wild honey, anyone?) and perhaps breeding some small pets like lizards, and getting some good sized wormeries going.

“I’ve had many enquiries about earthworms. They’re useful in so many different ways. Turtles eat worms. A lot of people are going organic-earthworms are ideal to put in a compost mix.”

Gentry can visualise her business expanding, but the uncertainty that goes with self-employment, coping with an overdraft, doing the tax-the whole business-end of bugfarming- is scarier to her than confronting an Avondale spider.

So, for the moment, it’s one day, and a few thousand bugs, at a time.