Mealworms are actually not worms at all but larvae of a beetle which has a fondness for meal, or grain. This beetle belongs to the family of Darkling Beetles - sounding like something straight out of Harry Potter! There are various kinds but all look beautifully beetle-like - a black, shiny serrated back and crabby little legs.
Mealworms. Photo: Josh More, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Their larvae, mealworms, have adapted to thrive in moisture-free piles of grain and oats, so ingeniously they create moisture out of carbohydrates and can live on next to nothing. This trait makes them extremely easy to breed, and that’s why you might be most familiar with mealworms as pet food – they’re sold in bulk for reptiles, fish and birds, and for fishing bait. Little wonder as their nutritional values are impressive – around 20% protein and 12% fat, and particularly high levels of vitamin B12 as well as zinc and other essential minerals.
Robin with mealworm. photo: fs-phil, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
With garden birds facing habitat loss and starvation, they need all the help they can get, and bird-lovers are being encouraged to breed their own mealworms to put in their bird feeders. Both the RSPB and British Ornithological Society have detailed instructions available online. The worms like to eat bran, old bread, potato and cabbage - so are ideal for recycling your food scraps. They do apparently smell a bit fishy when growing, though. An innovative new kit funded through on Kickstarter which will let you grow-your-own right on your kitchen table.
Mealworm farm. Photo: velacreations, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Of course mealworms are entirely fit for human consumption too, and are eaten all around the world. You can buy them dehydrated and use them straight out of the packet – Jonas of the BugsFeed team did just this and experimented with some mealworm soup and salad. Read his account of cooking with the “nutty, but bland” mealworm.
If you get your hands on fresh mealworms, dry-roasting is an easy ‘intro’ to eating this little bugs. Salt or sugar make them a tasty snack – see here for a simple ‘how-to’.