Maintaining, Breeding and Rearing Feeder Insects
Bearded dragons should be provided a variety of feeder insects. “How many crickets should I feed?” is probably the most limiting diet question out there. Providing just one species, ie crickets or roaches, limits the range of nutrition available and certainly does not provide a balanced diet.
Maintaining Crickets & Roaches (not breeding)
Maintaining crickets and roaches for feeding your reptile is relatively simple since the long term productivity of the colony is not a focus.They will require a suitable container, water source, food and maintenance of heat. It should be noted, like with any colony, cleanliness is important. Overcrowding, lack of control of cleanliness and/or lack of ventilation will result in strong odors and spread of disease. Any colony that smells offensive is not being maintained properly, including crickets.
Crickets can be provided a wide range of vegetation which can be as simple as the scraps from preparing dinner, roaches will prefer some fruits as well. At this stage do not provide foods such as dog food and other foods that are used for keeping breeding colonies, it is too close to the time for preparing to gutload. Water needs to be provided and kept clean. From here you move into gutloading prior to feeding.
Temperatures should be over 20ºc and under 30ºC dependent on the purpose for keeping the, feeding or breeding. The higher the temperature the quicker the metabolism and activity but shortens the life span. To simply maintain them keep them at temperatures on the lower side.
Water Sources for Insects
Beetle larvae such as mealworms will receive sufficient fluids from vegetation, but crickets and roaches require a water source. Both will die from dehydration before they will from hunger.
Some gels are specifically sold to contribute to gutloading. If the advertising can be believed and they really do contain any reasonable level of calcium (they don’t tell you how much is in it) then this could be of value during gutloading. However since they have calcium in them it is best not to provide such gels outside of gutloading as it will likely result in an increased mortality rate. What is good for your reptile is not what is good for insects. It is far better to be able to measure the level of calcium being provided during gutloading than blindly providing products with unknown value.
Water gels can also be purchased from garden stores. Be careful to ensure they do not have any added ingredients for the garden. This is a cheaper option.
Gels can be rinsed, but not cleaned properly (disinfected) and therefore require regular replacement. They also require additional water to top them up in between replacement and some have been noted to cause smaller insects to get stuck to them.
Kitchen sponges generally have antibacterial properties (impregnated during manufacturing). If overly wet they can leave tiny puddles which is enough to drown a cricket, if not moist enough it will dry out quickly.
Pet water containers provide a continual source of water. Since most feeder insects will drown in little more than a drop of water (especially crickets), some ingenuity is required to ensure it is safe. An aquarium filter sheet makes an ideal safety net between the insects and the water, allowing full access to water whilst unable to drown. Cut the filter to size and place on top of the water outlet. The filter will last for years if kept clean.
If used in breeding containers then wrap the filter in gauze or similar tightly woven fabric to prevent minute insects like pinhead crickets falling through the filter. The gauze will not last as long as the filter if washed properly so spares will be required. The water containers should be cleaned at least twice a week or sooner if the colony is crowded.
Selecting Containers for Housing Roaches, Mealworms and Crickets
Selecting the right containers for housing feeders will make a vast difference in the level of care required and the health of the colonies whether being maintained for feeding or breeding. Of course insects can generally survive in just about any container, however this is not about survival, it is about maintaining healthy food sources for your pet and/or developing a productive and healthy colony for breeding and feeding.
Mealworms and roaches prefer the dark and will utilise more space in the container if provided it. The mealworms in the picture are kept in an opaque container with a cardboard sheet over the top of the substrate. The colony does not utilise the edges of the container due to the level of light there which wastes space. In addition, as soon as the cardboard sheet is lifted off the top they will all scuttle into the substrate. Whilst this may seem an insignificant interruption, it does put stress on the colony which is not something that is desirable for ensuring the productivity of any colony.
Crickets are fine with some light, but not direct sunlight, and will do better (certainly less stressed) if provided containers that do not provide a great deal of visibility of the outside world. Using dark, non opaque through containers for all these common feeders will make it easier to have containers that are interchangeable.
The number of feeders per colony to be kept and the storage room available for the containers will dictate the size of the containers. Fifty gallon containers will easily provide for 1500 crickets along with all their accessories and should not lead to overcrowding as long as sufficient surfaces are provided to climb on and hide in. Overcrowding will result in rapid spread of disease and cannibalism which crickets and mealworms.
Smooth, shiny surfaces make escape by climbing surface walls a little less achievable, although this will not stop all insects. Woodies (roaches) are particularly good at climbing the majority of surfaces. This can be prevented by a light smear of Vaseline or vegetable oil around the top of the container.
The lids are also an important item to assess for any container prior to purchasing. Flat lids will leave a surface far easier to attach the ventilation wire to whereas lids with ridges and other supports will present a challenge in sealing the wire to it properly.
All insect colonies require good air circulation. Crickets and roaches can and should be provided with ventilation through both the lid and the sides of the containers. The side ventilation need only be on two sides and does not need to be significant, but it all contributes to providing good airflow. Mealworms are best kept with only ventilation through the lid as they will eat through any glue or other means used to attach the ventilation materials on the sides of the container if they can reach it. Select containers that have some flexibility in the plastic. Brittle plastic will break when trying to cut ventilation holes in.
One spare container should be kept as a minimum, this will allow for switching the insects to a freshly setup container during cleaning time which is best at least once a week, more if the colony is heavily populated.
Creating the Insect Housing
Cut holes in the lid using a jigsaw or other tool you have that is appropriate to do so. Be wary of using knives when cutting through tough plastic, accidents happen. For cricket and roach setups, cut 2 pieces of aluminum fly wire with the size being in excess of the holes cut in the lid. Attach both pieces so the weave does not overlap reducing the size of the escape route. The holes in the wire may seem small, but pinheads will fit through with ease, so doubling over will assist in reducing escapes. For mealworms repeat the same, however they only require a single sheet of fly wire. If the containers are to be interchangeable between your different species (makes for easier cleaning and switching of containers) then use two sheets on all containers.
Attach with a glue gun or other suitable glue. For safety cover the edges of the wire with gaffer tape or other strong, and somewhat waterproof tape to prevent sharp bits of wire causing injury to you. Ventilation can and should also be provided on at least two sides of the container in the same way, but not for mealworms. If mealworms can reach the ventilation holes on the sides they will eat through the glue or whatever else holds the wire in place.