Crickets and other insects, as you may have heard, are a vastly more sustainable form of protein than livestock. They are also an ideal protein source for urban homesteaders: unlike creatures that might disturb your neighbors with their bleating, mooing, or cock-a-doodle-doo-ing, crickets are quiet, take up very little space, and won’t cause a ruckus if they escape. Unless they escape indoors, that is – then you’ll have quite a ruckus on your hands.
Plus, who doesn’t enjoy the pastoral vibes of gently chirping crickets?
The Backyard Cricket Farming Movement, as it has been dubbed by the entomophagists (insects eaters) that run Craft Crickets Inc. in Eugene, Oregon, is not exactly on the verge of displacing the backyard chicken movement, but there are certainly more than a few dabblers out there. If you’d like to count yourself among them, read on to find out what you need to get started.
Even if you can’t get past the “ick” factor that prevents most folks from eating bugs, you might still want to raise them as a sustainable food source for other critters that you do want to eat – they are suitable for any omnivorous livestock, including chickens, ducks, turkeys, and pigs.
Obtain Crickets and Materials
Starter crickets are easily obtained from pet stores (which sell them as food for reptiles and amphibians) or via mail-order online suppliers. If you’re just experimenting, start with a box of fifty; if you’re ready for crickets to become a staple in your diet, purchase five hundred or more. The folks at Craft Crickets recommend the species Acheta domesticus or Gryllodes sigillatus for their edible qualities, but other species of commercially available crickets are also suitable for human consumption.
Housing consists of nothing more than 20-gallon plastic totes: each one can support a population of 1,000 or so insects. The smooth sides of the totes prevent the crickets from climbing up them and escaping. You’ll need a least two totes, which will be used on a rotational basis for adult crickets and baby crickets.
Other necessary materials include a selection of shallow plastic containers (no more than 1½ inches in height), a few square feet of metal window screen, a bag of perlite, a bag of potting soil, several sponges, a misting bottle, a heat lamp, and a few empty cardboard egg cartons.
Set Up the Housing
Crickets thrive in warm, moist, shaded environments. You can raise them pretty much anywhere – closet, barn, shed, backyard patio – that you are able to maintain temperatures between 60 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit (the closer to 90, the faster they’ll breed) and high humidity. A location away from wind and direct sun is best to keep them from drying out. Here are the basic steps:
- Cut two 6-inch diameter holes in the lids of each tote for ventilation. Then cover each hole with a small piece of metal window screen stapled or glued into place.
- Spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of vermiculite on the bottom of each tote. This creates a sanitary substrate.
- Fill a plastic container with damp potting soil and place it at one end of the larger totes. This is where the females will lay eggs, so make sure the topsoil is free of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Cover the soil with a piece of window screen cut to fit; this keeps the crickets from burrowing into the soil and eating the eggs (they will stick their ovipositor through the holes in the screen to lay eggs).
- Position two plastic containers, each with a saturated sponge, on the same side of the tank as the soil to help maintain a humid environment.
- Position one additional plastic container in the vicinity of the others to hold food.
- Nestle each of the plastic containers down into the perlite so that the rims are just above the top of the perlite (that way the crickets can easily crawl into them).
- Fill the remaining space in the totes with open cardboard egg cartons to create vertical habitat for the crickets to occupy. These can be stacked loosely on top of each other to within 8 inches of the top of the totes.
- Suspend a heat lamp above each of the holes in the lids of the totes to boost the temperature.
Feed and Care for the Adults
Crickets can eat a wide variety of foods. There is even commercially available cricket food, but some folks find that their crickets don’t taste as good when raised on this – better to use grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Feel free to feed the scraps that would otherwise be headed for the compost bin. Just don’t let them linger too long in the cricket tote; uneaten food should always be removed before it becomes moldy.
Water may be supplied by filling the containers with the sponges to a maximum depth of ¼-inch each day. This will let the crickets drink, but prevent them from drowning, and will keep the sponges moist, adding humidity to the air.
Check the food and water at least once a day. Before closing the lid spritz the inside the tote with the mister, making sure to aim it on the container of potting soil – it must remain moist for the eggs to hatch.
Adjust the height of the heat lamps as necessary to keep the temperature in the ideal range.
Incubate Baby Crickets
When heat and humidity are optimal, the male crickets will begin chirping which is the sign that mating has begun. After 7 to 10 days, the potting soil should be full of eggs (they look like miniature grains of rice). Place the container (without its screen) in the second tote and keep it warm and humid. Within a week, baby crickets, called nymphs, will begin to hatch.
The baby crickets will need the same setup as the adults – a perlite substrate with containers for food and water/sponges – and the same daily care routine.
Adult crickets reach their full size within two months. “Harvest” consists of transferring them to a freezer where they go painlessly into a state of hibernation and never wake up.
If you have a chest freezer big enough, place the entire tote inside. A few hours later, you can come back and scrape off all the dead crickets into plastic bags. Alternatively, stuff the cricket-covered egg cartons into plastic bags and place these in the refrigerator. This won’t kill them, but after a few hours they’ll be too cold to hop about and you can scrape them off into smaller bags to put in your refrigerator freezer.
Frozen crickets may be roasted, seasoned and eaten whole. You may also dehydrate them and grind them into flour.
The Cricket Farming Cycle
After each harvest, discard the perlite and potting soil and disinfect the tote. Once your tote full of baby crickets starts chirping, place a container of potting soil in it so they can lay eggs and continue the cycle.