Insect Farming: What Is It & How Does It Work

04.08.2024
10 min read

It might be surprising to realise, but interactions with insects goes beyond the odd encounter with a spider in the shower.

Written by Larry Kotch

Table Of Contents

From silk to honey, from crickets to mealworms, insect farming has a long and complex tradition spanning several industries. While different cultures have interacted with insects in different ways throughout history, in a contemporary setting the term “insect farming” primarily refers to the large-scale cultivation of insects, mainly black soldier flies. This process leverages innovative technologies and automated processes in order to address the growing demand for sustainable protein sources and environmentally-friendly fertilisers, especially in the factories across Europe, Southeast Asia, and America. Explore the fascinating world of insect farming, its benefits and its potential for a sustainable future in this comprehensive article.

What is Insect Farming?

While insect farming covers a wide range of practices, the simplest definition is the breeding and cultivation of any type of insect. Recently, this practice has gained increased interest. In particular when it comes to the upcycling of waste to produce eco-friendly fertiliser and alternative proteins for animal feed, black soldier flies are taking over the market. The farming of such insects (and many others) relies on ad-hoc practices, controlled environments and advanced technologies in order to increase efficiency and insect yield to a level superior to the one found in nature.

How does Insect Farming work?

An efficient insect farm stands at the intersection between entomology and engineering, as modern technologies have to be leveraged in order to provide insects the best environment where to feed, grow and breed. Some of the issues that any prospective insect farmer has to face are for example ensuring precise climate control for each life stage of the insect or researching the nutritional value of the waste on which the insect feeds, however the size, production levels (and price tags) of each farm might vary.

From megafactories in Europe to informal operations in the global South, an insect farm can take many different forms, depending on needs and circumstances, providing a versatile and eco-friendly solution to waste management and more.

Insect Farming Industries

Don’t worry, this is not the part of the article when we tell you that in a couple of years you will only eat crickets and you will love it. While insects gained interest as a nutritious and low-impact protein source, with restaurants and brands alike experimenting with all sorts of critters, human consumption is only a small fraction of the market. 

The potential of insect farming lies mainly with livestock feed and pet food. Black soldier flies and mealworms are farmed to convert waste into high-quality protein feed for monogastric animals, such as pigs and chicken, or for fish in the pisciculture sector. More often than not, insects are part of the natural diet of these animals, so they represent a healthier and more environmentally friendly option to other feeds, like soy, corn or fishmeal. 

The same applies to pet food: insect-based formulations cater better to the dietary needs of many pets: reptiles and birds had been traditionally fed (often live) insects, but more recently insect meals are expanding to cats and dogs feeds, with eco-friendly, high quality snacks.

Insects That Are Commonly Farmed

From traditional practices spanning centuries to cutting-edge technological solutions, insect farming has been taking many forms and offers a unique mix of advantages, challenges and opportunities. The reasons to farm insects fall into four main categories: human consumption, animal feed, insect byproducts and insect pest control.

Human consumption

Crickets

In many countries of the world, for example Thailand, crickets are popular snacks, however they can serve many other applications. At the moment they are gaining traction as a source of protein-rich feed for livestock and poultry, and are more recently becoming a sustainable and healthy snack for pets. As with other insects, the main challenge in farming crickets is maintaining a stable environment to maximise growth in each phase of their life cycle. This entails collecting data to automatically adjust temperature, humidity, ventilation and other parameters in the facilities.

Buffalo Worms

Buffalo worms (the larvae of  Alphitobius Diaperinus), are known for their nutty flavour and high protein content and are a versatile ingredient for both human and pet consumption. They offer a nutritious option with a low fat percentage and are loved by small birds, making them a natural choice for pet feed.

Animal feed:

Black Soldier Fly

More efficient than mealworms. Easier to raise than crickets. Growing rapidly on a variety of substrates. The black soldier fly is the star of the insect farming industry, making the majority of the whole sector. This versatile insect is used as a nutrient-rich feed and as a tool for waste management. Black soldier fly larvae eat organic waste and convert it into high-quality protein to be used as feed for livestock, like poultry and pigs, aquaculture and even pets, contributing to a more sustainable and circular food system. The byproduct of the bioconversion, frass, can be used or sold as an eco-friendly fertiliser. The farming process involves creating controlled environments that optimise conditions for black soldier fly reproduction and development. As with other insects, while creating an optimal environment can be tricky and European regulations limit the use of insects depending on the waste they fed on, black soldier fly farming helps in waste reduction and addresses the increasing demand for alternative protein sources, promoting a more resource-efficient future.

Mealworm

Second only to the black soldier fly, the mealworm (the larvae of darkling beetles) is another favourite in the industry. Capable to bio-convert waste into protein with a relatively low carbon footprint, this insect is used as an alternative to soy for livestock feed, beside as a pet food and fishing bait. As with black soldier flies, frass produced during mealworm farming, is a valuable eco-friendly fertiliser.

Waxworms

In the wild, waxworms live as parasites in bee colonies and are generally considered as pests by beekeepers. Starting from these humble beginnings, the waxworm is becoming a popular insect to farm for pet food, thanks to their high fat content, their ease of breeding, and their ability to survive for weeks at low temperatures. Beside being fed to pet reptiles and amphibians, such as bearded dragons and axolotls, waxworms are also used as fishing bait. 

Insect byproduct

Honeybees

Honey bee farming, known as beekeeping or apiculture, is one of the oldest forms of insect farming, with attempts to domesticate and maintain bee colonies beginning 10 thousands years ago. Now, apiculture not only produces a wide range of products, such as honey, beeswax and propolis, but is recognized as playing a vital role contributing to the health of ecosystems and to biodiversity through pollination. 

Over the centuries, traditional beekeeping has evolved thanks to the integration of modern technologies,for example to monitor beehive conditions.

Silkworms

Just like honey bee farming, silkworm farming, known as sericulture, has a long and ancient tradition, and involves the farming of silk moth (Bombyx mori)’s larvae for the production of silk — a luxurious and prized fabric. The process usually involves feeding the larvae a steady diet of mulberry leaves until they are already to turn into a moth and spin a cocoon made of silk threads around themselves. Sericulturists boil the cocoons before the pupae emerges from it, killing the animal and preserving the whole length of the fibre, which is then reeled and waived into its final form. Once again technology streamlined and enhanced the traditional process, from genetic selection to the automatization of manual tasks.

Insect Pest Control

While pest control may not immediately come to mind when it comes to insect farming, there are companies that have been cultivating various species for this very purpose over the last few decades. These insects serve as predators or competitors to invasive species in nature. By deploying these ‘friendly’ insects on specific agricultural crops, the invasive ones can be pushed out, preserving the crop yield and avoiding dangerous chemicals. These beneficial insects are typically sold as eggs or mites, which are then applied to the land and allowed to flourish at the expense of the harmful ones. Notable examples include ladybugs, lacewings, and predatory mites.

What are the benefits of insect farming?

Insect farming offers a plethora of benefits that address pressing environmental and agricultural challenges. As the global population continues to burgeon, the demand for protein escalates proportionally. However, traditional protein sources like soy and fishmeal, sourced predominantly from regions like Brazil and Southeast Asia, have led to rampant deforestation, particularly in the Amazon. This reliance on soy and fishmeal not only exacerbates environmental degradation but also perpetuates the protein crunch. Insect farming presents a sustainable solution by utilising organic waste as feedstock, thereby minimising waste and reducing the strain on traditional protein sources. By harnessing insects as an alternative protein source, companies can align with sustainability goals while simultaneously mitigating environmental impacts. Moreover, insects offer a more natural diet for livestock, enhancing animal welfare while providing essential nutrients. In the UK alone, if the total demand for insect protein were met, it could potentially upcycle 7.7 million tonnes of waste, save 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and preserve 150,000 hectares of land—an impressive testament to the transformative potential of insect farming in building a more sustainable food chain.

Is insect farming cruel?

The issue of insect welfare is a rapidly evolving field, with organisations like IPIFF (International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed) spearheading efforts to establish standards for the humane treatment of insects. 

During their life cycles, if their environment is carefully controlled, insects live relatively ‘pampered’ lives, with an abundance of food and shelter from unpredictable changes in temperature and humidity that could lead to the spreading of viruses and even cannibalism.

When it comes to euthanizing insects, various methods are being explored: big companies producing insect powders usually prefer shredding, however blanching and freezing are emerging as preferred techniques, each with its own set of advantages and drawbacks.

Insect Farming & Sustainability: Greenhouse gas emission

Insect farming has emerged as a promising avenue for addressing sustainability concerns, particularly regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Numerous studies, such as those by Lalander et al. (2018), Eliyan et al. (2023), and Octaviani et al. (2023), have underscored the potential of insect farming to outperform conventional waste management practices in terms of CO2 mitigation and profitability, particularly when utilising food waste as a feedstock.

However, the efficacy of insect farming in reducing CO2 emissions is contingent upon various factors, including the type of waste source, farming method, and technological processes employed. Assessing the precise CO2 mitigation potential of a specific insect product or farming operation requires a detailed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). 

Generally, the primary CO2 impact of insect farming stems from displacing soybean emissions, as each kilogram of insect meal used reduces the demand for soybean meal, thereby mitigating the need for additional soybean cultivation and deforestation. Additionally, insect farming offers CO2 savings by diverting organic waste from landfills, thereby curbing emissions associated with landfill decomposition, and by substituting chemical or urea-based fertiliser with frass, the nutrient-rich residue produced by insects.

What you need to know about Insect Farming regulations

Insect protein, once confined to aquaculture and pet food applications within the EU, is now gaining traction as a viable livestock feed source. A significant breakthrough came in April 2021 when EU Member States endorsed the use of insect processed animal proteins (PAPs) in poultry and pig feed. This landmark decision marks a crucial advancement for the European insect sector, signalling progress in the authorization process. The proposal officially came into effect on September 7, 2021. However, stringent regulations remain in place to safeguard the safety and quality of animal feed. These regulations encompass clear labelling, traceability, approval from local authorities, and guidelines on the types of waste permissible for insect consumption to prevent diseases and contamination. Moreover, regulations specify the permissible insects for protein extraction, including the black soldier fly, housefly, and yellow mealworm within the EU. In contrast, legislation in other regions, such as East Africa, exhibits varying degrees of permissiveness toward insect farming, with Kenya notably embracing the use of insects for livestock feed.

How Flybox is shaping the Insect Farming Sector

Most insects need tropical climates to thrive, multiply and unlock all their bioconversion potential. At Flybox, we’ve delved deep into the intricacies of climate control for insects, developing cutting-edge technology housed in converted 40ft shipping containers or bespoke rooms. These containers boast advanced climate control equipment and software tailored for insect farming. While backyard hobbyists may opt for DIY solutions like mealworm kits and large-scale industrial factories require investments in the millions, Flybox bridges the gap. Our modular technology caters to small to medium-sized businesses, processing anywhere from a few hundred to 20,000 tonnes of food waste annually. While we specialise in black soldier fly farming, our equipment is versatile enough to accommodate mealworm farming as well. Flybox is revolutionising insect farming, making it accessible and profitable for businesses across various scales and locations worldwide.

The Future Of Sustainable Food Production. Today.


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