Former BPO employee finds success in farming insects for pet food

Published September 12, 2021, 10:00 AM

by Yvette Tan

When people hear the word ‘livestock,’ most immediately think of common farm animals like cows, pigs, and chickens. What not a lot of people know is that insects can be considered livestock as well, as long as they are farmed. 

Countries like Thailand, Cambodia, and South Korea count insects as part of their regular diet, as do some provinces in the Philippines. Camaro, or mole cricket (Gryllotalpa brachyptera), for example, is served fried or in adobo in Pampanga. Meanwhile, the uok, or coconut rhinoceros beetle larvae (Oryctes rhinoceros) makes for delicious pulutan in Quezon and some of the other coconut-growing provinces. There is also the tamilok or shipworm (Teredo navalis), which has gained popularity as a gastronomic attraction in Palawan, even though it is really a mollusc and not a worm. As far as we know, none of the mentioned critters are farmed, which is a shame, as insects have been predicted to be the next big source of protein in the coming years. 

But even before trend forecasters set their sights on creepy crawlies as a global food source, insect farming has been a good source of income for those patient enough to get into it. 

Edwin “Ed” Peruelo knows this firsthand. He has been farming insects as pet food for more than a decade. He started his venture while working as a call center agent in 2009 when he began caring for, then breeding, bearded dragons (Pogona). The local exotic pet craze was in its infancy then, so it was hard to find live food for the reptiles. Peruelo narrates that he’d have to go as far as Laguna and Batangas just to find good quality insects for his reptiles. This is why he decided to start breeding them instead. 

What began as personal venture for his pets’ personal consumption soon became a booming business, especially as reptiles began to gain popularity as pets. 12 years later, Peruelo is a full-time bearded dragon breeder and insect farmer, breeding and selling crickets, cockroaches, and superworms under his company The Reptile Express. All three are for pet fish and reptiles to eat, though he also breeds superworms specifically for human consumption.

The journey hasn’t been easy. Peruelo admits that when he was starting out, he considered himself lucky to get P300 in orders a week. But as his involvement with the fast-growing exotic pet community grew, his business grew along with it. “I made friends in the exotic [pets community] and when they found out I bred [insects], they’d buy from me,” he says in Tagalog.

He also started breeding bearded dragons as pets and his customers would become regular buyers of insects as well. This was around 2011, around the same time he started making a name for himself as a reliable supplier of insects. His business really started to boom in 2015, when the exotic pet market exploded, reaching its height in 2017 when he was tapped to supply big name companies like Manila Ocean Park and Reptilab Exotics.

Superworms are the common name for the larvae of the darkling beetle.

Quezon City insect farm

His insect farm spans two structures, each one filled with shelving units that hold plastic crates that serve as the insect’s houses. Here, the superworms, cockroaches, and crickets live their entire lives from egg to larvae or adulthood, depending on what insect it is and what the client needs. Peruelo started with P500 worth of superworms, P500 worth of crickets, and around 500 pcs of both Turkestan (Shelfordella lateralis) and Dubia (Blaptica dubia) roaches for an estimated P2000 in total for the insects.

He also purchased small plastic drawer-type crates from the mall for about P550, the kind used to store clothes. “I didn’t have capital. There wasn’t a market for feeders so why would I (spend more)?” he says. This setup has since expanded to a 50 sqm space for the superworms and 75 sqm for the crickets. 

The superworm life cycle

What pet enthusiasts know as superworms are actually darkling beetle (Tenebrionidae) larvae. They are fairly easy to breed in small batches and can be sold at different stages of their lives.  Peruelo explains the superworm breeding process. 

First, one must stress out the larvae so that it turns into a beetle. This can be done by keeping it in a dark area by itself for a couple of weeks to induce pupation. The beetles that emerge will be used for breeding. 

Peruelo explains that there’s still no perfect way to tell the gender of a darkling beetle as opposed to other insects like cockroaches and crickets, whose sex experts can determine at a glance, even at the juvenile stage. 

Adult darklings are left together in a container to mate. After about two weeks, the adults are removed, leaving the larvae behind. Both adults and larvae are fed pollard (animal feed), as well as squash and sayote, the last two also serving as water sources. Peruelo shares that he avoids feeding the insects leafy greens because they sometimes contain pesticides that will wipe out his livestock.

“[Insect farming] isn’t easy. Many people think, ‘how hard can it be’ but quit because of the time and effort involved,” Peruelo says. “What you really need is perseverance.”

A medium-sized superworm.

Size matters

The larvae are separated and sold by size, from micro to jumbo. Micro superworms are about two weeks old. They are the smallest size and are commonly used to feed small fish such as bettas (Betta splendens), also known as Siamese fighting fish. Small superworms (about a month old) are commonly fed to newly hatched reptiles such as bearded dragons or leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius). Medium to jumbo superworms range from two to four months old. 

Peruelo was one of the first suppliers to sell superworms by size. “My explanation for [the different sizes], especially to [newbie pet owners], is that in the same way that babies need milk and not solid food, baby reptiles need food that’s fit for their size,” he says. 

He’s very particular about insects he cultivates, overseeing every aspect of their growth process. It’s something that has helped continually set him apart from the growing number of insect breeders in the country.

“Honestly, competition is pretty stiff nowadays,” he admits, adding that many people, especially students, have become breeders to earn an income during the pandemic.

What keeps The Reptile Express going is its reputation as an industry pioneer that produces consistently high quality insects, as well as a list of loyal clientele.

The farm produces about 500,000 to 700,000 superworms of various sizes per week, and they always sell out. They are priced by size and volume. For example, medium to jumbo worms can go for 30 cents a piece for a minimum of 10,000 pieces. Small and micro worms can go for around 25 cents per worm. Smaller orders are accepted and prices may adjust accordingly. 

Micro and small worms are especially popular during reptile hatching seasons, while medium to jumbo worms are frequently bought by pet shops, as well as fish and reptile enthusiasts.

An adult darkling beetle.

A full-time job

Running an insect farm is a full-time job. “It’s not like [running a] poultry [farm] or piggery…. Here, one wrong move and [you lose everything,]” Peruelo says. “It can be a gamble.”

Business strategy is just as important as proper livestock cultivation, especially since overhead can be costly. The insects on the farm can go through 40 kilos of pollard a day, for example. And there are other expenses to consider such as labor (the farm currently has two employees), electricity, and internet. “That’s why it’s important to always have a buyer,” Peruelo says. “If you don’t have buyers, how are you going to pay your employees?”

Peruelo is planning to triple his insect production and if all goes well, maybe hire another employee. 

Running an insect farm comes with its own sets of challenges, but when done right, they are outweighed by the success of owning a profitable business, as well as loving what one does. “All I can say is I’m my own boss,” Peruelo says. “And the best thing about this is I enjoy what I do because it’s what I’m interested in.”

Photos by Jeff Lim

Find out more about The Reptile Express at https://www.facebook.com/taildragonbeardeddragon/

 
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