Former BPO Employee Successful Breeding Insects for Pet Food – Manila Bulletin
When people hear the word “cattle”, most people immediately think of common farm animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. What not many people know is that insects can be considered farm animals as long as they are bred.
Countries like Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea include insects in their regular diet, as do some provinces in the Philippines. Camaro or mole cricket (Gryllotalpa brachyptera), for example, is fried in pampanga or served in adobo. In Quezon and some other coconut-growing provinces, the Uok or coconut rhinoceros beetle larvae (Oryctes rhinoceros) make for delicious Pulutan. There is also the Tamilok, or shipworm (Teredo navalis), which has grown in popularity as a gastronomic attraction in Palawan, although it is actually a mollusc and not a worm. As far as we know, none of the creatures mentioned are bred, which is a shame as insects are predicted to be the next major source of protein in the years to come.
But even before trend researchers targeted creepy crawfish as a global source of food, insect farming was a good source of income for those with enough patience to deal with it.
Edwin “Ed” Peruelo knows this firsthand. He has been raising insects as pet food for more than a decade. He started his business while serving as a call center agent in 2009 when he began to care for and then breed bearded dragons (pogona). The local exotic pet craze was still in its infancy back then, making it difficult to find live food for the reptiles. Peruelo says that he would have to go all the way to Laguna and Batangas just to find high quality insects for his reptiles. So he decided to start breeding instead.
What started as a personal business for the personal consumption of its pets soon grew into a booming business, especially as reptiles became increasingly popular as pets. 12 years later, Peruelo is a full time bearded kite breeder and insect breeder who breeds and sells crickets, cockroaches and superworms under his company, The Reptile Express. All three are intended for pets and reptiles, although he also breeds superworms specifically for human consumption.
The journey wasn’t easy. Peruelo admits that early in his career he was lucky enough to order P300 per week. But as his commitment to the rapidly growing exotic pet community grew, so did his business. “I’ve made friends in the exotic [pets community] and when they found out I was breeding [insects], they would buy from me, ”he says in Tagalog.
He also began breeding bearded dragons as pets, and his customers also became regular insect buyers. That was around 2011, around the same time he was making a name for himself as a reliable insect supplier. Its business really started booming in 2015 when the exotic pet market exploded and peaked in 2017 when it was won over to supply big companies like Manila Ocean Park and Reptilab Exotics.
Superworms are the common name for the larvae of the black beetle.
Insect farm in Quezon City
His insect farm is spread over two buildings, each filled with shelves containing plastic boxes that serve as houses for the insects. Superworms, cockroaches and crickets live here all their lives from egg to larva or adulthood, depending on which insect it is and what the customer needs. Peruelo started with superworms worth P500, crickets worth P500 and about 500 pieces of both Turkestan (Shelfordella lateralis) and Dubia (Blaptica dubia) cockroaches for an estimated P2000 total for the insects.
He also bought small plastic drawer-type boxes from the mall for about £ 550, which are used to store clothes. “I didn’t have any capital. There wasn’t a market for feeders so why should I (spend more)? ”He says. This setup has now been expanded to 50 m² for the superworms and 75 m² for the crickets.
The life cycle of the superworm
What animal lovers know as superworms are actually larvae of the black beetle (Tenebrionidae). They are relatively easy to grow in small batches and can be sold at different stages of life. Peruelo explains the superworm breeding process.
First you have to stress the larvae so that they turn into a beetle. This can be achieved by keeping it alone in a dark area for a few weeks to initiate pupation. The hatching beetles are used for breeding.
Peruelo explains that there is still no perfect way to determine the sex of a black beetle unlike other insects such as cockroaches and crickets, whose sex experts can determine at a glance, even when they are young.
Adult darklings are left together in a container to mate. After about two weeks, the adults are removed, the larvae remain behind. Both adults and larvae are fed headball (animal feed) as well as pumpkin and sayote, the latter two also serving as water sources. Peruelo shares that he avoids feeding the insects leafy vegetables because they sometimes contain pesticides that wipe out his livestock.
“[Insect farming] is not easy. A lot of people think ‘how hard it can be’ but give up because of the time and effort involved, ”says Peruelo. “What you really need is perseverance.”
A medium-sized superworm.
The size is important
The larvae are sold separately and by size, from micro to jumbo. Micro-superworms are around two weeks old. They are the smallest size and are often used to feed small fish such as betta (Betta splendens), also known as Siamese fighting fish. Small superworms (around a month old) are often fed to newly hatched reptiles such as bearded dragons or leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius). Medium to giant superworms are two to four months old.
Peruelo was one of the first to sell superworms by size. “My explanation for [the different sizes], especially too [newbie pet owners]”Just as babies need milk and not solid food, baby reptiles need food that is their size,” he says.
He pays great attention to insects that he cultivates and oversees every aspect of their growth process. It’s something that has consistently helped him stand out from the growing number of insect breeders in the country.
“Honestly, the competition is pretty fierce these days,” he admits, adding that many people, especially college students, have become breeders for an income during the pandemic.
What keeps The Reptile Express going is its reputation as an industry pioneer, producing consistently high quality insects, as well as a list of loyal customers.
The farm produces around 500,000 to 700,000 superworms of various sizes per week, which are always sold out. They are calculated according to size and volume. For example, medium to giant worms can cost 30 cents each for at least 10,000 pieces. Small and micro worms can cost around 25 cents per worm. Smaller orders are accepted and prices can adjust accordingly.
Micro and small worms are particularly popular during the reptile breeding season, while medium to large worms are commonly purchased from pet stores and fish and reptile lovers.
A fully grown black beetle.
A full time job
Running an insect farm is a full time job. “It’s not like [running a] poultry [farm] or piggy…. Here, one wrong move and [you lose everything,]“Says Peruelo. “It can be a gamble.”
Business strategy is just as important as proper ranching, especially since overhead costs can get expensive. The insects on the farm can, for example, process 40 kilos of head joint a day. And there are other expenses like labor costs (the farm currently has two employees), electricity and internet. “That’s why it’s important to always have a buyer,” says Peruelo. “If you don’t have buyers, how are you going to pay your employees?”
Peruelo plans to triple its insect production and, if all goes well, maybe hire another employee.
Running an insect farm comes with its own challenges, but when done right, they are outweighed by the success of a profitable business as well as a love of what you do. “I can only say that I am my own boss,” says Peruelo. “And the best part is that I enjoy what I do because that’s what interests me.”
Photos by Jeff Lim
Learn more about The Reptile Express at https://www.facebook.com/taildragonbeardeddragon/
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