Frank Indiviglio, a herpetologist, consultant for online retailer That Fish Place – That Pet Place, and blogger based in Lancaster, Pa., said many more new species of invertebrates for reptiles are now available to pet stores beyond the usual staples of crickets and mealworms. These include earthworms, dubia roaches, butter worms, CalciWorms, silkworms, tomato hornworms, sow bugs, harvester ants, springtails, flour beetles and their larvae, flightless and normal fruit flies, houseflies, praying mantis egg cases, and canned silkworms and snails.
Indiviglio said the recent infusion of new bug breeds into retail channels equates to better long-term health for herps.
“Most commonly kept reptiles and amphibians consume dozens to hundreds of invertebrate species in the wild, and need much more variety than is typically offered,” said Indiviglio.
That’s a big reason why Richard Allen, owner of Reptile Rapture, a Madison, Wis.-based pet retailer, carries such a wide variety of creepy crawlies, including five different sizes of crickets, for which he charges 8 cents each, three sizes of roaches, which he charges 10 cents to 50 cents each and multiples types of worms, which he charges $1.99 to $2.99 for a 50-count cup.
Allen said he particularly prefers carrying roaches, “because they are really filling to lizards and they don’t die off easily and quickly like crickets can. I can’t keep enough of these bugs in stock, they’re so in demand.”
And that speaks to the growing tolerance among reptile owners for six-legged pests and undulating wrigglers that used to make customers’ skin crawl.
“Consumers are less squeamish about buying feeder bugs now than they used to be,” said Allen. “They’re not asking us to bag them up in a separate bag like the old days, and even women are buying them.”
Trusting Your Gut
Carrie Kuball, Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition technical support and national sales professional said gut-loaded insects are popular today among many retailers.
“These insects are marketed as having a higher composition of vitamins and balanced minerals than traditional crickets and mealworms,” said Kuball. “There are also recent studies that show the use of gut-loading diets formulated with more than just calcium is extremely beneficial.”
Mazuri’s Better Bug Gut-Loading Diet for insects, which is fed to crickets and other feeder bugs, is formulated to contain a high level of calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin A precursors.
An alternative to gut-loaded insects is Timberline Live Pet Foods’ Vita-Bugs line of crickets, mealworms, giant mealworms, superworms and waxworms. Each are fed a patented food that imbeds their bodies with elevated amounts of vitamins A and E and more omega-3 fatty acids, which results in a much desirable lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.
The latest addition to Allen’s inventory and a grub species that he highly recommends is black soldier fly larva. These grubs provide an ideal balance of calcium and phosphorus for herps and don’t require dusting or gut loading.
“I’m also considering offering silkworms,” said Allen. “But I would have to get enough preorders and build up enough clientele that want it first, as you have to sell off your current stock within a few days before they metamorphosize into butterflies or moths. But there’s a decent profit margin on silkworms.”
Perhaps the bug that currently promises the best bang for your buck is the flightless fruit fly, which is ideal for frogs and smaller lizards. Culture kits can be purchased online or from suppliers and grown onsite to yield healthy quantities of the insect that can be sold to customers for a tidy profit.
“We make our own flightless fruit fly cultures here in the store and we get a few dozen to reproduce thousands more,” said Allen. “You can buy the necessary supplies in bulk for an average of 25 cents per cup that you can then retail for $10 to the consumer.”
Don’t Squash Opportunity
If a retailer is planning on carrying insects and worms in their store for the first time or seeking to expand upon current stock, they’ll need to set aside the necessary space. Plan on having at least a mini-fridge or cooler in which to store certain species like mealworms and waxworms, and consider converting a bathroom into a dedicated bug room.
“You want a room like a bathroom that has a built-in exhaust fan, mainly due to the unpleasant smell that certain bugs like crickets give off,” said Allen.
An alternative strategy is to merchandise insects on the sales floor rather than hidden in a back room, said Bobby Blood, director of sales for Timberline Live Pet Foods.
“It’s important to offer cupped and bulk insects in quantities that will satisfy the needs of every customer,” said Blood. “Hobbyists will return often, usually weekly, to a store that they can depend on to be in stock with their live feeder needs.”
He added that one of the biggest mistakes a retailer can make in stocking feeder insects is lacking the knowledge of how to properly care for them in the store.
Additionally, Allen recommended providing a few free samples of a particular species to inquisitive customers to build a loyal clientele.
“Throw five or so roaches in a bag and ask them to let their lizard try them,” said Allen. “That’s been a very successful strategy for us.”