I know what you're thinking, roaches?! Yuck! You mean the things that infest houses and are ridiculously hard to kill? But these are not the cockroaches you are imagining.
These are dubia roaches, a tropical species that generally does not reproduce unless they are kept above 90F. So don't fret, if one gets out in your house it won't be breeding unless you keep your house over 90 degrees at all times. They can't fly, and they can't climb glass or plastic, so the odds of one ever escaping are about zero. They have no smell. Anyone who has ever tried to breed crickets for their chickens will tell you they can work up quite the stink. Dubia roaches have no smell at all. They don't make any noise - while breeding crickets is likely to keep you up all night listening to chirping, these guys are completely silent. You'll never know they're there. They breed prolifically, each female laying up to 35 nymphs every other month. And unlike crickets and darkling beetles, who die off in weeks or months, your female dubia roach will be alive and producing offspring for you for years. They don't attack or bite - you don't have to worry that one of these guys is gonna sink its mandibles into you. They are also docile with each other as long as your ratio is right, so while your darkling beetles in your mealworm farm will happily eat each other and your mealworms, these guys will be living in a peaceful society.
They are also very nutritious. They are an excellent source of protein - they are 36% protein, which is great if you're trying to get the protein intake of your birds up, such as during a molt or if they've lost weight and need to gain it back. They are also not a fast critter. Your chickens will easily be able to grab them without them making a fast getaway. But, they are also quick enough that the movement will get and hold your birds' attention.
So now that we've covered why you should raise them, let's talk about how!
The first thing you will have to do, is, of course, provide housing for them. The most common enclosure for them is a storage tub or a glass aquarium. They can't climb, so a lid isn't strictly necessary, but it's a good idea in case the colony gets knocked over. They need air holes in the lid, which you'll already have if you're using an aquarium and buy an aquarium lid for it. If you're using a tub, simply cut the middle out of the lid and cover the hole with screen.
Since they need to kept between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit to breed, you'll need a heat source for them. A heating pad that doesn't have an auto shutoff feature placed under half of the tub or aquarium will work well, as long as it keeps the floor of the tub at at least 90 degrees. If you're using an aquarium, I recommend an under tank heater, a reptile heating pad that sticks to the bottom of the tank. Get the size that corresponds to your tank size, and stick it on the bottom of one half of the aquarium.
They will also need something to live and hide in. Conveniently, their favorite thing to live in is egg cartons or egg flats laid on their sides vertically. As chicken owners, I'm sure we all have plenty of these lying around! Put these on the same side of the enclosure that your heat source is on. This is the place your females will give birth to the new nymphs, so you want it to be nice and warm for them. Leave the other half of the enclosure empty. That side is where the roaches will venture if they want to cool down, and where you will put their food.
As for a bedding or substrate, the best thing is to actually put down nothing. They don't need any bedding, and it makes it easier to clean the colony when necessary if there's no bedding. Here is an example of a nice colony set up:
You will of course need to feed your roaches so that they in turn can feed your chickens! Dubia roaches will eat just about anything. Conveniently enough, chicken layer feed is something they love and can be fed to them as their staple diet. It's also good to supplement them with fresh greens, and they seem to have a particular liking for citrus fruits. Mine are crazy about oranges. They are quite happy to clean up any kitchen scraps for you. No meat though! Wetting down the layer feed will do to provide them with moisture, but it will need to be changed daily to prevent molding and smell. If you'd rather not have to do that, you can buy special water crystals instead that you soak in water and then place in the colony for them to drink from. They are easily drowned, so a dish of water is not a good idea.
So now that they're housed and fed, how do we get them to breed? Well, chances are they're already at it. However, like chickens, dubia roaches should actually be kept at a specific male to female ratio for optimum breeding and colony harmony. That ratio is 3 to 5 females to each male. More males than this can cause your colony to become stressed and may even lead to fighting among the males. How do you tell the males from the females, you ask? Easy! Dubia roaches are actually sexually dimorphic once they reach adulthood, just like chickens. Males are longer and have wings, while females are rounder and do not. They are very easy to tell apart visually. If you find yourself with too many males, just feed the extras to your birds! Also, just to note, dubia are ovoviviparous, and give birth to live young instead of laying eggs.
So how do you get started? Well, there are plenty of places to order these roaches online and have them shipped right to you. It's best to start with a variety of ages, some adults to get your breeding going right away, but also some nymphs of varying ages, since it takes 3-4 months before a female is old enough to breed, so if you start with adults it will be three months before your next generation is ready to start producing, and you may have lost some of your adults by then. With a mixed age colony, there are new roaches reaching breeding age all the time, and plenty of young being born to replace the ones that you are feeding off to your birds. There are plenty of places that will sell you a starter colony, sometimes even including the egg flats and some premade food and water crystals, and this is a great way for a new breeder to get started.
And there you have it! Dubia roaches are a great, easy to breed treat for your birds, and raising them can be very rewarding. As a note, however, they are illegal in some places, such as some southern states like Florida where they could escape into the wild and reproduce. They are also illegal in Canada.
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