BSF multi-stage starter kit

The BSF breeding season has ended where I live so I’m no longer able to collect multi-stage kits until next spring.

Who needs one?

If you’re lucky enough to have a known BSF population on your property then the kit will not make a significant difference. You may live in an area where wild black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are present in moderate numbers and you want to speed up the process of establishing a colony. A starter kit could be helpful in that case.

If you live in a region where BSF are not already present then the kit cannot guarantee you will establish a colony. A BSF unit relies on a free roaming population of adults because mating can’t take place in the confines of such a container. In the absence of an existing BSF population you must establish these “wild” BSF on your property.

In general the warmer and wetter your climate, the more likely it is that you already have black soldier flies in your area. Colder and drier climates represent the least likely places to find BSF and they are the most challenging places to establish a colony. This is also true of elevations over 5000 feet (1500m). The native range of BSF is the southeastern U.S. but over time they have been transported around the world. BSF are most commonly found in the USDA plant hardiness zones 7 – 10.

usa_hardiness_zone

(click map to enlarge)

Our multiple life cycle kit

The black soldier fly starter kits that I’ve seen for sale are made up of only juvenile (light colored) grubs. An all-juvenile kit is relatively quick and easy to collect and package, but I don’t believe it represents the best strategy for establishing a colony. Our kit is made up of three different stages in the life cycle of the black soldier fly; eggs, juvenile grubs and mature grubs (pre-pupae). I believe that starting out with more than one stage of development helps “jump start” the life cycle in a way that depends less on a local BSF population. Our kit is a bit more complicated than an all-juvenile kit, but the learning process involved in implementing it will be a good introduction to the basic knowledge needed to operate a BSF colony successfully.

The juvenile grubs

BSF larvae eating bread

(click images to enlarge)

This is the stage that is famous for being waste-eating machines. The juvenile grubs (tan color) will begin eating the food waste you provide immediately when you add them to your BioPod or homemade BSF unit. As they eat they emit chemicals that serve to attract any nearby adult BSF females searching for a suitable egg laying site. This attraction is the key to any starter kit and ours is designed to maximize the presence of juvenile grubs by introducing  them in various ages as well as BSF that are just a few days old which will hatch from the included eggs.

The juveniles also emit chemicals that repel houseflies, fruit flies, etc, but the number of grubs in a starter kit will not produce a sufficient amount for the repellent effect. Your juvenile grubs will most likely share the BioPod with other fly species until the BSF are well established. You can minimize the reproduction of other fly species by covering the food scraps with an inch or two of shredded office paper (not newsprint or glossy). You can also avoid attracting many species of pest flies by not adding meats, poultry or fish waste at first, but you can process these products after establishing your colony.

One common mistake is adding too many food scraps to the BioPod initially. The grubs included in a starter kit are only capable of consuming a few ounces of food per day. A total of a few pounds of scraps is plenty in the beginning, you can gradually add more as needed. The result of adding too many food scraps initially is that you will end up with a lot of mold and fungus before the grubs can process everything. The mold/fungus won’t hurt the grubs, but it makes the process less pleasant for the operator. A certain amount of decomposition is actually good for attracting BSF, the issue is controlling the amount and this is best done by starting out small and adjusting as needed.

You should not remove any food scraps from the BioPod after installing the starter kit because the assumption has to be that grubs are present in any and all scraps. This is true of the juvenile grubs and eggs you’ve added, but you must also assume that some local BSF adults have succeeded in finding your BioPod and have laid eggs in the unit. The resulting grubs could be anywhere in the food scraps and are so tiny at first that they are difficult to see without magnification.

The mature grubs (prepupae)

bsf-larvae-in-hand-wm

The mature grubs are almost black in color and are called pre-pupae because this is the last stage before they pupate. When a BSF grub transforms from juvenile to mature it changes in important ways other than just color. In the prepupal stage the grubs do not eat so they don’t develop a mouth. In place of a mouth they have a hook-like apendage to aid crawling as they migrate away from the food source in search of a protected place to pupate. The self-harvesting aspect of BSF is a result of this migration. Mature grubs will circle the edges of the BioPod, eventually finding a ramp. At this point they climb the ramp and drop into the collection bucket. An inch or two of sawdust (not pressure treated), peat or rice hulls will keep the grubs in a semi-dormant state. They can remain in the collection bucket for several days without any attention.

The eggs

BioPod egg disc with eggs BSF laying in egg disc

The BioPod egg disc is made of corrugated plastic. BSF eggs take about 4 days to hatch and the voids in the disc provide the type of protected niche that the egg laying females seek out. The introduction of very young grubs ensures that there will be actively feeding BSF in the BioPod for 2 – 3 weeks after the initial batch of juveniles (included in the kit) have matured and self-harvested. As previously stated, the presence of actively feeding grubs is the most powerful way to attract egg laden female BSF.

The strategy of our kit is to have the grubs (from the included eggs) still feeding at the same time the mature grubs (from the kit) have pupated, emerged and mated. Having these two complimentary life stages active at the same time gives this kit an advantage over single stage kits.

Installation of the kit

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Coconut coir

If your BioPod is currently empty or almost empty you might consider lining the bottom of the main compartment with one inch (25mm) of coconut coir. It is reported to aid in keeping the drain of the BioPod open and it may also help maintain a humid environment. Coir is the fiber from the outer husk of coconuts and it the most common material used to line wire baskets for hanging plants.

The bag of grubs:

The kit includes a large plastic bag with a combination of mature and juvenile grubs (small and large) and a small amount of bedding material. Simply empty the grubs and bedding into your BioPod or DIY unit. The juveniles will begin eating and the mature grubs will soon migrate out of the main body of the BioPod into the collection bucket. The bedding is a combination of sawdust (not pressure treated) and BSF castings and it contains the scent that serves as a powerful attractant to female BSF seeking an egg laying site.

The egg container (hatchery):

Due to the time it takes for shipping, the eggs in our kits have often hatched by the time they are received or they will hatch within a day or two. Either way, the installation is the same. The eggs are packaged in a small plastic container with a snap-on lid. Do not remove the lid. The tiny grubs are very prone to dehydration and the hatchery protects them. The lid has a slit in it which has been sealed with clear packing tape. Remove the packing tape and place the container upside-down in the BioPod on an area of fairly fresh and moist food.

Avoid placing the egg container on food that is wet or sticky that might create an airtight seal between the inverted container and the food, the grubs need air. A thin layer of shredded office paper, shredded cabbage, or carrots, etc,  will prevent a seal.

The tape which covered the slot on the lid may have tiny BSF on it. If this happens gently rinse them into the BioPod with a few drops of water.

The egg container is shipped with a small quantity of food in it and several grubs may stay inside for many days. The container should be left in the BioPod for at least two weeks for this reason. You may rinse the container with a little water before permanently removing it.

As the grubs mature:

The dark mature grubs will gradually accumulate in the collection bucket. In an established colony you could feed these grubs to pets, livestock or wildlife, but when starting a new colony they must be allowed to pupate into adult form (winged stage) and mate. The BioPod is not a closed system which means that the adult BSF are released so they can mate outdoors and then return to the BioPod to lay their eggs.

A BioPod™ at full capacity will have enough grubs in it to cover the surface area with few inches of solid grubs, maybe more. Until you achieve that density you should focus on building up the colony. I don’t recommend feeding any mature grubs to animals until you completely establish the colony. Each pair of BSF that you sacrifice represents 500-900 eggs that might have been laid in your unit. I also don’t recommend scattering the mature grubs while building up a colony.  I think it’s best to protect every mature grub until your colony is at capacity.

If you scatter the collected mature grubs on the ground near your BioPod that leaves them vulnerable to the many predators that target insects. It’s fair to assume that only a small percentage of released grubs will survive to become adults. It’s best to keep the mature grubs in a container such as a bucket with a lid to protect them. The container needs to have several holes with a diameter of at least 3/4  inch to allow the emerging adults a way to escape. The holes will also provide necessary air for the pupating BSF and also aid in keeping the temperature regulated. Like the BioPod, the prepupae container must be completely shaded and protected from rain. Adding an inch of bedding material such as sawdust (not pressure treated), peat, etc to the container will encourage the grubs to pupate, but it must stay dry and loose so the emerging adults can climb to the surface.

If you see dark grubs that seem stiff and aren’t moving do not assume they’re dead. What you’re probably looking at are pupating BSF. The video below will give you an idea of what the pupae look like, and how fast they emerge.

YouTube Preview Image

The bottom line

I hope I haven’t made bio-composting with BSF sound overly complex because in reality black soldier flies are very adaptable and forgiving.

Comments 28

  1. Lazy Gardens wrote:

    Much of the discussion is about keeping the colony alive over the winter.

    This is an intriguing way to get rid of kitchen waste and damaged produce, but can they handle the hot weather of Phoenix AZ?

    Posted 23 Sep 2009 at 1:57 pm
  2. Jerry wrote:

    Black soldier flies are very productive in hot weather and they are most common in the tropics and subtropics. The temperature within the colony can be above 100ºF without any problem, but the larvae will die at around 116º. When the larvae are actively feeding they generate heat so the colony is usually hotter than the outside temperature. For that reason it’s important to keep the BioPod in full shade in the summer months and some extra attention might be required on days over 100º. During weather like that I would reduce the amount of food added and probably leave the lid off of the BioPod when possible.

    Another consideration in AZ might be moisture. The food scraps in a BioPod will usually provide adequate humidity but in a very dry climate it might be necessary to add a little liquid on occasion. 70% humidity is considered the minimum for BSF larvae I believe. The adult BSF mate outdoors and the dry weather isn’t an issue for them, but the larvae need to be moist. For that reason the dry climate in AZ probably means you don’t have a native BSF population so it would be a little more challenging to establish a colony. In more humid areas people can rely on the local BSF population but without them you would need to create your own small population. It can be done but it might take a little more attention.

    Posted 23 Sep 2009 at 3:02 pm
  3. john goddard wrote:

    Can you be called about soldier fly production? I think I would like a commercial unit. email me and i will call you

    Posted 25 Sep 2009 at 2:38 am
  4. Jerry wrote:

    Hi john,

    I wish I had the time to discuss BSF on the phone but I just don’t. I do my best to operate our ProtaCulture dealership using good business practices, but in reality this is a hobby and not something I can support myself with at this time. The fact that I don’t depend on BioPod sales allows me to offer the very best price available for them and for starter kits.

    Posted 25 Sep 2009 at 11:58 am
  5. Lazy Gardens wrote:

    Jerry –
    I did some research, and apparently there were populations of them breeding in Phoenix privies in the 1950s.

    That means they can survive here, but some sort of cooling would have to be provided. If it’s just a question of keeping them under 110 or so, that’s easy enough with a wet blanket around it to evaporatively cool the tank, and some vent holes in the tank.

    Take the lid off and every bird in the area would be feasting on grubs.

    Posted 25 Sep 2009 at 12:39 pm
  6. Jerry wrote:

    LG, black soldier flies were also commonly found in outhouses throughout the southeast and carried the nickname “privy fly”. This was a win/win situation for man and BSF because the BSF repelled disease carrying fly species.

    I leave the lid off of my units occasionally and haven’t had a problem from birds. The larvae shy away from light so with the lid off they stay just below the surface. I also have my BioPod under a shade tarp so this probably helps.

    Posted 25 Sep 2009 at 12:57 pm
  7. Andrew wrote:

    Jerry, thanks again for sending me the jumbo sized starter kit. It was quite a surprise to receive them in CA only 2 days after you shipped from GA.

    These grubs are fascinating and I’ll do my best to keep them happy. Hopefully this starter colony will jump start my colony next Spring.

    I’ve posted more details about my first experience with BSFL in your DIY bucket comments area. (comment #74)

    Posted 14 Oct 2009 at 12:12 am
  8. Jerry wrote:

    You’re very welcome Andrew. For the record the kit I sent you is the same size I always put together. When we sell one of them to a BioPod customer for $10 it’s basically a giveaway and a bonus for purchasing a unit from our site. The $29 we charged you for the kit is really less than it’s worth, but we’re trying to encourage people to get involved in BSF culture. I only mention this because our price makes it appear that others who sell starter kits are overcharging, but it’s more accurate to say that we’re undercharging.

    Maybe someday we’ll get rich selling BioPods and starter kits but for now it’s a hobby. I’m glad you’re enjoying your new little colony and I look forward to seeing your progress.

    Posted 14 Oct 2009 at 9:07 am
  9. Andrew wrote:

    Jerry, for someone who’s never seen a bunch of grubs, it certainly looked like a jumbo batch. It’s clear from this blog & your many posts in other forums that the grubs & BioPod are a passionate hobby for you. I agree with your “undercharging” characterization. If herp (lizards, frogs, etc.) owners find out about your starter kit, they might flood you with orders for grubs to feed their pets.

    Anyone who wants to see what the starter kit looks like can check out my video on youtube. No sound in the first minute, but it shows the bag of grubs (~1000+) & the egg hatchery that contains the eggs & baby grubs on the sides of the container. Fast forward to the 2 min. mark to see what 200 (hand counted) grubs look like. I’ll try to post an update in 3-4 wks. when the babies have grown into juveniles.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHOG2F6wfww

    Posted 14 Oct 2009 at 12:34 pm
  10. Jerry wrote:

    Thanks, Andrew,

    We only promote starter kits to our BioPod customers at this time and fill retail orders if possible. We also don’t advertise the $29 price because I think you’re right about being flooded with orders. :)

    Posted 14 Oct 2009 at 12:38 pm
  11. ted hanes wrote:

    Please send information on prices/ types of starter kits.

    thank you ted

    Posted 19 Oct 2009 at 8:24 pm
  12. Jerry wrote:

    Hi ted,

    I don’t know of anyone else who offers BSF eggs in their kits, but due to the cool temps I doubt that I can fill any orders for our normal multi stage kit. I have plenty of juvenile grubs I can ship, however unless you’re in south Florida it’s probably too late to have BSF reproduction for this year. If you’re interested in a larvae-only kit contact us here: https://blacksoldierflyblog.com/contact-us/

    Posted 19 Oct 2009 at 10:37 pm
  13. Brian Travis wrote:

    Jerry, are you using the ProtoPod yet? Or are you still just using the BioPod for raising BSF?

    If you ARE using the ProtoPod, how about updating us on your experience with it?

    Thanks! :)

    Posted 20 Oct 2009 at 5:06 pm
  14. Andrew wrote:

    Here are some of the 5?-10 day old babies from the starter kit:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=In-T-LHNKYI

    Posted 20 Oct 2009 at 8:11 pm
  15. Jerry wrote:

    No Brian, I’ve never laid hands on a ProtaPod.

    Posted 20 Oct 2009 at 8:16 pm
  16. Jerry wrote:

    Andrew, thanks for the nice videos. I’ll put them on my video page.

    Posted 20 Oct 2009 at 9:10 pm
  17. Andrew wrote:

    I’ve posted a video of what the starter kit looks like after 2 full weeks. Approx. 300-400 of the original 1k+ grubs have self-harvested and are now dormant in the pupating area. The eggs have all hatched. The babies range in size from 1/4″ up.

    The smell of the dampest coir/residue at the bottom is fairly strong – bordering on what some may consider unpleasant. There was probably some undigested cheese from lasagna put there a few days ago. The surface of the bin has a coffee-ish smell since I add used coffee grounds every day. I think I will mix things up every couple of weeks just to get air down to the bottom of the bin and keep the residue looser.

    As you’ll see in the video, the grubs populate the entire volume of coir/residue. When I place food on the surface, large groups of them come up to feed, but I’m guessing there are still a good number occupied in other areas of the bin. The temperature range in the bin is 80-105ºF. I haven’t checked in the middle of the night, but some are churning early in the morning.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jW0X9Tuw3JI

    And if you haven’t already seen it, here’s the video of the starter kit on day 1 (no sound 1st min). If you conservatively say there are 1k grubs in the bag on day 1, I’d say there are now easily 3k+.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHOG2F6wfww

    Posted 25 Oct 2009 at 3:15 pm
  18. Jerry wrote:

    Andrew, neat video, thanks for sharing it.

    Regarding the odor; I think it’s a sign that you probably need to add fewer scraps to your unit. At the proper feeding rate you won’t have any food scraps that are being ignored by the grubs. If I were you I would stop adding anything until there is almost no visible food left.

    Also, with internal temps of 105º you don’t need any insulation at all. I didn’t see any in the video but I thought I would mention it just in case. You might consider adding a few ventilation holes.

    Thanks!

    Posted 25 Oct 2009 at 3:32 pm
  19. Andrew wrote:

    Jerry, the scraps I add are gone from the surface each day. I think what happens is some of the denser parts sink into the bedding. That’s ok for an apple, but not ok for a chunk of cheese. I won’t put anymore cheese or meat without really chopping them up into small pieces. Meanwhile I’ll stop feeding for a couple of days except for maybe coffee. Don’t want the grubs to go into withdrawal. :-)

    I did have top bubble insulation, but I’ll remove it until I move the unit outdoors. The problem is right now the outside temps can go from low 50s to high 70s, while in the shed it’s a steady 60-65ºF. I was also waiting until I put the bin outdoors before drilling the vent holes. It’s likely some mature grubs will escape through the vents and get stuck indoors. I’ll probably cobble together a raccoon-safe structure in the next week or so.

    Posted 25 Oct 2009 at 7:47 pm
  20. Jerry wrote:

    Andrew, perhaps you aren’t overfeeding, but I would always be cautious about it, especially if you get bad odors. Just because the food disappears from the surface doesn’t mean it’s being eaten in one day as you point out. In general I stop feeding if there is any bad odor at all.

    Posted 27 Oct 2009 at 6:21 pm
  21. Andrew wrote:

    Jerry, I gave them only coffee for 2 days and everything is fine again. I think you are right that caution in feeding is important – both quantity and quality of food. Of course quantity depends on size of the colony. My little gang of grubs isn’t going to eat as much as your army. I’ll be more careful about feeding from now on.

    BTW, the coffee grounds I give them are fresh – no bacterial action going on. When I put coffee on a sheet of wax paper (butter wrapping), the grubs climb onto the paper and churn away in the coffee. There’s nothing else there. I doubt there’s much nutritional value, so they must be getting a buzz from the caffeine, right? These grubs are a kick!

    Posted 28 Oct 2009 at 11:04 pm
  22. Jerry wrote:

    Andrew, I was thinking about your set up and I wonder if the lack of ventilation might encourage anaerobic bacteria growth. That would at least partially explain the bad odor.

    I’ve often wondered about the grub’s attraction to coffee grounds. Maybe their love of coffee will help more people relate to them in a more positive way. :)

    Posted 29 Oct 2009 at 8:34 am
  23. Brian Travis wrote:

    The grubs sure love the coffee grounds, but they don’t reduce the volume of grounds added to the biopod nearly to the extent they do food waste, fish, and pet feces. I learned the hard way that the coffee residue will fill the biopod rapidly

    I’ll post later about how I solved that problem. Photos and video to follow.

    Film at eleven! :)

    Posted 29 Oct 2009 at 5:51 pm
  24. Andrew wrote:

    My first hatchling!!! What the…?? Temps have only been in the 65-75ºF range the past couple of weeks. I saw the fly around 6pm and scooped it up with a piece of paper. It buzzed in protest, but I guess it’s wings were still too new and it couldn’t fly. I took a few pics of it before setting it in a sheltered place outside. It was gone when I checked an hour later. I hope it’ll be able to find a mate.

    I was planning to move the colony to a larger bin this coming Sunday, but now I think I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ve got the larger bins prepared with vent/access holes and will transfer everything tomorrow.

    Posted 05 Nov 2009 at 12:49 am
  25. Jerry wrote:

    I’m rethinking my position about BSF activity and temperature. Of course they are a subtropical species and their activities are strongly influenced by ambient temperatures, but there is a lot more happening in the upper 60’s and lower 70’s than I previously thought. I saw adults emerging from my pupation bucket a few days ago when the high was in the mid 60’s. The next day was in the mid 70’s and I saw a fair amount of egg laying activity. The development of the larvae and egg laying activity is less than it was in the warmer months, but it continues to happen.

    Posted 05 Nov 2009 at 9:12 am
  26. Andrew wrote:

    Yesterday I moved my 3 1/2 week old colony (from the starter kit) into BSFL bin v.4. It is now a 10 gal. feeding bin inside a 25 gal. catch/pupating bin. I decided to clear some debris and do a rough count as part of the transfer. I removed about 3 cups worth of debris (stems, peels, coffee filters, etc.) and uneaten food and put it in my worm bin. I also removed about 2 1/2 gallons worth of coir/residue and put it into the new bin. Here’s the video showing the residue and my grub count. What do you think of my 3,500-4,000 estimate, Jerry? About 1 1/2 lbs?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds8AvdMFuNc

    Posted 06 Nov 2009 at 10:36 pm
  27. Jerry wrote:

    Looks great Andrew, I think you’re estimate is very close. Do you plan to do something different with the mature larvae? I wonder if they would hang out in the bin without pupating until spring, or if they might pupate in the bin and postpone emergence.

    Posted 06 Nov 2009 at 11:03 pm
  28. Andrew wrote:

    I just checked around 7pm PST and saw ~20 mature larvae that had just self-harvested (climbed up the vertical side of the smaller bin and dropped into the larger pupating bin). Since there’s condensation on the walls of both bins, a couple were also climbing the walls of the larger bin. Some may have chanced on one of the 14 holes I drilled in the larger bin and crawled all the way out into the garden. My guess is that most will stay in the pupating bin and join the ~500 mature grubs already there. I’m hoping they postpone emergence until springtime, but after that first fly emerged 2 days ago I don’t know what’s going to happen. It rained today and the forecast for the next few days is for temps in the 50s & 60s. I think we may have seen the last of 70s temps for the year.

    Posted 06 Nov 2009 at 11:33 pm

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