The waxworm is an incredible feeder insect that has many purposes outside of nourishing our beloved reptiles. Although their adult form, the greater wax moth, is not necessarily much to see, their versatility in applications to human and animal life is unmatched. Not only do they provide high levels of nutrition to your pet reptiles, but they are also being considered as a biological control method to fighting pollution and can even produce silk, like other feeder insects such as the silkworm. Waxworms are a multipurpose feeder insect that would undoubtedly benefit both you and your pet.
What is a Waxworm?
Waxworms are the larval stage of the greater wax moth, Galleria mellonella. Despite their name, the greater wax moths are tiny little things, only about ¾” in length (some can reach a maximum of 1” long). They are nondescript moths, with segmented bodies colored either white, tan, gray, or brown. These little critters are much softer than other feeder insects such as mealworms, and so must be treated more gently. (This also makes them a great alternative for younger – or elder – reptiles that may need a bit more help in chewing and digesting their food.)
The body of the waxworm has 13 segments: composed of the head, 3 thoracic segments, and 9 abdominal segments, along with 6 legs. Interestingly, their body is different from some of the most popular feeder species due to its “prolegs,” which are four pairs of extremities – similar to legs – distributed across their many segments. There is one pair each for abdominal segments 3-6.
The importance of these unique structures is the presence of the “claspers" on their bases. These are muscular pads that held the larvae mobilize, allowing it to hold onto any given surface they may be walking across. Interestingly, its tail also has a clasper (located on the 13th segment)! Its entire body is covered in stiff hairs, also referred to as “bristles,” along with rows of spiracles (small openings) on either side of the body.
You may be surprised to learn that waxworms have no lungs! Yes, you read that right. What does that have to do with anything? Well, the aforementioned spiracles take the place of the lungs, taking in oxygen from the surrounding environment and allowing them to be distributed throughout the worm via bodily fluids.
Waxworms, just like all moths and especially their relative feeder insects, silkworms, produce silk. Their silk is essential to their life cycle, as they produce it as webbing for many purposes, the most important two being the provision of a surface over which larvae can walk, and as the material used to construct a cocoon around the larvae as they develop into their pupal form. They produce this silk using a gland underneath their head and expelling it through small structures known as “spinnerets.”
Another unique thing about this species is its affinity to beehives: The adults lay their eggs in the crevices of beehives, up to 300 at a time. When in large groups, waxworms can overtake even the most formidable colony of bees. Beehives provide the perfect growing environment for developing waxworms, generally a consistent temperature of 86?F.
As they grow here, the larvae feed on pollen, honey, beeswax, and even the carcasses of fallen bees found in the honeycombs. Unfortunately, this does not leave the hive in great condition – to reach these nutrients, the waxworms will have had to burrow into the honeycombs, compromising the structural integrity of the hive. They also tend to leave large masses of webs and other debris inside the hive, making it an unsuitable living space for any bees left inside.
Apart from feeding reptiles, scientists are finding some incredible applications for this destructive behavior. It is now widely known that waxworms are voracious feeders with a particularly strange diet – plastic! Researchers have found that waxworms are capable of eating up to 92mg of plastic overnight, making them a potentially vital tool in reducing plastic pollution worldwide.
The versatility of this worm is unmatched, and they continue to expand in applications from pet food to biological control agents rapidly.
Life Cycle of the Waxworm
Just like all moths, waxworms undergo complete metamorphosis. This means that they have four distinct life stages, each of the first three dissimilar to adulthood. In each stage, the waxworm is quite sensitive to environmental factors, with an emphasis on temperature (the ideal temperature for them is around 82-86?F). Because, in the wild, they live within the combs of a beehive in their early stages, they tend to rely quite heavily on ventilation and light availability as well. The life cycle of the waxworm is as follows:
Egg: Female wax moths lay their eggs immediately following mating and will continue to do so over 5 days. Depending on the temperature, she may produce between 300-600 eggs. She will lay her eggs in large batches, with a preference for dark, hidden areas. After 3-5 days, the eggs will hatch (given the temperature remains between 84-95?F). If conditions are less than ideal, this hatching period may extend to a maximum of 35 days (this is most likely to happen with temperatures around 64?F).
Larva (caterpillar): Once the hundreds of eggs have hatched, the larvae immediately begin to burrow into the comb, lining their tunnels with silk. Unfortunately, this is a highly damaging process and leaves the hive in poor condition. In warm conditions, the larvae can fully develop in as little as 20 days, while cooler temperatures may extend this period for as long as 5 months. Once they are ready to transition into their pupal stage, they construct a silk cocoon over a 2-3-day period. (If there are a large number of waxworms, the hardening of the wax cocoons can fuse the combs together – an irreparable form of damage to the hive.)
Pupa: Inside the cocoon, the pupa is white to yellow in color and darkens to brown toward the end of pupation. In optimal conditions, the pupa can hatch within 3-8 days, while cooler temperatures will delay hatching for up to 2 months.
Adult: Adults, like silk moths, live for only a short period – and this duration depends heavily on the sex of the moth. Females live significantly shorter than males, at an average of 12 days, whereas males persist for a maximum of 21 days. During this time, neither of them feed, and instead focus only on mating and reproducing.
Where Are Waxworms From?
Waxworms naturally occur nearly everywhere around the world. They are found in Europe, North America, Russia, and Turkey. In Australia, they are an introduced species. In all of these places, they can be found living near and within beehives.
Although they are highly nutritious, you must take great caution when integrating waxworms into your reptile’s diet. This is because they contain high amounts of fat, and too much of it can lead to obesity.
How to Raise Waxworms
You may be interested in raising waxworms yourself, given how interesting they are and the health benefits they offer your pet reptile. You’ll be happy to know that this is not too demanding of a task! Waxworms can be quite easy to raise with the right equipment. Below are some guidelines on how to get started.
1. Setting up the Perfect Housing
Now, don’t be paranoid when you are arranging the housing for your waxworms. Yes, they can eat plastic, but a thick enough container can hold them inside. You can use a glass, metal, or hard plastic container to keep these buggers in. You can store about 50 waxworms in as little a one-gallon jar or a roomy 5gal tank (for breeding, you can add 75-100 waxworms per 100g of bedding). When choosing your container, just avoid getting a material that is too soft, such as soft or thin plastic, cardboard, or wood – these are all materials that they can easily chew through.
2. Layer the Substrate
Here’s where you can get creative. You can make a dual-purpose waxworm bedding that will provide them with comfort and warmth, while also feeding them. The first ingredient should be either bran, uncooked oatmeal, or wheat germ. Cover the entire base of your mixing container with this substance, about an inch deep. Remember how the waxworms prefer to live in beehives? That comes into play here, because next, you need to add enough honey to make this a crumbly, thick paste – not so much that it is dripping honey. (If you want to save money here, you can replace 90% of the required honey with corn syrup, although this will be a less nutritious food source.) Let the bedding dry completely, and add it to the waxworm container, up to an inch deep. Drop in some crumpled wax paper or cups of egg cartons to give the waxworms a place to spin their cocoons. Cover the container with cheesecloth.
Now, all you have to do is keep the container in a dark, well-ventilated area (you can cover the container with a paper bag to avoid disturbing the airflow) and maintain a temperature between 82-90?F and your waxworms will thrive. Simply make sure to remove dead larvae and pupae over time to keep the population healthy and happy.
Waxworms are some of the most interesting insects presently known to man. Their uses range from silk production to breaking down plastic, to nourishing your favorite reptile (as long as you don’t feed too much of this fatty snack!). Keeping a colony of waxworms can be a rewarding experience as well, simply make sure to follow the above guidelines to keep them all happy, healthy, and highly nutritious for your lizard or turtle.