Raising and shipping boxes of live mealworms is a grim business, but 48-year old Max Stafford has it down to an art.
At any moment, there are around six million mealworms wriggling through his farm in the Pacific Northwest. This is an industry built on bulk. Stafford offers his merchandise in 1,000, 5,000, and 10,000 count packages. Birds and lizards have big appetites, after all. There’s also a lot of overhead: eBay and PayPal fees and the sturdy packaging necessary to protect the worms in transit.
"The profit is quite low on mealworms, but when you do a lot of volume, that's when it gets good. On a small scale it'd be hard," Stafford said. "You gotta buy the bags, the wheat, and the potatoes [to feed them]. There's a lot of labor involved. It's really hands-on. As far as taking a vacation, it makes it difficult."
As an outsider, I always assumed that reptile owners bought the live insects they needed from their local reptile supply shops, in the same way lots of people head there to buy a bag of dog food. That option remains available, but there’s a growing number of independent bug farmers who raise feeder insects and sell them online as either a side hustle or their main gig.
Check eBay. You can get “1,000 Live Medium High Quality Mealworms ORGANICALLY Raised in the Pacific Northwest” for about $15.
I first discovered this gambit on Reddit's r/sidehustle subreddit, where one bussinessperson announced they were pulling in over $900 a month from the feeder insect trade, all thanks to a $50 investment in supplies.
“Pick any bug popular in the reptile trade for food, take 15 minutes educate yourself on their reproduction, sell the things on eBay at the going market rate,” the user posted, adding that they fed their roaches commercial roach food and crystallized water, and kept them in Rubbermaid plastic containers. "You're basically the garbage man of the reptile trade. This is something that needs to be done, but it's not the fun part so nobody cares to do it."
Stafford's previous career raising traditional livestock like chickens is long over. He's traded in those skills to become an internet worm merchant, and he speaks about the operation with the same nuance that anyone expert internet store owner would. For instance, Stafford says he sells his mealworms under a variety of different store names as a way to market towards a wide variety of different reptile owners.
"They have a flavor for each type. I've got a [corporate looking] name, a name they can trust. I have one that's a fun friendly one, I have one that has an Average Joe name, they all serve different clientele," he explains. The customers on the other end have no idea that all of the worms are coming from the same guy.
Mel and Chris Adams, the husband-and-wife team behind Luna Roaches, which sells discoid roaches from their Florida farm, says that their margins are pretty good.
"Our smallest pack is about $25 [for about 35 roaches,] we eat the shipping cost, and I would say we make about $12 on that. It's not that bad" says Mel. Like Stafford, the Adamses sell many of their roaches through eBay, but they also run their own website that looks like it could belong to a yoga studio or new-age healing center, where they're able to push their product without the fees. Chris breeds the insects, Mel handles all the public relations and customer support. They said they’ve been made in the low five-figures since starting Luna Roaches in January.
The Adamses have a large barn that they've converted to an ideal roach growing emporium. One of the biggest barriers of entry in this industry is simply having enough physical space to raise insects to be profitable. They can't ship their product out of the country. So Canada is off-limits. But they’re able to ship to most of the United States, and boxing up bugs for the USPS is shockingly straightforward. Everyone in this business takes special care to make sure that they arrive at a customer's doorstep mostly intact, they said.
"As the seasons progress we change our shipping," says Mel. "In the summertime we ship them out in boxes with window screening, and continuous airflow if they get set out in the sun. In the wintertime we ship with styrofoam. We do what we can to cut down on the transit fatalities."
Chris said anyone raising insects needs to spend months mastering the delicate nature of their chosen species, and he's heard plenty of horror stories about inexperienced insect ranchers delivering product that's either dead or diseased. There is also the possibility that the roaches could escape and infest the homes of an inexperienced breeder.
Chris said there was a time in his life where he owned 31 bearded dragons, which has made him a much better bug raiser. For many, it's reassuring to purchase roaches from someone who has extensive experience with reptiles.
"All these pet places that sell crickets and worms, they're mass-produced. They have a lot of parasites. It's terrible to have your bearded dragon get sick," he says. "You buy it from people like us, because you want to get it from someone who owns reptiles. I raised roaches [and fed them to my animals] for two years before I started selling them."
This article originally appeared on VICE US.