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Even though hedgehogs are opportunistic omnivores, as oppose to straight insectavores, insects are still a very important part of a hedgehog’s diet.
Because they have no cecum, a pouch in herbavores that breaks down cellulose for fibre, hedgehogs can’t directly digest plant-based foods for the fibre they need.
Instead, their digestive tracts contain chitinase to break down chitin for fibre, which is found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans (as well as some fungi).
Even though chitinase does breakdown cellulose to a certain extent, only 38% of cellulose is digested (as oppose to 64-68% of chitin).
So it seems that hedgehogs are built more towards the digestion of insects, but can digest plant-material if insects are unavailable. For this reason, it is important for us as hedgehog owners to try to provide as many insects as our hedgie’s health will allow.
Mealworms are the larvae of the darkling beetle (Tenebrio molitor) and one of the most common feeder insects, so it’s usually readily available locally as live food. They are also a favourite treat among hedgies!
When I first started buying mealworms for Nestor, they were pre-packaged in little containers and kept in the fridge to slow the life cycle. I was told that they would be fine at colder temperatures for a couple months. But over time, Nestor actually started to reject the mealworms he was offered!
So I made myself a little mini-farm to keep mealworms live at room temperature, and Nestor never rejected his mealworms after that.
Keeping mealworms is very easy! My mini-farm consists of a 150mL mason jar with about 1/3 of the jar filled with a type of cereal grain for them to eat. I use rolled oats because that’s what I had laying around my pantry, but if you don’t already have anything on hand bran is a cheaper (and the most widely used) option.
That’s it! Put your mealworms in there, and add a small piece of nutritious fruit or vegetable such as carrot or apple as a water source and also to gut-load them, so that your hedgehog gets all the nutrients that their food is eating.
And no worries if you see them go through their life stages, your hedgie can chow down on all of them. The beetles actually have less fat and contain more chitin than their larval form, so don’t think all is lost if a lot of your mini-colony turns to their adult stage.
Some considerations: the lid should remain off and food should be removed after 12 hours to avoid mold appearing in the bedding. You don’t have to worry about them escaping, the beetles can’t fly and neither life stage can climb glass. This is also just to keep them alive, there are more things to consider if you actually want a mealworm farm for the purposes of propagation.
Because they are known to be a bit on the fattier side, it’s best to limit how often they are offered as treats. Exactly how much you should feed them is highly dependent on your hog.
I usually put 3 or 4 in Nestor’s treat dish at a time. Depending on your hog’s weight and health that could be a good number, or you may want to drop that number to 2 at a time.
Superworms are the larvae of another species of darkling beetle (Zophobas morio). These guys are huge compared to regular mealworms! But they are considered a good treat from time to time because their hard exoskeletons also have a higher amount of chitin than the average mealworm.
Many hedgehog owners don’t feed superworms to their hogs very often, some may even avoid super worms all together. This is because superworms have large, strong mandibles that can hurt your hedgie if bitten.
Their head can also continue functioning after being severed from the rest of the body (scientific fun fact: this is true for snakes too!), so it is a good idea to either crush or cut the head off before offering it to your hedgie.
I’ve read a case where a hedgehog had actually died from the head of a superworm biting through their stomach! This is probably unlikely to happen, but the fact of the matter is it can happen. Best not to take chances.
Superworms and giant mealworms are often confused. Pet stores have been known to pass off mealworms that have been treated to keep them in their larval stage and grown to a larger size as superworms. To test if your store is selling you a mealworm or a superworm, put one in the fridge. A superworm will die at lower temperatures, whereas a mealworm will simply go into a dormant state and can be revived when brought back to room temperature.
They can be stored in a similar fashion as mealworms, with a cereal grain substrate and fruits or veggies for a water source.
Crickets are probably the second most popular feeder insects next to mealworms. They aren’t as fatty as mealworms are, and they also have a higher chitin content as well.
Cricket terrariums, as well as cricket food, are commercially available. I found that crickets were escaping fairly regularly when I kept them in a smaller terrarium with the plastic tubes for them to crawl into. A larger container without tubes seemed to mitigate the problem.
You just need to ensure you have some torn-up egg cartons for the crickets to crawl on, and some fresh food and a water source.
You can feed them with fruits and veggies with a higher water content just like with mealworms. I use store bought cricket food that contains food, water and vitamins so that those extra vitamins can be transferred to Nestor when he munches down on them!
Other Feeder Insects
Silkworms can be fed to hedgehogs for a nice treat from time to time, but nutritionally they come in the lowest for protein, fat and chitin content. They feed off of mulberry leaves, so they can’t really be gut-loaded either. These guys are probably best reserved for a special treat.
Waxworms have a similar protein and chitin content to mealworms, but their fat content is a lot higher. Like silkworms, they are probably best reserved for a special treat.
Hedgehogs are made to digest insects, so it should be healthy for them to have a lot of bugs to eat, right?
The answer is yes and no. It is healthy for hedgehogs to eat a nice gut-loaded bug, but depending on the hedgehog too many buggy treats can have adverse affects on their health.
If too many fatty insects such as mealworms are fed, your hedgehog could get obese if they don’t run enough to burn off the calories.
But too many leaner insects such as crickets may cause constipation, or in some cases an impaction (blockage in the intestines). Feeding a little pumpkin is usually enough to remedy mild constipation.
So yes, they have the machinery to digest and obtain nutrients from insects. But because of the types of species available as feeder insects, the diet recommendation is still a dry cat food with bugs being used as treats.
There is no hard and fast rule about how much of each species you should be feeding. Every hedgehog is different.
If your hedgehog is a marathon runner and can handle more fat in their diet, then you could probably be a little more liberal with the mealworms.
If you find you need to watch your hedgehog’s fat intake, then you may want to feed more crickets or wait until the mealworms turn into darkling beetles (while keeping watch on their bathroom habits, just in case a little pumpkin is needed).
If you are squeamish around live insects, you can always buy dried or canned versions of many different feeder species. Dried insects may cause a little constipation and canned insects will have preservatives, but they are otherwise a nutritious option for your little hog.
Some younger hedgies may not eat insects right away. If your hedgehog is hesitant to try their first buggy treat, you could try cutting one in half.
Nestor didn’t even recognize mealworms as food until I cut one in half for him. They’ve been like hedgehog crack ever since!
It is also possible that your hedgehog may not even care for insects, and that’s ok too! In that case, I would bring it up with the vet to ensure that they are able to stay healthy on the fibre obtained by fruits and vegetables.
Does your hog like tasty insect treats? Let us know in the comments section!