Black Soldier Fly Bugnatomy 101: An Interview with Our President

Black Soldier Fly Bugnatomy 101: An Interview with Our President

Hello, and welcome to another segment of Symton Learn! This month we’re getting back to the basics to discuss our knight in shining armor, the foundation of the farm: Hermetia illucens. AKA, the black soldier fly. 

To do this, I sat down with president and co-founder of Symton Inc, Lauren Taranow, for an anatomy lesson on this amazing specimen. A specialist in her field, Lauren spent years studying the black soldier fly and its delicious, nutritious larva. She is here to teach us a bit about why these little flies are just so damn cool.

So Lauren, what made you want to learn about BSF in the first place?

After getting my Master’s degree in forensic DNA, I wanted to pursue an area in the forensic field outside of the lab - I was looking for a specialty that combined my love of ecology with my interest in forensics. That pretty much only leads to forensic entomology, the ability to determine a Post Mortem Interval (time of someone’s death) by analyzing the life stage and makeup of the insect community that inhabits and consumes bodies after death. My studies in this field introduced me to black soldier fly larvae. However, once I learned of the multitude of applications and potential for black soldier fly to consume waste, and be a nutritious food source, I wanted to build a business around the species, with a focus on supplying pets with the most nutritious, freshest feeder insects on the market, as well as educating the community about the benefits and uses of black soldier fly larvae.

What makes them stand out against other bugs in the pet food industry?

Black soldier fly larvae are packed with calcium so that you do not have to dust them with additional calcium powder to meet your reptile’s nutritional demand. They are also high in protein and have less fat than other feeders, making BSFL a healthy staple feeder that can be fed to reptiles and other exotic pets daily. The popular feeder insects in the reptile market - crickets, Dubia roaches, mealworms, and superworms - are not only less nutritious than BSFL, but they also have more chitin in their exoskeleton, giving them a harder outer shell. A harder exoskeleton is harder to digest, making the internal nutrients of these feeder insects harder to access through digestion. Black soldier fly larvae have a softer exoskeleton with less chitin which is easily digested by animals, allowing them to get more of the nutrients out of the BSFL they consume.

Break it down for me. Please define each part of the bug and anything special about it. (I.e. Does it have a second stomach that secretes poison or some other creepy insect super power?)

It’s important to note that black soldier flies only eat during the larval stage - the adults have no mouthparts because the purpose of the adult stage is to reproduce and lay eggs. Therefore, the larvae are consuming everything they possibly can during this life stage to sustain their adult lives. The larvae have a head, abdomen, and a thoracic segment. The BSFL head contains their antennae and maxillary palp that function in sensory detection, as well as chewing mouthparts for consuming food. 

black soldier fly adult and larva anatomy

Singh, A., Marathe, D., & Kumari, K. (2022). Black Soldier Fly Hermetia illucens (L.): Ideal Environmental Conditions and Rearing Strategies. Indian Journal of Entomology, 1–11.

They have a single digestive tract, called an alimentary canal, with three distinct areas serving different functions. The foregut at the anterior part of the larva is involved in food ingestion and disintegration, the midgut functions to digest food and absorb nutrients, and the hindgut is responsible for reabsorbing water and ions from the digested food. All three areas of the BSFL alimentary tract have a diverse community of microbes, and it has been demonstrated that these microbes can significantly reduce or inactivate pathogenic microorganisms, like E. coli and Salmonella from the food they consume.I would call that a “creepy insect super power.”

What do they eat?

Anything! The beauty and the uniqueness of black soldier fly larvae is in their ability to consume any food source, including animal and human manure/waste, and turn it into frass (insect poop), which is a nutrient-packed substance that can be used as a fertilizer or soil additives improve plant growth and strengthen natural plant defenses agains harmful microorganisms. The only food product that black soldier fly larvae have trouble with is highly cellulosic materials, like pineapple rinds and stems, and other rigid plant structures. 

At Symton, we feed our black soldier fly larvae a mix of grains, including wheat, corn, and alfalfa. After testing a variety of diets, we have determined this custom blend of feed leads to the most nutritious larvae for reptile needs.

What eats THEM?

Black soldier fly larvae are loved by all kinds of birds and chickens, bearded dragons, tegus, skinks, geckos, chameleons, turtles, frogs, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, and other exotic animals. This list is not all inclusive by any means, but these are the animals I have personally witnessed eating the little guys. 

Are there certain animals that like Black Soldier Flies more than others? 

Every reptile is different. I have found that bearded dragons will never say no to black soldier fly larvae in a bowl. Same with leopard geckos. They are both much lazier eaters than other lizards, and aren’t usually up for a chase. 

Chickens and birds love the live larvae, but chickens tend to prefer the dried larvae more, which is still packed with the same nutrients as the live product. In contrast, chameleons and frogs absolutely love adult black soldier flies - they make for a better hunt. But no matter what reptile you’re looking at, they are sure to love one of the life stages of black soldier flies.

Are they safe for other animals and humans? 

Absolutely! I believe black soldier flies will someday be in products for human consumption due to their high protein content and low environmental impact. The only thing holding us back from this goal is dealing with the “ick factor” that stops humans from wanting to consume insects, especially in North America. But someday…

Thanks LT! I know so much more than I ever wanted to about this crazy bug! But hey, what are entomologists for :) 

Be sure to check out Lauren repping Symton Inc. on the Season 6 Finale (episode #28) of ‘To Tell the Truth’ on ABC. If you haven’t seen it, here is a sneak peak of the episode, available to stream on Hulu.

Thanks for reading, and happy Learning!

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