By Jonathan Rheins
Getting to Know Gryllidae
The venerable cricket (Family Gryllidae) has become a mainstay fixture in the world of feeder fodder for all keepers of reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, fish, and even small mammals. Easily propagated, readily available, and of acceptable nutritional value, the cricket makes an ideal staple diet for many species, both in the wild and within the home vivarium.
While certain variables do exist, the nutritional value and rearing care for crickets is quite stable regardless of species. There are a number of cricket species available to US hobbyists, and the list expands when an international scope is considered.
Within the United States, the type and availability of feeder crickets will vary based upon geographical region, season, legal variables, and outside influences such as the recent virus-related production issues of particular species in certain areas of the country.
A special note should dictate that viral issues associated with the propagation of certain cricket species are not indicative of an unhealthy feeder cricket. These ailments are specific to the genus, and will most certainly not spread to any animals consuming said crickets.
Among the genera of cricket likely to be encountered in the North American trade are; Acheta, Gryllus, and Gryllodes. Regardless of genus and/or species, the steps required to maintain small-to-moderately sized holdings of these species are nearly identical.
The goal of this article is to impart upon the hobbyist a thorough understating of basic cricket care, the steps and importance of preparing these animals to be offered as food, and a multitude of tips and tricks to ensure success every time.
The Physical Cricket
Whether you are purchasing a dozen crickets at a time, or a thousand, it is imperative that the keeper has a firm grasp on the size/age of the crickets being purchased. Furthermore, all of the species discussed herein grow rapidly, and this rapid maturation should be taken into account if more than a few weeks-worth of feeders are purchased at a time.
At birth the cricket species within our discussion are just about the size of the period that follows this sentence. These are colloquially referred to as pinhead (aka newborn) crickets.
Within a few weeks of adequate care, most crickets will approach the ¼” mark, about the size that is recommended for baby bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and adult dart frogs. Once this size/age is reached, maintenance and handling becomes significantly easier and less precarious for the crickets themselves.
Factors such as diet, temperature, and species will affect the rate of cricket growth, but on average, crickets double in size every 2 weeks. Therefore a 4-week old cricket can be expected to measure between ½” and ¾” in total length. Mature crickets of 1” or more are typically seen at an age of 6 to 8 weeks. Again, many factors will contribute to the growth rate of crickets regardless of species and genetics.
Standing Room Only
When attempting to maintain any quantity of feeder crickets, the first step is to locate an appropriately sized and secure holding container. Between 40 and 100 ¼” crickets can be comfortably housed in a container such as a Mini Faunarium , which is slightly smaller in size than a standard brick. As size and quantity of crickets increases, so should the size of the enclosure being utilized. A holding tank the size of an Extra Large Critter Keeper or standard 10-gallon aquarium is adequate for 500-1000 appropriately sized crickets.
The key to successful maintenance of crickets in any quantity is space and standing room. Despite being ectothermic (body temperature influenced by external environmental factors), crickets en masse tend to generate a considerable amount of external heat and while they do not “sweat” in the traditional sense, condensation can form, which is a leading cause of cricket mortality.
Crickets of most species likely to be encountered will grow and thrive at slightly above room temperature. For rapid growth and reproduction, ambient temperatures approaching 85° Fahrenheit are acceptable. For typical day-to-day holding however, 75° to 80° should be considered maximum.
It should be noted that temperatures approaching freezing can be tolerated for short periods by some species, although typical repeated lows should be remain at or above 60° Fahrenheit. As mentioned earlier, all genera of Gryllidae rely on external sources to regulate body temperature. As such, they are a fairly hardy group of insects, however, in all cases, lower temperature extremes are much less likely to prove rapidly detrimental than excessive heat.
On Solid Ground
In addition to maintaining a stable temperature within the cricket habitat, an appropriate substrate will ensure proper waste absorption as well as keeping humidity and moisture levels with a reasonable range. While some keepers opt for a substrate-free enclosure, many find that utilizing a high-quality, dust-free flooring aids greatly in managing odor and moisture levels.
Chipped aspen shavings are an excellent option for cricket substrata. These products are nearly sterile, dust free, and compact nicely for easy removal of small crickets and food waste. Shredded aspen is another alternative, as is the use of shredded or pulverized coconut husk beddings. Depending on your specific needs, a substrate should be chosen that allows for the proper humidity and temperature levels to be consistently maintained.
In order to increase surface area for held feeder crickets to assimilate, the addition of egg cartons, paper towel rolls, or even bunched up paper should be provided. This will ensure that multiple specimens will never need to occupy the same space within the enclosure. This small bit of “breathing room” is a simple but necessary consideration when keeping crickets in any quantity.
Herps Are What They Eat
Whether a cricket destined for consumption is kept for a day or for a month, they must be provided with food and water, as per any other animal. Not including these provisions for feeder crickets is not only harsh for the insects themselves, but vastly decreases the moisture and nutritional level of the cricket at the time of being consumed.
The term “gut-loading” has come to loosely define the process of providing feeders of any species with a healthy and nutritious diet. This practice not only ensures the survival of the feeder animal itself, but also affects the gut contents and consequent nutritional value of the prey item ultimately being consumed.
Naturally, crickets are opportunistic scavengers. They will consume organic matter of any type including plants, carrion, fungi, as well as the weaker members of their own kind. Providing a diet for captive raised crickets is a simple matter. They need both a constant source of moisture and food.
Among the most tried and true means for feeding a cricket colony is via the provision of a constantly available, yet separate food and water source. A dry, grain-based diet such as Fluker’s Cricket Feed or the pelleted Cricket Food from Rep Cal will provide crickets of all sizes with a well-rounded diet. The addition of a water replacement such as Nature Zone Water Bites, Fluker’s Cricket Quencher, or a similar gelatinous water crystal will serve as a source of moisture for the crickets. Liquid water within the cricket habitat will quickly lead to excessive drowning losses and bacterial growth, and should be avoided.
For those cricket caretakers with less time on their hands, there are an assortment of “complete” food, water, and gut-load products available that cover all aspects of cricket and other invertebrate feeder care in one simple step. These products come either ready to feed (Nature Zone Total Bites, Fluker’s Orange Cubes) or in an easily prepared powdered form such as Repashy’s Bug Burger and similar products. The goal of these products is to provide both sound nutrition as well as water to feeder insects of all sorts.
In the End
It may seem like a handful of crickets tossed into the terrarium once a week is all that it takes to maintain a healthy, happy herp. While this may occasionally be the case, more often than not, further attention to nutrition and long-term maintenance protocols of feeder crickets are needed to raise and breed exceptionalreptiles and amphibians.
When adequately cared for, crickets of any type provide an excellent dietary staple for many herp, invertebrate, and mammal species. While readily available, it is important to ensure that all crickets are well cared for and properly fed prior to being offered to any animal as prey.
Ample space, a proper substrate, and appropriate food and water sources are the keys to maintaining feeder crickets of any quantity. A little bit of foresight, planning, and effort on our part will ensure that our cricket-eating counterparts receive a nutritionally sound diet and live long, happy lives.