Breeding Crickets the ‘NEW’ Easy Way!!
By Marcus Pollard

Despite the ups and downs associated with the journey through aviculture it is always great to be able to share and discuss certain aspects of the hobby with the best ‘finchey’ minds in the game from time to time.
Now what I’m about to pour forth is based on just that sort of ‘interaction of minds’ and relates to the propagation and culture of the cricket Acheta domesticus.
Long regarded as one of the finest sources of live food for finches and softbills these guys are easily kept and propagated as you are about to find out!

Firstly a huge thanks to Rex Smith well-known Cobram based finches breeder and to John Butler (JB) one of the Hunter Valley’s finest fincho’s for unlocking and sharing their ‘secrets’ with us all! Their willingness to share their knowledge and set-ups with all of us is a credit to them and really to all that know them, well, hardly surprising!!
I believe the initial work was done by Rex and then “fine-tuned” by JB to the state that it is recorded in this article. As with any aspect of finch breeding there is a certain amount of ‘avicultural evolution’ that occurs and my own set-up is mainly based on John’s room with a little of my own “flair” thrown in for good measure – I hope!!

Before waxing lyrical about the joys of the new ways of breeding crickets I’d like to briefly outline my initial cricket breeding set-up which was loosely based on the plans outlined by Canadian softbill guru Peter Karstens.
My crickets are kept in defunct freezer units of 320litres and greater where the motor unit has been replaced by 2 flood lights connected to a pulsing thermometer (the “Habistat” 600 watt model as supplied by Brian at the Herp Shop in Victoria).

The floor of the freezer was covered by a mixture of sand and vermiculite – although I am now using the animal bedding pellets made from compressed phone books because of their greater moisture absorbency properties.
The crickets breed in soaked wet mount florist blocks and the breeders are fed a mix of crushed rat and mouse pellets, Silverbeet and insectivore mixes (does that make them cannibals I wonder??) and the only source of water is in the form of freshly cut oranges. The reason for this is that a lot of tiny crickets can drown in a single drop of water!!

For years I bred millions of the little chaps in this manner but the greatest drawback of this system was that when the crickets built up in number they generated huge amounts of moisture/condensation which proved fatal to them in the long run and it was not uncommon to find half the contents of the freezers dead when about to do the morning feed.

So there had to be a better system out there just waiting for a few clever finch minds to fine tune and this is a little on just such a new system and as I’ve just set mine up I’ll attempt to integrate all the systems I’ve seen to date into one piece.

The first requirement is to set yourself up a room that is fully lined and insulated that is capable of maintaining a temperature of around 28-29 degrees Celsius. Power bills these days are of paramount importance for most of us finch breeding types so the more you spend on insulation the better the result – for your pocket and the birds!!
There are any numbers of options to heat your room to this desired temperature and I have seen a simple fan heater used; a set of flood lights attached to a Habistat unit and even a fan forced oil-filled column heater. Basically whatever you have available or can procure easiest and most economically to do the job.
Set your thermocouple up in a location that will give you the best optimal temperature for your cricket rack and you are ready to roll!
Should also mention at this point that the Habistat pulsing thermostat will not run the oil-filled or fan heaters but the Herp Shop does have a great little thermostat available that we are all using in our cricket rooms currently.

I have used an old mealworm breeding rack that we made ages ago and it is proving to be terrific for this new cricket culture job.
The boxes we chose to use are available from any of the discount wares stores like the Reject Shop or Chickenfeed and are simply 28litre plastic storage containers (they also tend to have wheels which we remove to fit into the rack) in a variety of colours. Although JB did tell me recently to make sure I did not buy the ones with black lids as tiny little spiders may get under the lids and are impossible to see on a  black background – you guessed it the ones I’d just purchased all had black lids!!!
These plastic boxes require a spot of remodelling before being ready for action. To this end you need to cut a rectangle in the lid of around 17X23cms which I did using an angle grinder and then all that remains to do is clean off all the rough edges and pieces of melted plastic.
Cut yourself a piece of metal flywire screen that is around 1cm larger than the rectangle you have cut and plug in your soldering iron.
Tack the wire in one corner then stretch the flywire to the next corner to ensure that the wire is reasonable tight across the hole you have cut. Tack all four corners down then simply glide your soldering iron with a little downwards pressure from corner to corner across the flywire ensuring that it is fully attached/embedded in the plastic lid so that no adventurous little crickets can escape!! It does take a little trial and error to ensure that you don’t burn a hole right through the lid or go so lightly that the flywire is not adequately attached.  Check your handiwork for gaps and the likes and your new cricket breeding ‘factory’ is ready. I started with 22 of these boxes but that really depends upon the size of your cricket operation.
The obvious advantage of these boxes over the larger freezer units is that your crickets are spread across a number of smaller units rather than in one large breeding box – helps to reduce moisture build-up and hence the longevity of your growing crickets. It also allows you to feed out a mix of crickets of different sizes and which means more of your flock are introduced to the wonders of crickets as a live food! I used to feed the larger crickets to my weavers, Chaffinches & Song sparrows but once I started with the smaller crickets after a pep-talk by JB I noticed that my usually shy Jacarinis were lining up to enter the feeding box in search of smaller crickets!! Might just be coincidence but they have started rearing nests of three’s again after a long period of ones & two’s!

Right, main boxes done now what to do to start the breeding process?
Breeding is undertaken using small rectangular fast food containers filled with medium grain sized vermiculite pieces. This is then thoroughly soaked in fresh water and then drained once the medium has absorbed the majority of the water.
At this stage it is ready to place in the breeding box of mature crickets once the lid is replaced. The lid of the fast food container is cut open so that only the edge of the plastic remains and a piece of metal flywire is then cut to cover the open top of the fast-food container. Place flywire on top of container and cut to shape then simply put the modified lid on top ensuring that you seal it properly so crickets cannot get under it and into the soaked vermiculite itself. The females crickets can then lay their eggs through the flywire into the wet vermiculite but cannot get to those eggs to eat them – a real problem with the old florist wet-mount breeding block system.

For those keen on cricket sexing 101 the male has two projections behind him off the edges of his abdomen while the female also has these two projections but in between them is a long tube known as an ovipositor which is what she lays her eggs through.
Or put simply male’s two projections and females three – how easy is that!

Breeding can be achieved by setting up one of your 28litre containers with a small colony of adult breeding age males and females and rotating a number of the vermiculite filled fast-food containers through the colony. JB uses a period of 4 days in with the breeders for each fast-food container before removing it to the bigger boxes to hatch. As I have a number of the 320litre freezer units still set-up I use one of these for breeding purposes so as to free up some more of the 28litre boxes for hatching given a limited space. With the larger freezer box I can then add in a lot more breeding age crickets than is feasible in the smaller 28litre boxes.
If you experience humidity problems in your freezer units then you can take the angle grinder to the lid and remove a portion of it and then enclose the hole with metal flywire.
However, regardless of which method you use it is imperative that you continue to allocate some of your growing crickets to go into the breeding chamber to ensure your breeding colony is on-going for the constant continuous breeding severely reduces the life span of your breeding crickets.
Also in order to maximise the best from your breeders remember to throw your breeding stock into the birds after you’ve had 4-5 fast-food blocks from them – so again it is critical that you carefully monitor your breeding stocks.

So we have just had our fast-food container in with the breeders for 4-7 days so where to from here?

Straight into one of our 28litre boxes at 28-29 degrees for the hatching process. Simply remove the flywire lid and its plastic surrounds and you are ready to start the countdown to baby crickets. Some tip the contents onto the floor of the box while I leave it in the fast-food containers. At this stage it is important to also ensure that there is food and a slice of orange available at all times regardless of when you “expect” your babies to hatch. A small lid full of powdered food and a slice of orange then all that remains to do is ensure that the vermiculite remains wet at all times lest the eggs desiccate – I do this with a  cheap misting spray bottle available from any decent supermarket.
Hatching should be expected within 4 weeks but do not lose faith and toss the mix away if it starts to go mouldy as mould does not appear to inhibit the hatching rate of the crickets in the slightest!!  Also 4 weeks is an estimate not a hard and fast rule!

Feeding the ravenous hordes is again no hard and fast science but I have been feeding mine on powdered rat and mouse pellets since I first discovered the excellent nutritional value of these guys. For the record these are not the regular rat & mouse pellets that are available in most produce stores but ones produced exclusively for University type specialist animal facilities. The regular pellets would possibly do the job but they will not contain the benefits of the type we use. The ones we use are also available through the Finch Society of Australia Inc. trade table. They are so good that many of us have used them as a soul soft food for all our finches to great effect for many years now.

Mr Butler has also been putting his spare time to good effect and indulging in some experiments of his very own and has asked me to ensure that I tell the finch breeders out there in ABK-world of his latest u-beaut cricket rearing mix – a real ripper in my humble opinion!!
● 2 parts Pollard (even wheat hearts if you can stretch the budget to it!!)
● 2 parts powdered Rat & Mouse pellets
● 1 part Insectivore mix (we use Passwells brand)
● 1 part whey powder

The young dandruff-sized crickets thrive on this mix and appear, to our eyes at any rate, to show far better growth rates than when fed only on the processed rat & mouse pellets or any other diet that we’ve heard of.
I feed more As well as the dry mix you can also give them a similar mix of greens that would go into your finch vegetable mix in Silverbeet, Endive, Bok Choy, Pak Choy – usually cut into squares – and carrots but be careful not to overdo the moisture levels you are introducing into the 28litre boxes – for this reason John suggested that I recommend that you avoid using normal Iceberg lettuces. Prior to feeding out it is again easy to gut load them using some of the commercial egg & biscuit mixes and even with your vitamin & mineral mix of choice – basically anything you consider beneficial to your birds.

Once you get the hang of rearing crickets in this manner you will find it a breeze but remember that when you have extremely large hatchings that it may be necessary to divide them up to avoid overcrowding your 28litre boxes and increasing the moisture level to such that may harm your crickets – common sense you say but you’d be surprised the number of times it can happen if you are not 100% switched on to your crickets!

As to feeding out I have adopted another Butlerism with a clear plastic 25litre plastic box with most of the lid cut away with the angle grinder and a piece of Bamboo placed diagonally from the bottom of one side to up under the lid. This allows the finches to run down it and select a cricket and also lets the crickets walk up it – usually at their own peril!  Some finches, especially the Weavers, will take a little time to get used to this enclosed plastic box but the lure of the walking crickets is usually too much for them in the long run – and very humorous watching them trying to peck the crickets from through the outside of the box! As mentioned previously Jacarinis adapt to it in around 13 seconds!! I’m told that softbills don’t even wait 13 seconds before jumping in!
The enclosed box allows you to put out a range of different sized crickets for all manner of finches and very few actually manage to escape once the birds work out what is in the box.

So there you have it a brief guide to setting yourself up a nice littler cricket breeding enterprise to provide your finches with the very best in live feed.
Whether 20 boxes or 200 it should prove to be a plus for all!
Just a little tip that JB has asked me to add is to suggest that when you buy in your cricket stocks for breeding from any one of a number of suppliers that you extract only the crickets from them and burn all the cartons, bags and any medium that arrives with your crickets. The reason for this is to avoid any possibility of getting any number of predatory free-loading insects into your system through any eggs that may be attached to the transport medium. Two of the worst of these are the Buffalo worm (mistakenly called the ‘lesser mealworm’) and another even worse pest in a ‘hairy’ black insect – shaped like a wedge, or silverfish or even a larger ‘hairy’ version of the Buffalo worm, highly mobile and very, very predatory on your crickets!!  If this hasn’t made you wary then the latter can also burrow into timber and generally eat your set-up from the inside should it gain entry to fly boxes or even walls and the likes!!

Finally huge thanks again to the finch keepers that made this article possible and their generosity in allowing me to share it with the readers of ABK.