Each day, instead of heading to a landfill, mounds of uneaten food from the LSU Baton Rouge campus are consumed by some of the most impressive eaters on Earth — black soldier fly larvae.
Black soldier flies are small, sleek two-winged flies common in the southern U.S., and during their 14-day larval stage, they eat constantly and can grow up to 300%, said Devon Brits, a Ph.D. student and research associate in the LSU Department of Entomology studying the flies.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Brits said. “They go from about the size of the head of a pin to about almost an inch long. They’re pretty efficient.”
Once the larvae are done eating, they can be fed to chickens, pigs, cattle and other livestock. Some producers already use them in place of animal feed made of soy or fish meal made from menhaden and other fish.
“These insects are great,” Brits said. “They allow us to repurpose waste into new food and allow us to make new food in less space with less resources.”
These remarkable flies are the focus of a collaboration between the LSU AgCenter Department of Entomology and Fluker Farms, a West Baton Rouge Parish insect business that sells insects and pet supplies.
More than a decade ago, David Fluker, owner of Fluker Farms, became interested in the possibilities of black soldier fly larvae after touring a small fly operation. He bought an internet domain, soldierfly.com, that would eventually become home to his Soldier Fly Technologies company.
Then, in 2017, he decided to fund a black soldier fly research position in the Department of Entomology, and Devon Brits was hired to jumpstart the program.
Brits had learned the black soldier fly industry in his native South Africa. While earning his master’s degree in entomology at Stellenbosch University, he began working for AgriProtein Technologies, one of the world’s largest black soldier fly companies. He left to help start a smaller company and then saw the advertisement from LSU.
“I feel like working with black soldier fly, I feel like I’m doing something really relevant and game changing,” Brits said.
Delving into the black soldier fly world was a detour for the Entomology Department, said Michael Stout, the L.D. Newsom Professor and the Entomology Department head. Researchers there typically do not raise large amounts of insects, but Stout was excited to partner with Fluker.
“We didn’t have any faculty in the department that specialize in this area,” Stout said. “It was a little bit of a stretch for us, but we have made it work.”
The multilevel collaboration also includes LSU Campus Sustainability, which works to make the university more environmentally responsible. One goal of the office is to reduce the amount of waste the campus sends to landfills by three-quarters by 2030, said Sarah Temple, assistant director of Campus Sustainability. They already had a way to recycle clean kitchen waste, but they had no good options for cooked food bound for landfills.
“Campus Sustainability had been looking for years for a way to compost food waste,” Temple said. “We have the food, and Devon had the black soldier fly technology. Thus, a great partnership was born.”
When students dispose of food at an LSU dining hall, it gets sorted from the other trash and placed into 30-gallon drums. At the black soldier fly colony at the Fluker Farms facility in Port Allen, the waste is processed in a large blender to create food for the black soldier fly larvae.
In a hot, humid room optimal for larval growth, the larvae, which are about three to six days old, are portioned into bins of food slurry. Then they eat.
After two weeks, the slurry of food becomes a compost that can be used in flower beds around the LSU campus. The larvae are sifted out, and some get sold as reptile food by Fluker Farms. Others go back to the black soldier fly colony to pupate, become adult flies and mate. Getting black soldier flies to reliably mate is the most difficult part of the process, Brits said.
“They need the right light sources. They need attractants, like the right food sources that smell good to them so they want to put their eggs down in the right place,” he said. “They need the right temperatures and humidity, the right densities of flies in the same place. It’s pretty difficult, but we’re doing pretty great right now.”
For now, selling the insect larvae as reptile food is the most lucrative market for the insect.
“That’s not our focus for the project,” Fluker said. “Our focus is to complement or supplement, to take some of the pressure off the world fisheries and have an insect meal that will take pressure off the fish meal.”
Just 1 gram of black soldier fly eggs can produce about 38,000 larvae. Brits and his team are producing 100 grams of eggs and 3.8 million larvae a day. Last year the black soldier fly colony at Fluker Farms processed 15 tons of waste from LSU. This year the goal is 50 to 100 tons.
Brits and Fluker see the black soldier fly larvae replacing much of the feed used for livestock, and Brits sees some humans beginning to eat them. Scientists at Stellenbosch University have already created black soldier fly larvae sausage and ice creams.
“Insects are not going to be the end-all, be-all solution, but I think they are integrative,” Brits said. “They make our agriculture system more circular. It’s the ability to take lost nutrients — food that ends up in landfills — and turn that back into something that is viable for people to eat.”
And with the world population growing every day, Brits said, that kind of efficiency is vital.
Kyle Peveto is a writer and editor with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article appears in the spring 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture, which focuses on entomology.)
The larvae of black soldier flies are being used to feed livestock and pets in place of soy, fish meal and other protein-based animal feeds. Because these larvae can be used to eat large amounts of food waste, they can transform food bound for the landfill into animal feed. Photo provided by Devon Brits