In the heart of Central America, the Zophobas morio, a species of darkling beetle, is often associated with its larval stage. These larvae, colloquially known as superworms, kingworms, morio worms, or simply Zophobas, have been traditionally bred in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Recently, however, they’ve been introduced to the landscapes of Cambodia.

Often cultivated as a high-protein food source for exotic pets like dragon fish, but it also packs a protein punch for humans. A former agricultural official, Ben Samphan has used his expertise to champion this worm-breeding industry in Cambodia, reducing the nation’s reliance on imports.

“This has helped us to gradually reduce imports. With the product now readily available within the country, customers can place orders and receive their shipments within a day, providing them with access to high-quality worms,” says Samphan.

His journey into the worm world began with raising chickens and feeding them these superworms. Witnessing the chickens’ rapid and healthy growth, Ben’s curiosity was piqued. He took to the internet, devouring YouTube videos about worm-breeding techniques practised in Thailand. In his quest to learn more, he contacted Thai experts and completed a three-month online course for which he paid $350.

“In 2020, after completing my training, I bought one kilogram of larvae from my instructor for 500 baht to put my newfound knowledge to the test. I believed learning theory wasn’t enough, I had to get my hands dirty and see how effective the practice would be,” says Samphan.

“The larvae transform into a darkling beetle within three weeks. After an additional two weeks, the beetles reach reproductive maturity, with each female laying between 400 to 500 eggs, though not all hatch. The eggs take a week to hatch into worms and they are ready to be sold six weeks later,” he shares.

To house his burgeoning larval colony, he constructed a series of steel layers, within which he placed plastic boxes and nets. This carefully designed habitat allows the larvae to live comfortably and not get crushed. Each box is home to 2 to 2.5kg of larvae.

“Chemicals in vegetables can turn the larvae red, leading to rapid death. Ant bites can also kill them. The breeding environment must neither be too hot nor too cold, with the temperature staying below 30 degrees Celsius,” cautions Samphan.

His farm, a family business assisted by his three children, is situated in Muk Kampoul district near Prek Tamak bridge in Kandal province and spans 600 square metres of land. The farm currently shelters about 500 boxes of larvae. Ben prices a kilogram of larvae at 35,000 to 40,000 riel ($8.75 to $10), offering discounts for bulk purchases. His primary sales platform is online, drawing customers from almost every province in the country.

“The larvae are originally native to Central America but are now mainly bred in Indonesia and the Philippines. They serve not only as animal feed but are also consumed by humans due to their cleanliness and healthy diet. They can thrive up to six months before dying,” he notes.

Regarding the use of these worms as animal feed, Ouch Sovann, director of Animal Health and Production Office at the Kandal provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, acknowledges the benefits.

“This species is rich in protein, and when animals consume food with high protein levels, it results in rapid growth and good health,” he says.