Share

Innovative senior raises black soldier flies for future business

Posted: October 4, 2013

Senior Fengchun Yang taught himself how to sustain a population of black soldier flies. But his work may lead to even bigger market and solution: use of the larvae as a protein source in poultry feed.
Fengchun Yang keeps his population of black soldier flies moist, happy and continuously reproducing as he tests their potential as a protein source in chicken feed at a Penn State greenhouse.

Fengchun Yang keeps his population of black soldier flies moist, happy and continuously reproducing as he tests their potential as a protein source in chicken feed at a Penn State greenhouse.

Tucked in a corner of one of Penn State’s research greenhouses on Curtin Road, dark-bodied creatures slightly longer and skinnier than almonds fly around a tabletop cage framed in PVC pipe and covered in mosquito netting.
 
These black soldier flies are powerhouse insects that can turn manure into compost within a week, don’t carry the diseases common to houseflies and are rich in protein and fat.
 
Fengchun Yang, a senior agricultural sciences major, has done everything he can think of to keep his black soldier flies happy, healthy and mating. He’s added a potted plant to the cage, frequently mists the cage with water and has positioned it so they get direct sunlight for part of the day. 
 
Fengchun, who goes by Spring, the English translation of his name, in the last few months has taught himself how to raise crop after crop of black soldier flies, and is about to test their use as a source of protein in poultry feed.
 
That was no small feat, says Paul Patterson, professor of poultry science who works on poultry diets and nutrient management and has been advising Fengchun.
 
“He kept trying new things and making it work,” says Patterson. 
 
There is already a market for Fengchun’s business concept to continuously raise black soldier flies for their larvae, selling it as a beneficial insect, the compost as a soil amendment and the equipment to people who would like to raise their own continuous crop of black soldier flies. Check out Fengchun's website.
 
But his work has potential to lead to an even bigger market, solving industry and sustainability problems along the way. One potential market comprises manufacturers of poultry feed. Fengchun is about to start feeding the larvae to chickens, to see black soldier fly larvae performs as a feed ingredient.
 
Since chickens are naturally designed to eat bugs, Fengchun believes they may grow bigger and tastier on a diet that includes black soldier fly larvae, with a comparable amount of protein and much more fat than houseflies.
 
If black soldier fly larvae proves to be a good source of protein for poultry diets, that would offer the industry an alternative to increasingly expensive proteins like soybean meal and fishmeal — plus a market for Fengchun’s larvae, says Patterson.
 
The black soldier fly larvae also represent a way to deliver protein to chicken diets in third-world countries, says Patterson. 
 
Patterson also sees potential for using the black soldier flies in poultry production facilities to transform fresh manure into finished compost. That would be a strategy to help the industry manage poultry waste — another market — and produce finished compost that could be sold bagged at box stores or in bulk — yet another market.
 
“Hen manure has in past years been a terrible problem to us in high-rise chicken houses where manure drops into a pit,” says Patterson, “because it propagates houseflies. There’s an odor issue. It’s a nutrient-rich product that’s tough to manage.”
 
There are strategies that have helped the problem, says Patterson, like conveyor belt systems that better distribute the waste.
 
But the black soldier fly larvae could work well as an additional strategy, says Patterson, who envisions the BSF eggs could be used on the conveyor belts in a poultry facility to process manure into a crumbly soil amendment in about a week.
 
Fengchun grew up in Guangzhou City raising all kinds of plants and animals in his family’s home and visiting his grandmother, a farmer, in the country. By the time he was a high school student, he knew he wanted to study agricultural science and came to Penn State. 
 
Last year, he served as president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, a vibrant organization with 2,500 members and more than 70 annual events that has won “Outstanding Student Organization of the Year” four times during the past 10 years.
 
Now, Fengchun is a senior taking six courses toward completing three minors: Environmental Soil Science, Agricultural Business Management and Agronomy. 
 
Working with a partner, he developed a business project based on raising black soldier fly larvae, analyzed the economic benefits of the business and won second place at the 2012 Ag Springboard Competition.
 
His project began as he thought about how to avoid wasting and instead use the nutrients in items like kitchen scraps that are typically landfilled. Using manure and kitchen scraps in China, he had raised his own housefly larvae for fishing, and learned about the industry that rears housefly larvae for use in chicken feed.
 
His research began on houseflies, but then he started looking at alternative species and discovered literature on the benefits of black soldier flies.
 
Fengchun’s first objective was to sustain his own population of black soldier flies using mail-order larvae. Over the summer, it was a process of trial and error and he had to start over. He learned, for example, that the flies won’t mate unless they are at the same lifestage at the same time, and have enough direct sunlight each day. 
 
Once they mate, the flies die, leaving behind 500-900 fertilized eggs in tiny cavities of cardboard Fengchun leaves in their cage. He gathers these and transports them to a space at the poultry research facility, where he maintains small and large compost bins. The cardboard egg carriers go into plastic shoeboxes filled with grain meal.
 
The flies hatch there and Fengchun moves them to ever-bigger compost bins that he fabricated. When the larvae have had their fill on compost, they seek a dry surface, climb out of the bins and into traps.
 
Fourteen days later they hatch into adult black soldier flies and Fengchun shuttles them over to the cage in the greenhouse. From there, the process starts all over again. 
 
The whole black soldier fly life cycle is about 40 days. Even better from a sustainability standpoint, says Fengchun, is that he can demonstrate that the black soldier fly larvae can be raised on a waste product like manure without risk of transmitting diseases. The end result may well solve multiple problems and be a product for multiple markets. 
 
Testing of the larvae's use in chicken feed is Fengchun's next step on the path to commercialize his research and turn his ideas into valuable, marketable solutions.