Years ago, people called them privy flies—these harmless, wasp-looking indigenous bugs that like to hang around livestock manure and outdoor toilets. Today, the black soldier fly is emerging as a major player in addressing two big environmental concerns.
The fly’s larvae have the potential to reduce massive amounts of organic waste, after which the larvae are easily converted to a protein-rich food source for animals, fish and maybe even humans. It achieves this through a perfect energy cycle that leaves a negligible carbon footprint. And, the fly is neither a disease carrier, nor a household pest.
Now one regional company is aiming to scale up production of black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) and commercialize its benefits. David Fluker, CEO of Port Allen-based Fluker Farms, is working with LSU to develop a model for farming BSFL and making the voracious garbage eaters and their by-products available to public and private clients. Fluker Farms is the nationwide leader in production of live crickets for recreational fishing as well as feeder insects for reptiles and other animals.
“I see it as a legacy project,” says Fluker. “An example of conscious capitalism. I’ve been in the business a long time, and I wanted to do something that has the potential to make a big impact.”
Black soldier fly larvae, says Fluker, are tiny sustainability machines that devour all sorts of organic waste, including rotten produce, animal manure, algae, even carrion. Large numbers of them can be placed in a bin of waste and make it disappear within a couple of weeks.
Constant and efficient eating helps them increase in size to 10,000 times their birth weight. What is left behind in this zero-waste system is only maggot manure, which can be used in landscaping.
“This is a big deal, since rotting food worldwide emits tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” says Devon Brits, an LSU entomology doctorate candidate recruited by Fluker to help his company, Soldier Fly Technologies, develop a production facility. Indeed, according to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, one-third of all food produced globally is wasted, emitting 3.3 billion metric tons in greenhouse gasses every year.
The environmental impact of the black soldier fly larvae doesn’t stop with lightening landfills. After a couple of weeks of eating, the insects have become a wiggly, protein-packed food source perfect for reptiles, farmed fish, chickens and pigs. The larvae can be dried whole or processed into pellet or powder form. They can also be converted into oils and coatings for pet food and pet products. Fluker Farms is already selling dried larvae, called Soldier Worms, in Walmart and tractor supply stores as feed for backyard chickens.
The world has known about black soldier fly’s zero-waste magic since the 1970s, says Brits, but it’s only been in the past 20 years that researchers and investors have created production facilities capable of addressing social and commercial demand.
Fluker had been following the progress of the black soldier fly research since it took off in 2002, when researchers from Texas A&M and the University of Georgia demonstrated the insects could be reared in a lab. A few years later, companies like AgriProtein in South Africa and Enterra in Canada were developing commercially viable applications for bug production.
It takes tons of larvae—literally, to be of real social benefit. AgriProtein uses 40 to 50 million in waste eradication, with a goal of producing more than four tons of up-cycle products a day for commercial use.
By 2005, Fluker had bought the domain name, soliderfly.com, and was continuing to watch the market. He initially reached out to Texas A&M to form a partnership. When that failed to get off the ground, he contacted the LSU Department of Entomology.
In 2017, Fluker held a job search for a research director and found Brits, then working for Enterra in South Africa. Brits came aboard in 2018 and has been charged with leading the launch of a production facility at Fluker Farms. He is also completing a doctorate at LSU, focusing on the impact of light on black solider fly breeding.
Earlier this year, the LSU entomology department received a $60,000 grant from the LSU Sustainability Fund to develop a campus-based system for using BSFL to reduce LSU dining hall food waste. The Office of Sustainability had been working on a solution to campus food waste for several years, and saw the black soldier fly project as a way to divert 75 tons of food a year from the landfill.
Organic food waste is brought to Brits’ lab, where the maggots go to work in series of bins. The organic fertilizer they leave behind is used by LSU Facility Services in campus landscaping.
While Soldier Fly Technologies is now on its way, it’ll still be some time before it’s scaled up to the level Fluker is planning. Brits and his team are working on standardizing protocols the company can use to establish large colonies of egg-laying flies. Once those procedures are in place, Fluker can start forging partnerships with public and private entities that will benefit from production, including municipalities that see the upside of diverting organic waste to a site where it can be quickly decomposed.
Fluker has the advantage of a decades-old distribution chain in place for its current products. The company has already worked with state departments of agriculture to gain approval for selling animal feedstocks, a necessary step in placing any kind of animal feed in the marketplace. This puts the company in a good position for launching black soldier fly products that can fill a growing need for affordable protein-rich animal feedstocks. Notably, the price of fishmeal used in aquaculture has risen sharply in recent years. Once black Solder Fly products are widely distributed, they could become a better alternative.
“The food cycle in place now is not sustainable,” Fluker says. “This is promising solution.”