You probably did science experiments with mealworms when you were in elementary school, but did you know that the best scientific researchers in the world use mealworms, too? These little creatures may look like your basic slimy bug, but there is more to the mealworm than meets the eye. Whether you are a top-notch scientist looking for a solution to pollution or a five-year-old learning about life cycles, mealworms may be your test subject of choice.

What Are Mealworms?

Surprisingly, mealworms are not an independent species or even a worm: the mealworm is the second stage in the lifecycle of a darkling beetle. This beetlewhich makes its home in dark, moist places all over the worldstarts its life as a small egg (about the same size as a little speck of dust). After a couple of weeks, the egg will hatch: out pops a little brown larva. This is a mealworm. The mealworm will spend eight to ten weeks eating, getting ready for its next transformation. It will eventually become a beetle with wings, legs, and a dark outer shell.

Mealworms aren’t just good for scientific discovery, they are an important part of the ecosystem. While they can become pesty annoyances if they get into stored food (especially grains and dry goods), their eating habits and preference for dark and moldy environments enable them to help in the process of decomposition in the wild. They are also an important source of food for many other birds, insects, reptiles, and rodents.

What Can Mealworms Teach Kids?

Mealworms are some of the best experimental test tools for researchers of all ages, and a number of mealworm factors combine to make them excellent teachers. Not only are mealworms cheap and easy to care for, but they can also inspire scientific inquiry and teach basic life lessons to kids of all ages with only a small investment.

Because mealworms have such a specific, simple, and easily identifiable life cycle, kids can watch as they transform over the span of a few weeks. Just put your mealworms in a see-through terrarium or a container with a removable lid and watch in amazement as the egg turns into a worm which then turns into a beetle.

These innocuous little insects can also help teach kids one of the most basic rules of life: all living creatures need food, water, and shelter, even the lowly mealworm. Have your kids brainstorm and build a mealworm habitat of their own. Nearly any type of container will keep your mealworms safe, happy, and containedeven a plastic tub with a couple of air holes will suffice. You can also experiment by giving the mealworms different types of food. Use a base of rolled oats or wheat germ in your mealworm habitat and try giving them pieces of apples, carrots, or potatoes. Monitor your mealworms to see what they like, what they hate, and to make sure their habitat stays fresh and clean

What Can Mealworms Teach Scientists?

Mealworms aren’t just great fodder for budding scientists, they have real-world scientific importance, too. Science-focused teenagers recently completed a study that looked into using the mealworm’s decomposition properties in landfills around the world. Could mealworms be the future of waste management? Other scientists are exploring the culinary possibilities of the mealworm. Researchers at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands recently published a study proving the efficiency of mealworms as a protein source: a pound of mealworm protein produces around 1% the amount of greenhouse gas that a pound of ground beef does.

Whether you’re using mealworms to teach yourself and your kids about life cycles or trying to get rid of your plastic waste by throwing empty bottles in a mealworm-infested compost heap, mealworms are the unsung heroes of science. And who knows, in a couple of decades, they might be the stars of our restaurants, too.