Bioactive Hedgehog Enclosure, Part 3: Clean-up Crew (CUC)
Your CUC (cleanup crew) are the team of microorganisms and small invertebrates that live in the substrate in order to help break down organic waste. While the relationships between these can be complicated (which soil bacteria break down what, which species eats animal waste and which eat the other fungi and mold that grow on the waste, etc.) overall it comes down to this:
- Housing animals in a contained area causes a buildup of waste. (hedgehog poop - or in other species, poop + things like shed skins, etc.)
- The goal of a bioactive setup is to allow for natural processes that will break down and utilize the nutrients in waste.
- You facilitate these processes by adding and supporting beneficial species that perform them.
That does technically mean that now you have pet bacteria / springtails / fungi / beetles / isopods / who-knows-what. Most of these like warm, humid, damp surroundings. This can be tricky to balance since you don't want your hedgie's setup to be entirely damp. Your new task will be strategically maintaining damp/humid areas for them to retreat.
Recommended CUC for bioactive hedgehog setups
Here's a secret: a lot of your CUC are going to come along for free with your substrate. Inevitably, there will be a smorgasbord of beneficial bacteria, fungi, molds, springtails, and more that are living in the soil. However, you'll probably want to add specific species that will perform well with a hedgehog "overhead" and the expected range of temperature and humidity of the enclosure.
- Bacteria, molds, fungi - you generally won't see these, but they're doing the heavy lifting for nutrient breakdown. They're a critical middle-step that support the populations of other invertebrate species in your CUC.
- Springtails - these very small little inverts can "jump" - giving them their name. They eat lots of the molds and fungi growing on decomposing materials. You want lots of these!
- Isopods - these delightful crustaceans are often known as roly-polies or pillbugs. There are tons of different types, and they consume a wide variety of things, including pet waste. Hedgehogs generally aren't interested in eating them.
- Beetles - we use the adult darkling beetles that mealworms turn into. These are fun little CUC members that also make an excellent foraging snack for hedgies. You can add mealworms to your setup and wait for them to pupate, or buy live beetles.
What about dubia roaches?
We LOVE dubia as a feeder for hedgies, but they don't perform much of a function in a bioactive setup. They prefer to eat fruit and carb sources like grains. They're very good at hiding in the substrate, so if your hedgie doesn't eat them right away, they'll continue to grow and not everyone loves the idea of turning their substrate to find surprise hiding roaches!
How to care for them
As long as you are maintaining areas in your enclosure that stay damp, the CUC will find its way to these retreats. This is usually under rocks/logs where they are safe and the soil dries out more slowly. I like to encourage CUC to thrive near the wheel, since that's where most of the hedgie waste is. We do this by "raining" water on the soil, rocks, logs, etc. in this area at least every few days. You don't want the soil to get soggy - just to maintain very slightly damp areas. The rest of the enclosure can just be watered as needed for any plants you have.
In short: Water the places you expect them to be hiding.
A bioactive setup, though we try to mimic a balanced natural system, is inherently an artificial, limited system. Some species thrive in "hedgehog conditions" and some don't! It's okay to try out different things to see what performs well over time in your particular setup.
One of the biggest challenges to bioactive setups is addressing pests if they arrive. It can be virtually impossible to eradicate pests without completely tearing the setup apart, sanitizing items and substrate, and replacing. This will kill most or all of your CUC - so your best bet is to take extra caution to ensure pests aren't introduced. They can hitchhike in with substrate, plants, logs, and even pet food.
- Grain mites - horrible to get rid of and they can congregate around your hedgehog's eyes and ears.
- Ants, centipedes, spiders - unlikely to harm your hedgie, but best to play it safe
- Plant pests - scale, mealy bugs, spider mites
- General food/grain pest insects like pantry moths, biscuit beetles, oriental cockroaches, etc. which could spread to areas they are unwelcome
- Mushrooms - it's normal for fungi to put out mushrooms! However, unless you're 100% sure they are safe, remove them as you see them. Some common fungi like flowerpot fungus could be harmful if eaten.
Where to buy CUC
- From us! We try to keep lots of CUC species available - not just ones suited for hedgehogs. We're working on adding them to the site under the Live Insects tab. You can buy beetles, springtails, and isopods from us, or everything in a complete kit! We also have a variety of individual species you can choose from.
- From local people keeping bioactive setups - they will often sell starter cultures.
- Some specialty pet stores will carry them, though be sure to check their quality before purchase - it's common to check a cup of springtails only to find that they're all dried out and dead. Petco, Petsmart, Pet Supplies Plus, and other chain stores carry them sometimes, but unless you buy them right as they're stocked, likely most will have died off over months of sitting on the shelf.
If you are ever refreshing substrate or decide to tear down your bioactive, it is critical to thoroughly FREEZE or BAKE the substrate to kill off the CUC prior to composting or dumping outside. You don't want to introduce nonnative species to the outdoors, even if you think "they'll all just die off anyway." This is part of being a responsible keeper. No one wants to see it become illegal to sell isopods or other invert species due to people releasing them into the wild!