Pests and Pest Control
This particular method is designed as a way to reduce an unwanted population rather than eliminate it totally (which may in fact be impossible in regards to the pests in question.) I can't take credit for it, but I can testify to its effectiveness, and also to its inherent danger. As a result, the first comment I need to make is directed at my younger readers (though I suspect most of them abandoned me somewhere around the middle of this admittedly long article, the reason I included no breaks), and the message is this:
Do not try this on your own. Adult supervision is required, and I don't want to hear any excuses or explanations! Got it? Good.
With that said, the following method is the most effective way I have come across to reduce the population of mites, springtails, and pot worms, should you decide that they simply must go.
As an alternative to this solution, many of the older "worm" books recommend setting "traps" in the form of bread slices, or potato peels, around the surface of the bed, and then removing them when the offending "pests" have congregated (and they certainly will) on them, thus removing large quantities of the critters at once. My concern is that by using a food source that so readily attracts the little animals, you are probably supplying them with exactly what they need to actually increase their rate of reproduction, and it may be the case that you are simply aggrevating the problem. Of course, I don't have this particular problem, since I don't regard any of these critters as a potential problem, and I'm almost certain that their populations just regulate themselves naturally.
- Begin by watering the bin very heavily, soaking the bedding thoroughly. (Make sure you have drip pans in place if this is indoors.)
- Wait a few minutes, during which time, the red worms will head down in the bedding in an attempt to get below the water-line, and the various pests we mentioned will rush to the top of the bedding in order to avoid drowning.
- Now simply use an acetylene, or butane torch, to scorch the surface of the bedding material (which should be wet enough to avoid catching on fire.)
- Bye bye, billions of bugs.
- Remember to alter your watering schedual to give the bedding some time to dry out.
There is one thing I will recommend in regard to these particular "pests", however, and I do so because the thing I am recommending is of great benefit to the red worm population. Very simply, watch your pH levels. The pH level most suitable to the red worms we use for composting is right around the neutral range of seven. The mites and their friends prefer conditions which are slightly more acidic in the areas they choose to breed in. Therefore, test your pH regularly (you can buy inexpensive kits at any garden shop), and if the bedding is too acidic, sprinkle a little dolomite lime onto the surface, or even add more crushed egg-shells to the food scraps you are feeding the worms. CAUTION: Make sure you use dolomitic lime, or another lime that is not going to heat up and kill your worms!
In regard to our industrious little friend the ant, I have learned by experience that "prevention" really is the answer. I personally, use a three-pronged defensive strategy, and though it has worked fine for me, you may decide to enhance it in any number of inventive and imaginative ways. (As always, should any of you come up with a system that either works more effectively, or is easier to implement, I would love to hear from you.) My method consists of the following:
Should you decide to make use of the various ant-traps which are available at any number of stores, keep in mind that they should not be placed directly in the worm bed, since the ant will first have to drag all the dead worms out of his way before he can discover what all the excitement's about!
- First, I attempt to prevent the little monsters from entering through the "front door", literally. This is easily accomplished by sprinkling a little lemon juice (or a lemon-scented oil, etc) across the threshholds of both doorways into my house, as well as on the window ledges. Ants despise the smell of lemon, and this works very well to keep them on their side of the doorway. You should repeat this procedure at least once every two weeks or so in the summer months.
- Second, I never bring leaves or grass-clippings into the house for use as worm-feed, unless I take time to put the material into an old roasting pan I have, and then insert it into an oven at a temperature of 180 F., for at least 45 minutes. This will kill not only the ants, but many other critters, and their eggs which might later hatch, and decide to take up residence in your worm-bin specifically, or your house in general. Though I very seldom use soil for bedding, I do use it as an ingredient in the planting mediums I blend, and this same procedure is followed without fail (temperatures in excess of 180 F., or times in excess of 1 hour in the oven, can drastically reduce the nutrient content of the material, bedding, feed, or soil.)
- For those "superbugs" that get passed these two lines of defense, I utilize one final trick. As I mentioned somewhere else in these pages, my beds are built with six-inch legs designed to raise them enough to facilitate drip-pans. Each of these legs sits inside an old tobacco-can which I keep 3/4's full with water, creating a sort of moat which any little animal who has managed to get this far inside, still has to cross before gaining access to the bedding. I figure my first two methods must be quite effective, however, since I only found one beetle in the can of water while those beds were set up.
Now we come to the undisputed "King of the Pests", the fly, and the first thing we have to do, is clear up another common misunderstanding. It seems when people first start to suspect that they have a problem with flies (if the whole bin is drifting around from room to room, it may be too late to deal with it), the attempted solution is to start burying the food that is being placed in the bin, or in the event that it was already being buried, then to bury it even deeper. The reasoning goes something like, "If the flies can't smell the food, they'll leave." WRONG! Once you have enough flies kicking around that it becomes obvious something is wrong, there is only one solution that has any real chance of working. A complete change of bedding material combined with follow-up measures designed to prevent a reoccurrance of the same problem. You see, it's like this. While it may have been the food which attracted the original flies to the bin (a very good possibility), the current reason they are so thick that you can notice them is because you are standing in the nursery. Many types of flies, such as "minute flies, house flies, and most insidious of all, the dreaded fungus gnat, spend the earliest parts of their lives living in compost as maggots. Add to these numbers, their cousin the fruit fly (found wherever fermenting fruit is available), and then work in one more fact. The average housefly, paired with a suitable mate, and in the absence of its natural predators, working in conjunction with its own off-spring, can breed enough of a family that their dead carcasses could cover the entire earth 47 feet deep, in one year. Oh boy, have we got a problem?! Not really, and once again, prevention is the key.
First and foremost, I'm going to assume that you are taking my word for it about the only possible solution being the change of bedding. There are less drastic methods which will even work, if (and this is a great big if ) the bedding is caught before it is saturated with potential off-spring, but do you really want to take the chance? In that case, we will assume that the bedding has been changed (dispose of the old bedding outdoors, or use the "baking" method we discussed earlier to eliminate the future flies it contains), and now we just don't want this sort of thing happening again. In that case, there are a few things we should try to keep in mind:
- All food scraps being placed in the worm bin must be buried with at least 2-3 inches of "clean" bedding. By "clean", I don't necessarily mean it has to be fresh, just free of "attractive" food odors. Suppose you scrape away an inch or so of bedding, pour some left-over fruit-juice into the opening, and replace the bedding you originally moved. Since most "bedding" material is absorbant, the liquid which you just added, will soak "up" into the top layers of the bedding (the material at the top of the bed is almost always dryer than that at the bottom), and you might just as well have poured it on top in the first place. Unless there is at least 2 full inches of bedding on top of that juice, if it decides to ferment, hello fruit flies.
- When new food is being added to the bed, we should locate it in such a place that the last-used location is not exposed, if there is any danger that it is still only partially decayed. This is one of the biggest arguments for having bins which are large enough to provide several locations for adding the food scraps. A simple rotation of locations will guarantee that the first spot is completely cleaned up by the worms before it has to be used again.
- Most of these flies which lay their eggs in compost require that a certain amount of moisture be present. A layer of dry leaves, or grass clippings (remember to bake them when they are first brought in) on top of the bedding, will discourage any attempts they might make at installing their daycare center in your house. (This also works with outdoor piles.)
- Finally, we should always remember, that all the care we take with the bin and its bedding will amount to very little, if we forget to keep an eye open for other potential sources of trouble. If the container which we save our scraps in is sending a message to every fly within a hundred miles,...well you all saw "Field of Dreams", didn't you? If you leave it lying around....they will come!
But seriously, everything I am trying to stress simply amounts to good housekeeping. As in any other situation, a little effort before there is a problem will go a long way to preventing the problem from ever arising. In all the years I have raised worms, I have only had one major problem with bugs. How that little sucker got up my nose I just can't figure out, but man oh man, does he ever tickle my brain?!
In the meantime, I see I've taken far too much time from the studying I still have to do, but I hope these two articles have been at least of some help to some of you. If there is anything you need more particulars on, or if there is anything you would like to share with me, please don't hesitate to drop me a line. I haven't the time right now to proofread this thing, so I'll ask for your tolerance until I have time to go over it. Bye for now.
Copyright © 1995, D. Brian Paley
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