The Burrow Presents...

How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room

Part 6

Well, well,'s about time you showed up. Lots to do, so let's get it done (and I'm happy to be here also.)

In all that we've looked at up till now, we have considered our "bedding" to consist of soil. I have repeatedly stressed that "soil makes a lousy bedding", and as a result, people are accusing me of entering that rather tedious argument about whether red worms can be adapted to living in dirt. The reason I have never entered into that particular argument is quite simple. Anyone who stops arguing long enough to consider the matter will see that there is nothing to argue about, as a simple look at the situation will tell us. Its like this. Since the worms used for vermicomposting (at least here in North America) are natural inhabitants of compost piles and manure heaps, soil tends to be far too dense for them to work in effectively (though part of this problem can be overcome by the reduction in size of the future generations, as our experiments have shown.) However, since a major portion of the finished compost is made up of the bedding material (after it is ingested by the worm), soil still makes a lousy choice since it contains virtually no nutrients when compared to manure, compost, or even paper products such as cardboard (the finished product might be best in a range of different soils, but pretty inadequate when compared to material produced from one of the other bases.) The final reason for not using soil has to do with the fact that it is being used in a contained area in most vermicomposting situations, and thus is not being refreshed with new matter as it would be in a natural outdoor situation. Remember that a major component of soil is simply accumulated worm casts, which means that worms housed in it are being asked to live in their own waste material, something that no living organism can do for long without showing ill effects (the production of 100% pure worm "castings" often involves sacrificing the entire worm population.) Add to this such facts as, soil is heavy, tends to either hold too much water, or not enough, and moving it into an indoor setting is a good way to bring in a lot of "hitchhikers", and you have most of my reasons for not using it.

So that presents us with a little problem, but nothing to really get too worried about.

Way back in the previous sections to this article, I made one or two points that I promised to clear up a little later....I forget what they were. (I'm kidding!) Now is the time to look at a couple of these points, and possibly even a new one.


Another Size Reduction Method

In our "bucket tests", the main reason for the reduction in the size of the worm, as far as I can tell, was one of necessity (a smaller size made it easier to move through the material, and helped the worms adapt to the relatively low availability of food.) When we switch to a more common "bedding" material (compost, paper products, manure, etc.), the amount of high-nutrient food increases, and the difficulty in movement decreases, and thus, the worms resume a more "normal" size. But there are still other ways to obtain the results we desire, and though the conditions take a little longer to set up, the final effect is the same. The method I have chosen is overcrowding (since it relates so well to the idea of having a large supply of available worms always on hand.)

Right this moment, there are quite possibly several very anxious people running out to wherever they keep their worms, intent on harvesting several bins, and dumping all the acquired worms into one very small container. There is a little more to it than that, and that particular behavior is likely to result in a severe decrease in the population (remember "drastic environmental changes?". Suddenly having your universe shrink by 300-400% certainly counts as one of those.) That's why I said this part of the procedure was going to take some time (between 12-16 months in my case.) What we have to do is provide all the right conditions, then calmly wait for nature to take its course.

BUT, (I hear you protest), I have lots of bins which have contained populations of worms for over a year, the worms have never shrunk in size, and the population has always remained roughly the same??!! That's absolutely correct, if we are talking about the more common bin systems, and feeding methods, which we aren't. It was for this reason that I stressed the larger (and deeper-than-normal) bin, and in a minute, I'll add a slight twist to the feeding schedual. First, however (and I've been real good about this lately),...A slight digression.....

The beauty of this particular story, is that it serves as a perfect example of how we often learn more from our failures, than we do from our successes. A year or two after I got into larger-scale production of red worms, I found myself in a situation of having several friends of mine (fishing buffs), show up at my house roughly once a week, in order to "bum" a few worms for bait. The number of worms they required was not the problem, but having to continually dig up 10-15 of Willy's friends, and then set them into some suitable container, and having to do this several times on certain days, prompted me to seek an easier method of satisfying these well-intentioned people (I also realized there were likely many other people who might even pay money for any resulting system.) The solution to the problem seemed simple enough, which is exactly where so many good ideas first go wrong.

What I came up with was a system that appeared so obvious to succeed, and was so simple to put together, that I actually bought everything I needed (not much) to put together 10 or 12 prototypes of a system I began referring to as a "Bottomless Bait Bin" before I actually did any testing (not a great idea.) The whole plan was very simple (as I've said), and consisted basically of two "tupperware-type containers", each roughly large enough to hold a loaf of bread. I made the necessary modifications (in those days I was still a believer in drainage holes), then added a compost-type bedding, and a population of approximately 100-150 red worms in each "bin" (identified as "A" and "B".) To this I added specific directions on "how to use" the two bins, and sat back awaiting the inevitable millions that were sure to start pouring in. It was quite fortunate (for me) that it was my "friends" who got first crack at the system, and I got too busy with other things to spend much time trying to market the idea. At the end of the first two weeks or so, my "friends had this to say, , but by the end of the month, that had become this, , and even this . So what exactly had gone wrong??

The system should have been fool-proof. According to my directions, the lucky fisherman simply removed 10-15 worms (whatever they thought they might require for the trip) from bin "A", put them into a suitable container to which a little bedding had been added, and went fishing. Each time a fishing expedition was planned, the same procedure was followed, always using Bin "A." When the supply of good-sized worms in Bin "A" appeared to be running low, the fisherperson (political-correctness is a pain) was to switch to Bin "B", start adding a little more feed to Bin "A", and while Bin "B" was being depleted, the spawn in Bin "A" would have a chance to grow. Voila, a never-ending supply of worms! WRONG!

No matter how many times I re-worked the feed scheduals, or experimented with the various environmental requirements, that system never worked for more than the two or three weeks that it took for the worms to become very ill (they shrunk in size, and apparently stopped breeding), before burrowing their way into that "compost-heap-in-the-sky.") In the end, I began to suspect the cause, and a little testing not only confirmed the reason for my failure, but supplied me with a crucial piece of information about worm-breeding in general, which I had been lacking up to that point in my studies. It had to do with the matter of population densities, and the explanations offered in the many books I had read. The accepted opinion seemed to be (in regards to people's concerns about their worm populations growing until they overflowed their bins) that worms employed a sort of natural population-control method, by which they slowed down their breeding in response to lack of space....sort of like a goldfish adapting to the size of its fishbowl.) While certain parts of this explanation had the sound of truth, other parts still had me wondering. The main problem was that I had seen worms in densities far exceeding the suggested capacity of 1000 worms per square foot of bedding, and the ones I had observed in such circumstances had appeared quite healthy. What I couldn't seem to locate was the reason for these different densities, since the amounts of available food were relatively the same on each of the occasions, as were the environmental conditions (I had observed both of these situations in the worm-bins housed in my basement.)

Once again I discovered the answer quite by accident, when I observed two entirely different population densities occurring simultaneously, in the same bin. As you may recall, my "master" bed measured 3 feet wide by 6 feet long, and was 30 inches deep. The whole bed was then divided into 3 separate compartments each 2 feet by 3 feet, and 30 inches deep. To understand what I observed, and how it came to be, let me refresh your memory on one or two other points as well.

There came a time (early spring one year), when I decided to "rebuild" the soil in a portion of my backyard, which would later be used as a garden. During this process, I decided to run a test to see if red worms could in fact be transfered to the soil, and survive (even then I was doubting most of what I had read.) I thought I would give the worms their best chance for survival if I allowed them to enter their new home as slowly as possible, and with this in mind, my planned procedure was as follows:
  1. I dug a rather large hollow into the newly-blended soil ingredients, a crater roughly 4 feet in circumference.
  2. I started to move the entire contents of the first section of my worm bin out into the recently-dug crater (this way the worms could move into the soil gradually as their normal bedding and food supply got used up.)
  3. Holy shades of Louis Pasteur, Batman!
I Made A Discovery!

Due to the cramped condition of my basement, and the fact that I kept my bedding levels so deep (roughly 20-24 inches), it seems that each time I had "divided" my beds, I had done so not by removing the front or back portion of the bedding, but by removing the entire upper layer. This meant that at least 6-8 inches of the lowest part of the bedding, had never been disturbed (which I knew for certain when I realized it was made up of straight cardboard bedding.) Upon reaching this portion of the bedding, I immediately observed two very interesting things:

  1. The worms were crammed into this part of the bed in densities 5-10 times as great as anywhere else in the entire bin.
  2. These worms were the healthiest-looking worms (though slightly smaller than the average) in the entire bin. (Make no mistake, the others were healthy, just not this healthy.)
Rather than drag this out into a novel, let me cut to the chase (I ran several tests to confirm my suspicions.) What was keeping the worm population regulated was not their "socially-conscious" birth-control methods, or even the amount of available food (at least not entirely), but something much more basic, which I should have thought of earlier, but in fact was probably brought to the forefront of my mind because of a passing comment made by a researcher in one of the books I had been reading (I told you there was good stuff along with the bad.) The researcher in question, had made some observation about reproduction rates of worms in their natural environment, and then said something to the effect of "I'm not certain how this would be reflected in the "frequently-disturbed" environment encountered in a vermicomposter." I felt like locating the researcher's address, and writing him to say that I knew exactly how it would be reflected. Though many writers had made mention of the fact that the worms should be disturbed as infrequently as possible, those mentions had been made in the same books that were teaching everyone to build bins in which the worms had no choice but to be disturbed every couple days or so. This was further evidenced by the pictures I had seen of outdoor worm-beds (and later my own outdoor bins), which always seemed to contain a much denser population of worms than the traditional indoor bins (an outdoor "bed" which encompasses 24 square feet has less need of frequent maintenance than an indoor bed which occupies much less area.) This all led me to take another step, and run the next tests which finally convinced me that in this regard at least, all the books were misleading, if not completely wrong.

The step I am referring to is still regarding size, but more specifically, depth. However, I see now there is no way I can reasonably fit all this into the one (what I thought would be) concluding article, since there are several aspects we still need to discuss, such as:

  1. Do red worms truly operate only in the top 5-6 inches of soil?
  2. If not, how do I convince them to "sink to new depths"?
  3. What will this do to my overall population:
  4. What the heck does all this have to do with the little tiny worms this article is supposed to be about?
All these questions will be answered....Next time...Same place...

But for be continued.

Continue, or...
Take a break?...or...

Many of These Bullets created by JenKitchen

Many of These Icons obtained from Ender's Realm

Original Text

Copyright 1996, D. Brian Paley
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