January 2009

You Know You Are A True Worm-Head When…

European Nightcrawler

…you’re the only person you know who gets excited about rotting produce.

…any time you try to type the words “world”, “warm”, “word” or “work” you end up with “worm”.

…you have a worm bin that doubles as a piece of furniture.

…you’ve attempted to name all your worms at least once.

…your heart skips a beat walking down the plastic bin aisle in department stores.

…you start seeing EVERY container as a potential worm bin.

…you are shocked when your friends tell you they spent $200 on new “bedding”.

…your worms get more respect that your cats/dogs.

…on warm, rainy days you walk along the sidewalk on tippy toes, looking down constantly.

…the phrase “they’re only worms!” deeply offends you.

…you love the smell of a worm bin in the morning.

…you welcome guests into your home by saying “hey, wanna go see my worms?”.

…you’d be a millionaire if you received a dime for every fruit fly and fungus gnat hatched in your home.

…you include ‘vermicomposting’ as part of your skill-set on resumes.

…you start eyeing produce (with an evil glint in your eye) in your fridge well before it’s past its prime.

…the picture above makes you smile.

C’mon everyone – join in the fun! Help me build the list!

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Worm Weight

Ok – I guess it is reader question today here on the blog (haha). Here is a good one from Anne:

I’m curious:
When companies advertise selling one, two, five, etc pounds of worms, what actually weighs one, etc pounds? How much is worm weight and how much is bedding?
Approx how many worms per pound? …..funny question…..
Thanks so much!

Hi Anne,
Every dealer is different, but I can tell you what SHOULD weigh 1 lb, 2 lb etc – it should be the worms themselves. ie actual worm biomass. It should NOT be worms and bedding, unless clearly stated on the website (I have yet to find a site that includes this info).

The bedding used for shipping – very often moistened peat moss – can weigh a fair amount on its own, so when included in the weight for pricing purposes the customer will obviously receive a lot fewer worms. In my opinion there should be at least a 1:1 ratio of bedding weight to worm weight for optimal shipping, but the bedding weight definitely should not be included in the price. In other words, if you order 1 lb of worms, the package you receive should be more than 2 lbs (obviously there is the box and packing material to consider here as well).

That being said, depending on the length of the trip and the time of year etc, there may be a reduction in weight during shipping due to water loss (worms are mostly water after all), but this typically won’t be too significant if the worms are packed well and the trip is relatively short.

The practice of including bedding weights in pricing (or just dishonest weights in general) helps to explain why worm pricing can be all over the map. My advice is to be wary of dealers with very low pricing unless you’ve dealt with them before or know someone else who has. Really when it comes down to it, the best approach is to use caution when dealing with suppliers you are unfamiliar with. I’m not saying this to slam my “competitors” by any means – all I am suggesting is that you try to get to know the dealer a little (or find reviews online) before buying from them.

If they have a website, perhaps send them an e-mail and ask them a few questions. Their response time and helpfulness can be pretty good indicators right off the bat. If they don’t bother replying or they seem abrasive in any way, it probably just isn’t worth it. Some dealers aren’t all that comfortable online, and that’s ok – in that case try giving them a call if they have a number posted somewhere.

As far as how many worms there are in 1 lb, a fairly good estimate is 1000 (of various sizes) for Red Worms. I’ve had large Red Worms that seemed to be in the 800/lb range, but I’ve also had populations of smaller worms that would have been closer to 2000/lb. Maturity and the overall health of the worms can obviously play a pretty important role. For European Nightcrawlers, the counts are generally somewhere between 300 and 400 per pound (gives you an idea of how much bigger these worms are).

Hope this helps!

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Yellow Liquid From Worms

I haven’t done a Q&A post here in awhile, so I figured I’d tackle an interesting one that recently hit my inbox. This one comes from Jim:

Hi, I want to take some red worms into my 3rd grade class
and talk about vericulture composting. I picked up a worm and it
secrected a yelllow liquid in my hand from the band near its head.
What can I tell the kids it is?

Hi Jim,
This liquid is known as coelomic fluid, which comes (not too suprisingly) from the ‘coelom’.

So what exactly is the coelom??

It is a large fluid-filled cavity that extends the entire length of the worm, located between the body wall and the alimentary canal (the digestive system). Worms release coelomic fluid for a number of reasons, one of those being stress. As such, Red Worms will sometimes release this liquid as a defense mechanism when they are feeling threatened.

Not that you likely would have wanted to test this out, but according to Edwards and Bohlen (1996), Eisenia fetida (the Red Worm) gets its name from the fact that its coelomic fluid smells like garlic (‘fetid’ basically means foul smelling).

Another interesting tidbit gleaned from Edwards and Bohlen (1996) – there is apparently a species of earthworm known as the “squirter earthworm” (Didymogaster sylvaticus) that can shoot coelomic fluid as far as 30 cm!!

Needless to say, you probably wouldn’t want to pick that one up!

Anyway, Jim – perhaps this was more of an answer than you bargained for (haha), but hopefully it helped!

Edwards, C.A. and P.J. Bohlen. 1996. The biology and ecology of earthworms (3rd Edition). Chapman & Hall, London, 426pp.

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Do Earthworms Contribute to Global Warming?

Dr. Clive Edwards
Dr. Clive Edwards.
(Image courtesy of The Ohio State University)

According to Dr. Clive Edwards, the answer is “no” – or at least there simply isn’t enough evidence to suggest that they do.

I can clearly remember back to when I first caught wind of the news stories claiming that vermicomposting was bad for the environment (in summer of 2007). Being the vermicomposting fanatic and advocate that I am, it was like a slap in the face. I immediately felt defensive and angry.
‘How could this possibly be??’
The initial anger gave way to skepticism regarding the validity of the research. All stories pointed back to one source – The Open University, in the UK – and I couldn’t figure out where (if anywhere) the actual research results were published. Surely, with all this media coverage this must have been conducted by eminent scientists and published in a peer-reviewed journal, right?

Despite my feelings of doubt however, I decided to keep a totally open mind (and a closed mouth) until I learned more. I hoped that someone would be able to point me in the direction of the original research, so I made an effort to follow the story (and ensuing dialogue) around the blogosphere but it seemed that everyone was relying solely on the sources found in the popular media.

Well, like all breaking news, the ‘worms are killing the planet’ headlines gradually disappeared, and the entire issue basically slipped off of my radar screen – becoming an unsolved mystery relegated to my mental back burner, where it collected dust with countless other topics that were of interest at one time or another. That is until earlier this week, when I caught a blurb on Twitter containing some VERY intriguing news from vermicomposting professional, Brenda Lotito. It read “Its official! Commentary from Dr. Clive Edwards, Ohio State University..Vermicomposting does NOT harm the environment!”

Needless to say, I immediately contacted Brenda to find out the source of this revelation, and she pointed me in the direction of an article published in the most recent issue (Dec 2008) of BioCycle.

I don’t think I could imagine a more satisfying way to see this ‘mystery’ solved, than to learn that Dr. Edwards (world renowned vermicomposting researcher, email friend and mentor) would be the one to get to the bottom of the issue and come back with such an excellent response.

For those of you unfamiliar with ALL of this – in a nutshell, Dr. Jim Fredrickson from The Open University claimed (in a media interview) that vermicomposting poses a significant global warming threat due to the release of large quantities of nitrous oxide (N2O) gas, which is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than methane, and almost 300 times as potent as CO2 (the gas that gets most of the attention – understandably, since it is by far the biggest threat).

I found the claim particularly interesting since, aside from being a passionate vermicomposter, I was actually involved in research examining greenhouse emissions from composting during my grad school years, and was in close contact with others studying N2O emissions from other natural and human-influenced sources. This is actually a big part of why I wanted get a hold of the literature that backed up the claim – I was curious to see how exactly the Open University researchers conducted their experiments, how the numbers stacked up against other well-known N20 sources (such as soil), and also just generally, how significant all this was in the grand scheme of things.

As it turns out, there was indeed some research officially reported by Dr. Fredrickson (and his colleagues) back in ’03 and ’05, which according to Dr. Edwards had “poor experimental designs, inadequate replication and unsatisfactory control of environmental conditions in the vermicomposting beds” (BioCycle reference listed at end of this post). Apart from the sloppy science involved, Edwards also points out that (according to ‘Trends in Greenhouse Gaseous Emissions’, 2006), ALL forms of composting only contribute 0.5% to the total global greenhouse gas emissions!

One of the major issues with the research, as claimed by Edwards, was the lack consideration given to moisture content, which can be a very important factor affecting N20 emissions.

Another serious flaw came in the form of a claim by Fredrickson (to support his own assertions) that German scientists had discovered that worms were responsible for 1/3 of the N20 released when present in a composting system. As Edwards points out, the studies being referred to were actually examining worms in garden soil systems (small laboratory ones at that) NOT vermicomposting beds!

Edwards finishes the article beautifully by referring to multiple studies that have suggested that worms either do not affect N20 emissions at all, or in fact seem to bring about a decrease in emissions of this greenhouse gas!

Here is a quote from the very end of the article (again, reference to follow) that provides a nice overall assessment of the situation:

“While there will be N20 emissions from all these [composting] sources, there is no justification for suggesting that environmentally-friendly and energy-efficient systems for producing vermicomposts and composts should be restricted because of their potential to produce greenhouse gases. The global production of nitrogenous greenhouse gases in agriculture should be compared from all sources before vermicomposting is publicly condemned in such a sensational way.”

As Homer Simpson would say (and thus at the risk of sounding a tad unprofessional):


Global worming does NOT promote global warming!

Edwards, C.E. 2008. Can earthworms harm the planet? BioCycle 49, 12: 53-54.

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Worm Bed Garden

As much as I am a die-hard worm composting fanatic, I have always considered it as one “piece of the puzzle” in terms of creating sustainable systems – and oh, what an amazing little piece of the puzzle it IS!

I remember coming across a fascinating video online a number of years ago. Unfortunately I was never able to track it down again after that. It featured a ‘living machine’ system, containing a series of stages that all fed (literally) off one another – the waste of one stage essentially became the ‘food’ for another. It set up by Dr John Todd, a personal hero of mine who has been involved in this type of work for many years (he was one of the founding members of the New Alchemists back in the early ’70s).

This particular system started with brewery waste (spent grains/hops) as the initial input. This material was used to grow oyster mushrooms. The ‘compost’ produced via the fungal digestion of the brewery wastes then became food for Red Worms, which then produced even better compost, and they themselves became food for Yellow Perch in an aquaponics system. The waste water from the perch was used to grow microbes, then eaten by freshwater prawns. It was also used to fertilize tomatoes and ornamental plants! All this from a single input of “waste”. Pretty amazing stuff.

Anyway, due to my fascination with these sorts of systems I am always thinking of different ways to integrate vermicomposting with plant production etc. A prime example would be my vermicomposting trenches from last summer.

I haven’t written about it yet, but I’ve actually been thinking about how I can convert my big straw bale worm bed (my winter system) into a giant food making machine once the warm weather arrives. I’ll likely erect support beams around the outside and make a giant trellis structure, or simply hang some netting to allow climbing legume crops to spread out and take advantage of the sunlight. Aside from producing lots of fresh food, one of the advantages of this approach is that it will help to shade the bed in the summer, when overheating will be a potential concern.

Obviously there isn’t much I can do with that bed at the moment (as far as crop growing goes), so I thought it might be fun to grow some plants in a couple of my indoor beds. I keep two trays under an 80 watt grow light at all times, so it would obviously make sense for these to be the grow beds. Yesterday, I spread some well-aged worm bedding (it used to be aged manure with straw, but is now essentially a rich compost) over top of one of the beds, then sprinkled in some basil seeds and sprayed it with water. I am planning to add chives to the same bed, and likely some different lettuce varieties to the other bed.

I will continue to add ‘waste’ materials to the one side of each bed (which will in essence become a mini vermicomposting trench) and see how it goes (or should I say ‘grows’ – haha). I will of course provide updates here on the blog.

Should be fun!

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Worm Bin IV

Drip, Drip, Drip - liquid food for worms

That is IV as in ‘intravenous’ not “4” by the way!

I seem to be on a roll with getting posts published today, so I figured why not continue to ‘go with the flow’.

As you may recall me mentioning, I am now basically an open vermicomposting system convert. I love the fact that the air flow in these bins is so much better and they don’t end up with water pooling in the bottom – so it is easier to produce good quality vermicompost.

While I still love my Vermicomposting Trays, I’m starting prefer using shallow (but still deeper than the trays) 55 liter Rubbermaid tubs (without a lid, of course). I find these hold moisture a bit better, plus I can fit two of them per shelf on my vermi shelving unit, while only a single tray will fit on each shelf.

Since these open systems DO gradually dry out over time, I have to periodically water them to ensure that the worms stay nice and moist down below, and that the decomposition process continues to move along.

I’m not a big fan of just dumping water on them however, since it generally just runs straight to the bottom without really soaking the composting mass. Sure, it does get wicked up and spread around over time, but still – I’d rather introduce the water at a rate that will allow for it be be soaked up right away. My preferred method when in this frame of mind is the use of a spray bottle, BUT – as anyone who has tried this can attest – it just takes SO long to make any progress.

A little while ago, on a whim I decided to play around with a little contraption that basically releases liquid from a bottle at a fairly slow rate. The cool thing is that – unlike the spray bottle – with this I can set it up then leave it sit (well ok, it is technically hanging from a ceiling pipe in the basement) while I do other things.

You could even add some liquid ‘food’ if you wanted to. For example, today I mixed some baking yeast pellets with water and started dripping it down onto one of my tray systems. I haven’t really tested this out before, but I suspect that the worms will congregate in the region with the yeast water. Even if they don’t directly feed on the yeast (which I suspect they actually would), the increase in microbial activity in this zone would certainly translate into a nice buffet of microbes for the worms to munch on.

I don’t imagine too many people will have a bottle exactly like this (I’ll spare you the details on what it’s original intended use actually was – haha), but I’m sure it wouldn’t be all that hard to rig up something similar, especially if you happen to be the creative type!

Anyway, I will be sure to report back on the results of the yeast feeding!

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Sow Bugs – aka Woodlice

Sow Bug - aka Woodlouse
I’ve been meaning to write more on the blog about various worm bin critters. And what better time to finally start doing so than right after receiving my brand new digital camera! Whoohoo!

Before you get too excited with visions of 15 megapixel SLRs with macro lenses and specialized flashes…I should tell you that I’ve opted for yet another handy dandy ‘point-and-shoot’ badboy. It is a Canon Powershot SD880 10 megapixel – nestles in the palm of your hand cutie pie – digital camera.
Sorry – got a little carried away there.

All joking aside, I absolutely love ultra-portable Canon cameras. I’m no photography pro, so I’ve been blown away with the image quality of my previous two models (both very much in the economy class of digital cameras) – and just as importantly – the decent macro capabilities. The new one is a bit more expensive and offers the nice 10 mpx, so I’m hoping I can take even nicer worm pics (I am indeed THAT cool!).

I’ve owned a (non-digital) SLR camera before, and in all honesty it just stressed me out having to pull everything out, fiddle with the dials yada yada. Life goes by fast, so I’d much rather have something quick and easy – even if it means giving up the best image quality.

Anyway…getting back to the topic of this post. I’m sure most of you are at least somewhat familiar with Sow Bugs, even if you don’t have them in your worm composting systems. They are incredibly common in many dark, humid habitats -sometimes in huge abundance. Aside from the ones that look similar to the one pictured above, there are also the “Basketball Bug” (family Armadillidae) Woodlice. The name of course, comes from the fact that when disturbed, this variety rolls up into a ball (similar in appearance to a basketball).

Don’t be fooled by the common names of these arthropods – they are in fact crustaceans, not insects (and certainly not lice!), related then to lobsters, crabs and shrimp. They are not restricted to terrestrial habitats by any means. I’ve found freshwater species that look quite similar to the terrestial one shown above (although somewhat thinner). Apparently, there is even a huge variety (as big as a football I think) that lives in the ocean as well.
Who’da thunk?

Like most of the other creatures in a composting system, these invertebrates should not be viewed with disdain. Not only do they not harm the worms in any way whatsoever, but they actually perform a very beneficial role as ‘shredders’, basically breaking up large fragments of organic matter, thus making them more accessible to microbes for further decomposition. Generally, they prefer a somewhat damp, dark environmental – but not the really moist conditions your worms love. If you notice that the number of sow bugs in your system seems to be increasing, it may be an indication that you are not keeping the moisture content high enough.

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