This is probably just about the MOST common vermicomposting question out there! I’ve had quite a few people inquiring about this just in the past week alone – so it’s definitely time I dedicated a post to the topic!
Let’s first talk about the word “escape”, since it is a crucial factor when it comes to evaluating the situation. If your worms are indeed trying to literally escape from your worm bins – especially when doing so en masse – you definitely have a serious problem that needs to be addressed right away.
If on the other hand you have a handful of worms crawling up the sides and lid of the bin, with perhaps a few dummies ending up dried up on your floor – you are probably ok! Especially if your system is brand new.
I would wager to say that when worms are added to a brand new vermicomposting system – especially after being shipped – they are far more likely to wander a little, than to completely settle in right away! Consider the fact that they are 1) being introduced to a completely new environment, and 2) have been in motion for at least a couple of days prior to being added to the bin/bed.
Worms raised by worm farmers on a large-scale basis will typically be kept in giant, open beds, and will commonly be fed some sort of manure. They are NOT kept in a million Rubbermaid tubs and fed food scraps – I can tell you that much for sure!
When they are introduced to this totally new environment (the enclosed plastic bin), it’s not too surprising that they are a little restless for the first little while! How you set up your system can have a major impact on the situation as well. I recommend setting the bin up at least week before the worms arrive, so they are at least have a microbially active habitat. You can take this a step further by actually adding some compost inoculum (compost from another worm system would work well), or aged manure if you happen to have either of these. Even some leaf litter (decomposing leaves, found at the bottom of an outdoor leaf heap or on a forest floor) could help a lot.
Aside from preparing the best habitat possible, you can also take some steps to help keep your worms down in the bedding once they’ve been introduced to the sytem. If it is possible for you to shine a light over top of the bin for a few days straight that would be great (use a fluorescent or LED light to save power usage). Something that has also worked for me is adding a LOT of dry, absorbent bedding at the top of the system (generally more applicable for enclosed, plastic systems) – this helps to keep the sides and underside of the lid really dry, thus discouraging the worms from roaming up there.
I can remember back to when I received my very first European Nightcrawler shipment. They were very restless for the first little while, and I actually lost some due to them crawling out and falling onto the floor. When I added a bunch of dry bedding to the top of the bin, it worked very well! The worms stayed down where it was moist, and I didn’t lose any more.
Generally, after a few days (probably no longer than a week at the most) the worms should be quite used to their new home. If you are using the light technique I’d recommend turning the light off for short periods of time to see what happens – start with 10, 15, 20 minutes and go from there if they seem to be staying down.
How do I know if there is indeed a serious problem?
Trust me – you WILL KNOW!
If the worms are all balled up together in various spots in the bin, or in the handles (in the case of Rubbermaid-type bins), or they are escaping via every possible route you’ve made available (even the smallest air holes), then it is likely more than just being unsettled and needing time to get used to their habitat. Almost certainly, something you have added in the bin is causing them harm.
If you are using potting soil (something I definitely don’t recommend) for example – this can sometimes contain inorganic fertilizer salts which can really harm your worms. Even though these mixes typically contain a lot of peat moss (a good worm bedding), I prefer to steer clear of them altogether. Other types of bedding might cause issues as well – for example, some white office paper can contain irritating or harmful compounds (bleach etc). I recall back when I was still pretty new to vermicomposting, I set up a big bin using only white shredded paper as bedding, and the worms were NOT impressed. This paper can be used in moderation (and some paper is totally fine), but it’s better to err on the side of caution in my opinion.
Of course, the ‘food’ material in the system is very often going to be the culprit – if there is a LOT of waste materials, and not enough oxygen this can lead to serious issues, as can having too much N-rich waste (eg. grass clippings).
If your worms seem to be extremely stressed out, I would recommend a major overhaul of your system. Set up another bin using lots of moistened bedding (shredded cardboard) and any good rotting material you can get your hands on (leaves, compost etc), and transfer as many worms over as you can. You may not need to chuck out the contents of the first system (assuming the issue isn’t a nasty chemical of some sort), since these things tend to work themselves out over time.
Anyway, hopefully this post will help to put some minds at ease! In my experience, most of the time there is nothing to worry about when worms are crawling up the sides etc. As I like to tell people – it’s like ‘survival of the fittest’. All the ‘dummies’ and ‘weaklings’ manage to kill themselves off early, so your population then consists of the most tolerant, healthy worms. Any worms hatched into the new system will be even MORE tolerant and adapted to live in that environment!