Interesting question from David:
I’ve tried to search to see if it’s better to have a larger or smaller
bin for increasing the amount of worm cocoons. Sometimes people say a
larger bin will make the worms think there’s more room to expand to,
but others say a smaller bin helps because they can find each other
easier. Do you know which is more accurate?
I would never claim to have a definitive answer to this question (or many others in the realm of vermicomposting, for that matter! lol) but I can certainly share my thoughts on the matter. For starters, it’s important to remember that there are MANY factors that can influence cocoon production – size of the available habitat being just one of them. In other words, we should never assume that the worms will always produce more/fewer cocoons simply based on the size of system they are in.
If we were to consider a fairly “typical” set of conditions (whatever that means – lol), I might lean more towards the “more space leads to more cocoons” school of thought, but let’s spend some time looking at it from both angles.
My hunches about these sorts of things often stem from my knowledge of the natural history of Red Worms (and other epigeic earthworm species). If you consider that these worms are “naturally” adapted for life in environments that can change rapidly and that – like any other organism – they need to ensure the success of future generations, it makes sense that they would feel the urge to expand in number as rapidly as possible when presented with the space (and resources) to do so.
That being said, when a given system starts to become overcrowded with worms it could potentially signal an upcoming food shortage and overall deterioration of the habitat, which also might lead to an increase in cocoon production (as a sort of population “insurance policy”).
Which of these would result in MORE cocoons?? It’s incredibly difficult to say for sure since, as already mentioned, there are SO MANY other variables that can come into play. There are also many, many different levels of “crowded” and “uncrowded”. If, for example, two juvenile worms lived alone in a monstrous manure heap (on opposite sides of the heap from each other) – the likelihood of them rapidly populating that heap, once they are mature enough to do so, is greatly reduced since it would be very difficult for them to find one another.
On the other hand, it’s also important to realize that worms don’t need to always be in close proximity with one another in order to “reproduce”. This is where a distinction between “mating” and “cocoon production” might come in handy. Hermaphroditic earthworms exchange sperm with one another (“mating”), but they then go off and produce cocoons on their own for as long as their store of sperm lasts. So, while it’s certainly important that the worms be able to at least find mating partners periodically, they certainly don’t need to be in a crowded bin to ensure reproductive success.
My own personal preference is to start new systems with fewer worms than your typical “1 pound of worms for every 1 or 2 sq ft of surface area” etc recommendations that others offer. I’ve found that if you provide the worms with a quality habitat (including some food of course) and some space to spread out in, they will increase in number very rapidly.
I should mention that I have witnessed the potential of a “crowded” system to result in a lot more cocoons as well (see: 5 lbs of Red Worms – WOW!). The trade-off, though, is that this approach will cost you more money – and you might even LOSE some of your worms due to over-crowding self-regulation and/or general restlessness (escaping from bin etc).
Anyway – I hope this helps some!
P.S. Here’s another post you may find helpful: How Many Worms Is Enough?