Dead Worms and Stinky Worm Bins

Some good questions from Anna:

Hi, I love this site and am grateful to have some online
friendly advice! I purchased a Can O’Worms and 2 pounds of red worms
about 2 months ago. We had a heat wave and it was about 100 degrees
here and when I checked on the worms, maybe about half (a heaping
handful had gone down into the bottom section and were dead! I feel
terrible!!! What should I have done to save the poor dears?

I have a stinky bin question too – I know this means anaerobic, and I
go in and gentle mix things up, but it’s still kind of musty/farty

And there are a LOT of tiny white-ish eggs all over the bin surface
and on top of the compost. And yesterday, some inch long white really
thin worms – maggots???? I don’t put meat in the bin…Yikes!

I thank you in advance, and sorry for all the questions, but I have
no one else to ask!

Hi Anna!
No need to apologize. I really enjoy answering reader questions – especially when there is the potential to help a bunch of people at once (by answering on the blog).

Ok – firstly, I’m sorry to hear about your worms. That is certainly no fun (either for you or the worms)!
The ‘Can O’ Worms’ stacking system is a great worm bin there is no doubt about it, but your situation has certainly highlighted the limitations of systems like this. In my mind, small plastic systems (especially those that are black in colour) are generally best kept indoors since they are very easily influenced by outdoor air temperatures, and can turn into mini furnaces if let out in the sun for any length of time.

If you are going to keep these systems outside, it is very important to locate them in the coolest possible area of your yard. Red Worms are quite tolerant of warm temperatures, but if it is common for temps to reach 100 degrees (37.8 C) or more in your area I’m not even sure a shady area will keep your worms alive when kept in small plastic systems.

If I lived in a region with heat waves like that I would definitely construct a separate (larger) outdoor system. It would be fairly light in colour, would be designed to allow a decent amount of airflow (but not so much that it’s constantly drying out), and would definitely have a pit underneath it where the worms can retreat during very hot temps (I actually DO have a system like that, but I’m more concerned with protecting from the cold than the heat).

As for your stinky, farty smelling bin…

I would definitely (plug my nose then…) mix in a bunch of shredded cardboard or newspaper strips to help encourage more air flow. You may also want to hold off from adding any new food for a little while as well.

The little round “eggs” are likely mites – there is a round, slow moving variety that just seems to be born to invade worm bins (it’s rare to keep worm bins for any length of time and never see these mites). They always seem to appear when conditions start to go downhill for the worms – in fact, many newcomers assume they eat worms since you will often find them coating semi-alive, and dead worms. They are actually there cleaning up the mess, and won’t cause any direct harm to healthy worms.

As for the “inch long” white worms, you’ve definitely got me stumped there. It is common to get Pot Worms (aka ‘White Worms) in a worm bin (they often come hand in hand with the mites – well ok, not literally – haha), but they are nowhere near an inch in length – at least not in my experience. they definitely don’t sound like any sort of maggot, since those would be shorter and fatter. Whatever they are, there is a decent chance they won’t cause any harm to your worms – but DO keep and eye on them just in case!

Anyway, hope this helps somewhat!
Thanks for the questions.

[tags]worm bin, worm bins, can o worms, vermicomposting, worm composting, white worms, pot worms, mites[/tags]

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    • Patricia
    • May 26, 2008

    I have also noticed inch long white worms in my enclosure and I just assumed they were baby wigglers. There weren’t alot of them but I was working on a corner and they were there. They definitely weren’t maggots. TIA

    • Bentley
    • May 26, 2008

    Thanks for sharing, Patricia. I have a feeling there are simply certain varieties of pot worms that get bigger than the ones I’m familiar with. Hopefully I will find some myself so I can have a closer look.


    • Mare
    • September 23, 2009

    Hello, I just started a worm farm at my school and having no experts about, I’ve just been relying on google for guidance. I bought 1000 red worms and have them in a polystyrene bin which is about 35 cm wide, 47 cm long and 40 cm deep. I punched holes at the bottom (for the worm tea) and have a loose fabric covering over the top. I put in about a kilo of waste (just fruit and veg) a week ago and it seems to be disapearing but there is no worm tea coming out the bottom. Does this mean my worms are dying? when should I expect worm tea? Also, do i wait for all the waste to be composted and then change the bedding or do i add food everyday and change the bedding any time? What i really need is a step by step on worm care. I know it should be really easy but I’m getting very stressed as I don’t want to be the teacher that murdered the worms.
    Thanks for your time!

    • Bentley
    • September 25, 2009

    Hi Mare,
    There seems to be a widespread misconception (likely started by worm bin manufacturers) that a worm bin should produce ‘worm tea’. The fact of the matter is that the liquid that comes out the bottom of a bin is often not all that great (usually referred to as ‘leachate’ by the way), especially early on. It also is only going to be produced when there is excess moisture in the system. This isn’t some sort of magical ‘worm pee’, or something the worms otherwise produce. If water is evaporating from the system, there often won’t be leachate, that’s all there is to it. It definitely doesn’t mean your worms are dying!

    It’s really important not to stress too much about all of this. With a mellow approach it is actually a lot easier to do well with vermicomposting (seems counter-intuitive, but its true!). I would add food based on how quickly the worms are consuming it. You won’t need to add more bedding for the first little while (assuming you set up the bin with a lot of it initially), but as it starts to break down you will definitely want to make sure to continue adding it. An easy approach is simply to keep a nice thick layer of bedding on top at all time – whenever it gets depleted you simply add more.

    You harvest the vermicompost once the level of dark brown/black material gets up past the halfway mark in the bin (just a guideline of course – generally, this will several months or more down the road).

    Hope this helps

    • moniki
    • October 6, 2009

    I had the same thing happen! stinky “compost tea” with dead worms in the bottom of the can o worms. all the other worms are moving very slowly. However, NOw what do I do? I moved the bedding over to one side and put in new bedding with a little food. will they revive and migrate? should I move them manually? should I start all over with new worms?

  1. Putting too much compost in a mid sized system I seem to have turned it acid (enchytraeids abound) and n ot been able to rectify it with gardening lime, as suggested elsewhere. It is foul smelling and becoming increasingly liquid. I have been removing the liquid. I doubt that it’s all that healthy.

    In addition it has begun to support some disgusting whip tailed grubs I have not been able to identify. (Googling brings ads for fishing bait…). The last time I saw there they were crawling around the opening of a hole in the ground used as a toilet in France back before the entire country adopted porcelain. I seem to have created excrement.

    Question: Would it be possible to add paper, more soil, more lime, get new worms and hope they can deal with it? I will be pouring some soil on top to see if any of them can still save themselves. Or should I go dig a hole under the garden and

    • Bentley
    • February 16, 2010

    Adding new bedding materials is often a great way to help an ailing bin. It serves to absorb excess moisture, increase air flow and balance out the C:N ratio. If there is a lid on the system, leaving it off during the day might not be a bad idea as well since this will help moisture to evaporate, and will also increase oxygenation of the composting zone.
    I would not recommend adding soil to a worm bin (other than perhaps a tiny pinch when you first set it up to provide some grit and help to inoculate with microbes).

    I also tend to steer clear of lime since rapid pH changes can have a negative impact on the overall ecosystem (and make things worse).

    • liilaa
    • April 7, 2010

    As far as I know, the black, stinky liquid that comes out of the bottom of the bin is not compost tea but waste also known as leachate (worms produce waste too).
    To make compost tea, you need to fill a container with equal parts of compost and water, let it sit for a week or so (not in the direct sunlight please!) then strain it with cheese cloth or the like and use the nutrient filled liquid to fertilize your soil (don’t spray directly as you can burn the plant like this). Take the compost that you used to make the tea with and return it to the pile. Use new compost for each tea making.

    I found “inch long whitish worms” in my bin too and i think that they are meal worms. I made the guess that the meal worm eggs came to my bin from corn husks that I threw in there. I’ve seen plenty of meal worms on the summer corn at the farmers markets here in the northeast.

    • Theo
    • September 15, 2011

    I had a very healthy colony of worms and was getting a good amount of tea from them about every two weeks. We had a heat wave and around the same time I added some commercial manure and grass clippings. Now I am getting no more tea and the colony is dwindling. What did I do? I know the heat may have affected them. What about the manure and grass clippings?

    • gary ivester
    • June 19, 2013

    I, started a wormbed in a clear plastic container 2.5ftby3,5ft and 7inch.deep.
    and keep it in my basement,red wigglers and night crawlers mixed,I drilled a 3/8 inch hole in one corner to keep excess water from building up.I have had it for 10 weeks, I, feed them idhao potatoe flakes and planin corn meal , I keep them covered with cardborad and a loose fitting top. and they are doing great.I hope i,am doing this right,any helpful comments would be appreciated. THANKS

    • Laura
    • July 19, 2013

    I’m a first time worm composter. I ordered 1/2 lb red wigglers from a market on Wednesday and picked them up on Thursday. They came in a plastic container with some compost in it. I couldn’t see any of the worms when I opened the lid. I put them in a cooler with some cool water bottles beneath them, no ice, for the 2 hours trip home. When I got them home I put them in the fridge while making the bin. Part way through I took them out of the fridge and put them outside (to warm up) for about 1/2, in very hot weather. They surfaced and didn’t look healthy so I added a bit of cold water before added them to the bin. Today (Friday) most of them seem to be dead and the bin smells like rot. Some are still alive so I added some dry bedding and mixed it. I’ve left the lid off under the light to try to stimulate burrowing. What did I do wrong?

    • Bentley
    • July 20, 2013

    Sorry for delays responding here. Will answer some of the older questions for the benefit of future visitors.

    THEO – heat wave + grass clippings + manure sounds like an invitation for disaster unfortunately. Manure and grass can release ammonia which is deadly toxic for worms. Heat speeds up the decomposition process (which can mean faster release of ammonia) – and it also affects the worms negatively if over 90 F or so (keep in mind, temps in system likely hotter than ambient).
    GARY – Interesting set up. If everything is working out that”s great. My only suggestion might be to use those foods in moderation. They could both have the potential to get pretty foul if you add too much at once. Also make sure you are including bedding materials, and eventually refreshing the entire system (maybe splitting off to create new systems) so they are not living in a waste-laden habitat.
    LAURA – Hard to say for sure what might have happened with the worms. Just sitting in a plastic container at the market could have done it – but it also could have been the temperature shock going from cold to extremely hot. I’d recommend keeping them someplace with moderate temps and leaving them alone to see if any of them bounce back.

    • Lynne
    • May 1, 2014

    Is it ok to leave the dead worms in the can-of-worms bin? I think heat die-off caught me off guard.

    • Bentley
    • May 6, 2014

    Hi Lynne
    It depends on how soon you plan to add new worms. If you mixed some new bedding in and left the system to system for a month or two it would likely then be ok for adding new worms. If you plan to get started a lot sooner I would definitely recommend cleaning out the system and starting fresh. Add the old material to an outdoor system or your garden since it should still offer some benefits.

  2. Hello all;

    I’m so excited about worms. Read a lot from this forum.
    I ordered some worms but i received the package with a very bad smell and no worms at all. The poorly made packacing was a plastic bottle with just 2 small holes, and the bottle was full of damp soily stuff and I think the air couyldn’t get inside.
    There are no worms, but there are some very small whitey(not very fat) wormies.
    *Are they baby worms or some worms(whatever) that we don’t want in the bin?
    *Should I keep/use this material(bad smelly soil+small worms)? Should I add new worms into that? Or should I start over with everything nice and clean?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Sandy
    • September 7, 2015

    Interesting about no soil recommendations. Because I am using soil – not only soil and low grade.

    What I have is pet supply store large lidded styrofoam containers. [my system is very small these are about a foot deep and 2.5 foot diameter. Holes in bottom, set into another container and lid with a few holes. I USE SOIL! Well very degraded soil which was why I plucked some earthworms and red wigglers from my yard. which has an excessive sandy consistency due to location.

    Now sure I didn’t put 1000 worms in there. I was just testing the waters to see if I could breed them.

    Added 6 large [6-8 inch] earthworms and all the red wigglers I could find [no more than 10] to start.
    Today, 5 months later – You cannot shift the bin’s soil around without seeing baby worms of both types. Lots of earthworms/red wiggler babies. They look just like the large version only tiny!

    I ‘use a garden fork to lighting aerate the bottom usually weekly when they get their ‘Sunday coffee’ [once a week added and mixed into SOIL! Which is very rich, I remove and replace soil for planting. Old soil that was useless in old potting containers added, fresh removed and worms sifted out 😉 ]

    But I have gone away for a month and done nothing to the bin. Just prepped as mentioned before leaving. Oh I also crush leaves and add them often at top, middle, bottom layers of my bin. Material from the location I dug them out of [which was soil in a plastic container that had bulbs in it] is added once a month too.

    BTW to those seeing thin white string like worms? You are using too much *WHITE* paper products and/or paper products – remove about half of what you have and those lil guys will go away pretty quickly. It is most definitely sign that your PH is off if you have a LOT of those guys.

    Corrugated cardboard makes for the best bedding – shredded. Remember no **glossed paper products.**

    If I have too much paper – as I will use some over the top to help keep fruit flies down you’ll get those white wormy things. [no fruit flies either and done outside!]

    A few won’t hurt! Too many is off balance [my system is kept on covered back porch the styrofoam + shady/concrete area seems to keep the soil at a stable temp]

    I think there are so many ways to do worms and what works for one isn’t going to work for another. I have nearly 500 worms now once those babies get bigger. The small worms that look like actual earthworms! And will split the farm in half as I can get more of these containers.

    In NE Florida so we do get freezing days and that concrete may get too cold requiring an old towel or two under it and one to cover it over night [temps usually go back to 65 by noon even if hard freeze overnight]

    • Sandy
    • September 7, 2015

    It should also be noted that in a system like I have where I started out with such a small amount of worms that if you go in and they’re at the top layer and balling up? Or if you have several thousand and several ‘balls of worms’ your worms are not happy. Worms ball up when conditions are not right. Yes, they ‘herd’ together. Research discovered when they’re balled up [not talking a couple mating that LOOKS different] they’re communicating on ‘where do we go for better conditions and food’ — seen that one time when the bottom layer started to get too anaerobic/damp [before holes added but I tipped it and drained that out, then added all new bedding of cardboard] once I fixed the issue and removed that soil/excess and added new bedding they’re back to usual behavior. And it’s not unusual to find them along the sides of a square container such as I am using – it’s a great hiding spot.

    These days when adding material mentioned in previous post [coffee grounds, leaf debris, old soil] – I also lightly spray the top layer w/water but very very little and after a week burrow holes show up all over as well as [yes they talk to me LOL 😉 ]
    “we don’t eat the sticks on leaves, here have this rock too ya…take this out while you’re at it too” material pushed to the top of the bin.

    so I pluck all that out first and as I go through the motions, one corner at a time – flip….pick up the disturbed worms and put them to a side either finished or last to flip then make sure to fluff the paper and push it back down to the bottom.

    My big original members the 6-8 inchers? I forgot to mention how bloody FAT they are now… I mean plump as my pinky! They know me and even though they don’t really like to be disturbed they do get rather curious; sometimes it’s “oh hell is she coming to flip my area today and making me move or what…?” general nosey-ness. Seems my system is decent enough for them to breed in. [my hair falls in they usually ball up all the strands and push it to the top too]

    Just be mindful of too many worms in one bin. I think it stresses them when starting with 1000+ worms. Be mindful of balling worms – they’re NOT HAPPY if they do that…. and enjoy them… the big ones I call “berthas” and ya know? Though they’re perfect for fishing, it would be difficult for me to do that to them. What am I gonna do with too many worms? Clear more leaf debris! bulk more soil and waste products in house. It’s easy to expect them to eat a lot but it takes time. Also? avoid egg shells. Takes forever to break down [unless you crush it very finely before adding it to your soil worm bin….]

    Have fun! Good luck!

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