Disappearing Worms

This question comes from Wendi, who is wondering where all her worms went.

Hi!
I’m really enjoying your website/blog and find it very informative.
I’ve looked for info on worms “leaving the bin/possibly dying” and am
having trouble finding a thorough answer. I have an outdoor bin that I
prepared last year with fresh damp bedding (newspaper strips
w/cardboard on top), added worms, and tried to follow feeding and
care recommendations, but my worms were gone within a few weeks. I
was adding kitchen scraps weekly, and figured out that the pieces
were probably too big since nothing was being eaten. There were no
signs of worms within a couple of weeks. What did I do wrong? Did I
starve them? Did they escape out the small drainage holes in the
bottom? How did they leave so fast and completely? I would really
appreciate the help – I love the idea of vermicomposting and want to
be successful at it!
Thanks,
Wendi

Hi Wendi!
Sorry to hear about your worms. That certainly doesn’t sound like the most enjoyable introduction to vermicomposting!
I think the very first question I would ask is, what type of worms were you using? Were they a species adapted for worm composting (such as ‘Red Worms’) or were they garden worms? I have a sneaking suspicion that they would have been the right kind of worms, given the fact that you’ve been reading up on vermicomposting, but you never know.
For the benefit of anyone new to worm composting, it is important to know that not just any worm will do well in a worm bin. The typical species of worms you find on your lawn (after rain) and in your garden are adapted for soil, not rich organic wastes – nor are they well adapted for crowded, warm conditions.

You also mentioned adding the worms to the moist bedding, THEN starting to add food scraps. If this is indeed the case, your worms likely ventured elsewhere in search for food. When setting up a new system, I recommend mixing a lot of food scraps in with your bedding then letting the system sit for 1-2 weeks before you even add any worms. This allows time for colonization of lots of microorganisms (the main source of nutrition for the worms), thus offering the worms a nice tasty buffet when they arrive. I think one of the most common problems with the usual recommend way of setting up a worm bin is that the worms end up introduced to a basically sterile environment – new bedding and fresh food scraps don’t really offer anything similar to the worms preferred habitat.

As for escaping out the drainage holes in the bottom, that seems quite likely. You’d be amazed how small a hole worms can squeeze through when they want to. When I’ve kept outdoor plastic bins (with drainage holes), I’ve always had worms sitting underneath the bin (if conditions are really favourable inside you won’t see too many bothering to venture out though).

One other possibility is that unfavourable conditions developed in the bin and the worms decided to head elsewhere. Perhaps you added too much food (less of an issue when you mix with bedding and let it sit for awhile) – although this seems very unlikely given the fact that you were only adding food weekly.

My recommendation would be to add a bunch more bedding and food waste this year then let your system sit for a good 2-3 weeks (make sure to add water if it seems like the system is drying out) before adding another batch of worms. Once they have been added, don’t add any more food for another 1-2 weeks, and even then start out slowly – only adding food as it disappears from the bin.

Hope this helps.
Good luck!

B.

[tags]worm bins, worm bin, worm composting, vermicomposting, composter, compost, red worms, red wigglers, compost worms, earthworms, earth worms[/tags]

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Comments

    • Alicia
    • June 3, 2008

    Hi,
    I have a question as well about disappearing worms. I started my worm bin about 3 months ago, and in beginning was way overfeeding it. So, i let it sit for awhile and have been checking it periodically and dampning it and such. Unfortunately, I cannot find one worm inside my bin anymore. I know they did not escape because I live in an apartment and have cleaned and checked around the area. When I open the worm bin there are some other microorganisms in there, and alot of ‘sludge’ (I am assuming it is decomposed food) and it smells wonderful and is still damp. Since i am absolutely certain that my worms did not escape, and I have dug to try and find some at this point, is it possible that I killed them and they decomposed too?
    If so, is it safe to add more worms. It just smells so good in the bin (just like damp earth) I can’t imagine it not being hospitable? Thanks. Alicia

    • Bentley
    • June 4, 2008

    Hi Alicia,
    What kind of worms were they?
    I would also be curious to know how long you left them without checking on them? Was it a very gradual disappearance, or were they suddenly gone? Or had you not looked in the bin for quite some time and when you did they were gone?

    If there were no worms on the floor anywhere, I would definitely say they’ve died in the bin. Worms decompose very quickly, so it’s not surprising that there is no trace of them.

    As far as adding more worms goes, I would test out some of the material on a small scale first.
    Also – if the material “smells wonderful” and is well decomposed it may be ready to be used as compost rather than serving as a bedding.

    B

    • Alicia
    • June 4, 2008

    They are or were rather, red wrigglers. I have a feeling they are dead, although I don’t know why they would have died. Any suggestions?
    Alicia

    • Bentley
    • June 8, 2008

    Hey Alicia,
    Sorry for the delay responding.
    I was wondering if the disappearance was a sudden or gradual thing? (could help to narrow down the possibilities).

    Where was your bin kept? (and what is the temperature of that location?)

    B

    • LuAnn
    • June 18, 2009

    I too am having problems with my red worms. I started a batch of compost over a month+ ago. I added horse and cow manure, leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, etc. When I added my worms (in the middle) they did great for a couple weeks. I did let the pile set for a few before I ventured in there. I got brave and stirred it, adding water and such. I’ve been stirring it every week, adding water as I go. Today when I added my kitchen scraps I noticed only one worm. I live in NM, it is hot, probably 90’s everyday. I also have tons of cockroaches at my place and they have ventured into my compost. Are the cockroaches hurting the worms? My bin is plastic with vents on the side, are the worms climbing out and getting eaten by my robins that have been hanging around? I need help. Do I need to buy more worms??

  1. My worms are gone too. This compost environment had been established for three months and I had hundreds of worms thriving in the perfect situation. Two weeks ago I brought them into the house because the outdoor temperature was in triple digits and I was thinking the plastic bin I had them in would get too hot. I fed them last week as I typically do on Fridays. Today I gently stirred the top layer as I added more food and noticed that the food I put in last week was still there. So, I stirred a little deeper and didn’t see any worms. I stirred all the way to the bottom of the bin turning and turning the layers and only found two worms–babies that had probably just arrived from eggs.
    Since the can’t get out of the snap-tight bin, I assume the worms died, but why? The food I fed them had been stored outdoors and I think it must have developed a bacteria that killed the worms. Either that or they got a virus from the computer paper I used as bedding–get it? computer virus, worm virus. Not funny, I know, but I hate to know I killed a thriving colony of red worms that I paid more than $30 for and had tended so lovingly for all these months.

    • Bentley
    • July 8, 2012

    Hi Yvonne,
    “Plastic bin” + “snap-tight” + “triple digits” is likely your answer. That is WAY too hot for Red Worms being kept in a typical plastic worm bin – even well below triple digits can be dangerous, especially if there is any sun shining on the bin. Plastic bins are like little ovens, and since air flow tends to be so poor, they can’t really cool off.
    You don’t have to worry about bacteria or any sort of “worm virus” (lol) – high temperatures and other factors like air flow (or rather a lack thereof), lack of moisture etc are more often then not the main culprits.

    • Yvonne Perry
    • July 8, 2012

    Bentley, there are air holes in the bin, which was in the shade. I brought it inside before temps reached triple digits. The worms were doing fine for three months prior, in fact doubled in quantity. They were doing well inside the first week. It wasn’t until I fed them the food that had been in a closed container outdoors in this heat that I lost the worms. Makes sense that there was a bacteria in the food that killed them. The food smelled fermented.

    I rescued the eight worms that I found and started the farm from scratch in a fresh bin yesterday with food I had stored indoors. We will see how that works. I’ll check them in about a week.

    • Bentley
    • July 8, 2012

    Thanks for the additional details, Yvonne
    While I still stick to my guns about bacteria not being a worm killer – what CAN definitely kill them is foul waste material. Wastes that have been rotting anaerobically can contain all manner of worm-toxic compounds (like alcohols etc).
    Even with air holes, plastic bins still don’t have really good air flow, and still tend to hold in heat. Keeping the bin shaded definitely helps though.
    Did you ever see lots of worms in the bin AFTER it was brought in?

  2. Yes, there were lots of worms when I first brought the bin inside, but I didn’t check (stir/disturb) them when I added food the following Friday. It had to be the foul food–alcohol–it was rotting anaerobically. I hope the remaining survivors will reproduce.

    • Bentley
    • July 8, 2012

    Absolutely, Yvonne! If you just leave the bin to sit (perhaps with some bedding being mixed in), you may be surprised to see a lot of new worms in there before too long.

  3. Thanks for your help, Bentley.

    For the restart, I used shredded brown craft paper (moistened first) as the bottom layer, followed by a layer of composed manure (Moo-Nure brand). Next, I added some fresh veggie scraps that I had stored for a couple of days in a plastic coffee bucket under my kitchen sink. Then I put a layer of decaying wheat straw on top of the food. I plan to keep the worm farm indoors until this heat passes. I may go to the bait store up the street and get another container of worms to help replenish the supply and get things going again.

  4. Hi Yvonne,
    For me the jury is still out re: bagged manures. I’ve had good results with certain types, yet with others not so much. Seems as though the cattle manures can potentially contain some worm-unfriendly stuff like salts. If you didn’t add all that much you should be fine though.
    If you get worms from the bait shop just make absolutely sure that you are getting the right kind. Even “Red Worms” from bait shops aren’t necessarily the Red Worms we are after.

    • Nancy
    • May 17, 2013

    Now I am very confused! I was told NEVER TO MIX UP FOOD IN THE BEDDING …AND it might of been the reason my bin heated up killing my worms! very sad…now I read on your answer that its important to mix it up 2 or 3 weeks prior to adding the worms….I might add that I lost my worms a week after they had arrived! thank you

    • AJ
    • April 16, 2015

    Hi B,

    I had seven trays of my worm farm and then we cleaned out four of them to get the castings. We found a ton of worms and added them to the other trays. I added another tray of food because we had so many worms. The next day there were six worms on the ground and a ton in each corner. I checked the temp to find it at 87 degrees! I added a ton of paper, toilet paper rolls and eggshell cartoons. I added another tray of food since there were a ton of worms. It was 90 degrees the next time I checked and six more worms on the ground. So, I put paint sticks between the trays to see if that would help. Please help me!!!

    • Ann Halliday
    • June 13, 2015

    Have had very good composter full of brand kings for several years. However following ant infestation, they seem to have disappeared. Are the ants to blame? Also lots of wood lice. Are they to blame?

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