Do I Have the Right Worms?

Question from Mike F:

I have been composting for a few years now. I want to start composting
with worms. I have a large compost pile that I put everything in that
does not fit into my three other compost bins. I was digging in that
pile just to get a little extra air into it and found thousands of
worms. My question is are those the right worms for composting in a
worm bin, or should I just buy some ?

Hi Mike,

Great question! You’ve actually (accidentally) hit on a great way to test if there are “epigeic” (will get back to this term in a minute) worm species in your area. All you need to do is lay down some rich organic matter, such as farmyard manure (the real stuff – not from a bag) or food scraps mixed with shredded newsprint (good idea to cover this with something like straw) etc, keep your heap moist, then simply wait.

Getting back to the term “epigeic”…

There are three primary categories of earthworms based on where in the soil profile they live. Briefly, the “anecic” worms are those that create very deep vertical burrows, really only coming up to feed and mate (or to escape flooding). “Endogeic” worms are the “in-betweeners”, creating horizontally-oriented burrows in the soil zones closer to the surface – these would include most of the small to medium sized species we might think of as “garden worms” encountered when digging around in the soil. Lastly, the “epigeic” species are those that live very-close-to or – very often – actually above the soil surface in rich deposits of organic matter (eg. old manure heaps). As you’ve probably gathered by now, these are the ones we are after. Apart from being adapted for life in rich organic matter (and of course having the ability to convert these materials into rich worm castings), they can also breed much more quickly, and tolerate higher temperatures and crowded conditions.

SO, any time you find loads of one species (often fairly small – but not necessarily) throughout your compost heap (or test pile), there is a very good chance you’ve found a species that can serve as a valuable “composting worm”. Endogeic – and even anecic – worms will often be found in or near composting systems as well, but they tend to remain close to the soil/compost interface, and you will almost never find any one species in huge abundance.

There ARE some semi-soil worms – what you might refer to as “epi-endogeic” or “endo-epigeic” species – that can seem like composting worms (venturing further up in the heap, and in greater abundance), but they will almost never occur in the same sorts of densities – or be as widespread in the waste materials – as the true epigeics.

Based on that you’ve described, Mike, I’d say you are probably fine to leave things as-is. Perhaps some Red Worms have traveled from a neighbor’s compost bin and invaded your heap? You might try collecting some of them and start up a small worm bin so you can observe them more closely. If they thrive in the bin environment (increase in number and process wastes) you can pretty well guarantee that you are good to go!

Hope this helps!

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    • John W.
    • August 15, 2013

    My head hurts after this science lesson!

    • David
    • August 15, 2013

    I had no idea that a local indigenous variety of red wiggler (or similar variety) might be discovered in a healthy compost pile like this. If that is the case, a local worm may very well be a better choice for vermicomposting since it is already acclimatized to local weather, soil conditions, etc.

    • GA
    • August 16, 2013

    This is how my own worm horde began – a pile of stuff that when I dug it up had worms throughout. Very hardy and have lived through several winters. I think they’re Euros but may be reds. Require very little care and always seem happy and hungry.
    Anyway, I like your main conclusion: “any time you find loads of one species (often fairly small – but not necessarily) throughout your compost heap (or test pile), there is a very good chance you’ve found a species that can serve as a valuable “composting worm”. ”

    This could be repeated again and again.

    The only note I’d add is that worms like this may like/need more buffer space (and/or ground to flee to) in case of conditions they don’t like. Or put slightly differently, they may be much more sensitive in smaller, closed (indoor) bin environments than outdoors.

    • Bentley
    • August 16, 2013

    JOHN – Good thing I eased you into it. That’s the abridged version for sure. LoL
    DAVID – I don’t know of too many comparable (to Reds/Euros) species that literally live in the “wild”, but there are certainly some that could do a solid job – PLUS there are many locations where actual Reds and Euros could still find their way into your outdoor systems simply due to the fact that they are living in other composting systems, aged manure heaps etc in your region. You are right about the acclimatization though – I suspect that over time populations of these species could become more and more adapted to the local environment.
    GA – very interesting! Your idea about them potentially needing more buffer space is interesting as well – might make for cool experiment.

    • Ron Phillips
    • October 8, 2014

    There always seem to be people asking where to get a hold of worms, especially more difficult in some countries. It would seem that this may be the best method of getting worms in their country, allowing time to attract them. And it’s free, no shipping to worry about!


    (Cdn expat from North Bay, Ont)

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