How Long Can Worms Be Left Unattended?

From Tom:

We have returned from our extended travels after 2 1/2 Months to find our worm population at about 6…… I guess we will have to start over again with a new population????
FYI, we did feed about two weeks before our departure and added additional bedding but I suspect based on what we found on return inspection was the food supply was exhausted…..????

Hi Tom,
While I’d certainly be the first to recommend neglecting your worms a bit (typically better than too much attention), I can’t say I’m TOO surprised that most of them have disappeared after not feeding them for essentially 3 months. There are a lot of factors that can play a role here. The location of your system (indoors/outdoors), the average ambient temperatures while you were away, the age of the system (before you left), and how the system was set up could all have a major impact.

For example, worms in a newly set-up (enclosed, moisture-retaining) system containing LOTS of shredded cardboard bedding mixed with food, located indoors in a relatively cool spot would have a MUCH better chance of surviving than if the system was sitting in a really warm spot, with not enough bedding mixed in – especially if the system was already pretty mature by the time you stopped tending to it and/or it ended up drying out quite a bit.

I definitely wouldn’t give up on the material left in your bin by the way – perhaps there are lots of smaller worms and/or cocoons that you just didn’t see? Might be worth putting some new bedding/food mix on top to see if you end up with more (than 6) worms up in this zone. You might be surprised by the number of worms you end up finding there in a week or two (hard to say for sure, but probably worth a shot anyway).

Hope this helps!

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    • Kevin
    • September 3, 2011

    I went away for three weeks and had a friend take care of my worms based off the same schedule I had been using for the past several months and now that I’m back, I’ve seen maybe two red wigglers left. This seems mighty mighty odd to me, considering that nothing changed besides the hands that fed them.

    There are a bunch of little white worms, so I don’t know if these are the next generation or just some other critter species that likes to sit around in compost.

    Before reading your post here, Bentley, I actually did what you suggested to Tom and put some fresh scraps in the bin. After two days of not checking on it, I opened the bin just before typing this and no new takers on the scraps. There are, though, just a tonne of these little white worms and it looks like they’re eating the older scraps. Do you think they’re babies? If so, do I need to be more cautious in my feeding frequency or should I just maintain my usual schedule of once every three/four days?

    • Julie
    • September 3, 2011

    Like Bentley says, I guess it depends on the environment and type of bins. I’ve tried doing it different ways, following advice and schedules from things I read on here, and on forums, but basically have stopped even thinking about it now 🙂 When I have food scraps, I put them in a little at a time, and when I don’t, I don’t worry about it.

    I live up north, so not as hot of a climate most of the year. It’s very humid though. I have one outdoor plastic bin but I never go look in it . Of the indoor ones, some are covered, some are not. I also have many open plastic containers of various sizes, and a worm inn. In everyone of them, I usually do the same thing.

    I have a very uneven feeding schedule for my worm bins. Sometimes I’ll put just a handful of food scraps, and wait a week or sometimes I’ll drop a pound or 2 (bigger quantities in the worm inn– my plastic bins don’t handle the big quantities very well). Sometimes I won’t feed for a couple weeks, sometimes I’ll do it every couple days. Completely random. Population seems ok. It might not be dense enough to sell and replenish fast (if you are doing a worm selling business) but the population and the bin never goes out — so far at least 🙂 And I’ve harvested part of the colony to start new bins as well.

    I’ve gone away for 2-3 weeks without feeding, and not necessarily leaving extras before I go, and they seem to like that, as my bins are usually much nicer looking, left undisturbed, instead of me checking in every day. When I come back, I usually find lovely drier denser vermicompost and the worms are down at the bottom mostly, and see lots of activity back on top when I put new food in. I’ve had worms survive on newspaper only for weeks, if not months or more. Usually the closed plastic bins do ok, and can be left unfed longer (I think because of the humidity, and the size) than my smaller open containers.

    One thing that most of my bins have, is always a couple inches (most often with even a bigger layer) of shredded newspaper on top. If that disappears, I just add more of that layer. So, even if there is no food scraps, there is a dark, airy cover on top of the dense vermicompost underneath.
    I haven’t scientifically compared to a bin with just mature vermicompost and no newspaper cover on top, I only have one of those… so I can’t really tell if this is a factor influencing anything at all…

    basically, I’ve left indoor (plastic, covered, and not covered) bins unattended, unfed for long periods, and then randomly feed them, and have not noticed migrations out, or dying out of entire populations. I haven’t individually counted them though.

    • Julie
    • September 3, 2011

    oh… and

    I’ve had the tiny white worms, crawling over food scraps, wet newspaper and cardboard, and for me, those are usually pot worms (Enchytraeidae), not baby red worms.

    I think others have had springtails but I’ve never seen one of them in my bins, they must not be natives here, or maybe come with manure (which I don’t use).

    For the pot worms, I was concerned for a long time, as every time I would look in, my food scraps would be completely covered in those, and I was wondering if that was bothering my worms, and if anything would be left for them, but they’d be around in the bin and looked fine, so I stopped worrying. After about a year, I’ve found less of those pot worms in the older bins, but they do not disappear completely and they are usually the first to appear and populate whenever I start new bins.

    If I figure out how to harvest and where to sell these pot worms, I’d probably make more money than with red worms 😉 but everyone is co-habitating well, so far, and populations might rise and fall, but they are still contentedly getting rid of my food and paper wastes.

    • Paul from Winnipeg
    • September 3, 2011

    I just poked my head into my worm bin after 2 months last week. Poor guys were pretty dry, but had eaten a good deal of the cardboard and shredded paper so I guess they didn’t go too hungry. They all were hanging out in the middle of the bin where it was still sort of moist.

    To reward them for…uh surviving… I gave them watermelon rinds to moisten up the bedding and revive them. This weekend I was greeted with gobs and gobs of rehydrated worms. This is good because my nephew is interested in starting his own bin so it’s time for me to build one for him.

    I had harvested a few weeks prior to ‘neglect’ and had been feeding very moist foods and had filled the whole bin with bedding, so I suppose that was a best case scenario. Wooden bin 1X2X2′.

    • Liz
    • September 3, 2011

    Here in Texas, I must tend to mine at least once a week year round, our temperatures are so variable, I have to watch the moisture and bin temps like a hawk!

    If I left them for a month, they would be long gone.

  1. Moisture,or lack there of,is key! I’ve been trying to mess up on purpose.And realized it is usually over pampering of worms that does them in.My flowthru gets lots of oxygen.That and other systems,i’ve been slacking off on.And i must say that if you let a worm bin get on the dry side,the worms take their chances heading for the hills! Food hot composting,etc. does add to the equation.Also if it gets too wet so that oxygen no longer gets down into the bedding.
    Not sure how long worms live in their own waste? But with air they go for quite a while! IMHO

    • Peter
    • September 4, 2011

    With it’s huge moisture retention you can get a postive feedback loop going. As worms die, they release moisture (and some nasty worm stuff going by the smell), which makes more moisture in the bin, which kills more worms which creates more moisture….

    If you’re a worm voyuer and peek at your worms every other day and feed once a week, the peeking is releasing moisture. So getting someone to feed the regular amount once a week is actually adding more moisture than usual to the bin, as you don’t have the every other day inspection allowing dryer air in.

    With a more breathable system, it just needs watering, no feedback possible. If you’ve got someone house sitting, plant watering, would be a easy way to go. You WILL get some very funny looks though when you make the request ;). Maybe hook up one of those plant self watering systems….

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