Vanishing Worms

Hi Folks!
Just so you know, I’ve been on a bit of a vacation since last week so I’m not at the computer nearly as much. That being said, I will still be trying to get a few posts up this week. Let’s start with a reader question. This one comes from Angela, who is wondering what happened to her worms.

Hi! I found your site and it was was great to read your answers to all the worm bin questions. I have a strange scenario that I’m not sure how to remedy.

About a month or two ago, we bought some worms to begin a worm bin. They came from someone else’s worm bin and came along with some “stuff” from their worm bin too so I didn’t worry too much about getting my worm bin in order a few weeks before hand. I put them in the bottom of my plastic bin and put strips of damp newspaper on top. Then I put in food scraps (egg shells, banana peels, cantelope scraps, etc.). We kept the bin in our garage.

After about a week we noticed there was white fuzzy mold growth on some of the scraps so my husband said he would be more comfortable with moving the bin outside so the mold spores wouldn’t be right in the house. We are a family of heavy allergies and want as little exposure to mold as possible. So, I moved the bin outside to what I thought was a shady location. I kind of neglected it for a while thinking I had put too much food in it and that was the cause for the mold. In the meantime we’ve had a couple weeks of thunderstorms and today I realized that the spot where I put the worm-bin gets some sun so there are times in the day where it probably gets too hot for them. So, when I checked them today there were not worms to be found. There were some kind of fruit flies and what I thought looked like baby worms, but no adult worms at all. When I moved the bin, I noticed there were about 4 adult worms underneath it but I’m not sure these came from my bin.

I know you mentioned that sometimes the worms leave the bin if it doesn’t have the right environment. We drilled our ventilation holes near the top of the bin, just underneath the lid…is it possible they left that way? I feel terrible that I am potentially a worm mass murderer and would really like to see my bin up and running.

In summary, here are my questions:
1. Did my worms leave the bin through the ventilation holes near the top of the bin, or did I accidentally kill them?
2. If there is mold in the bin, is that a bad sign or normal? If it is normal and inevitable, is it safe to have in the garage even with people in the home with allergies?
3. Is there anything I can do at this point to save my bin or do I need to start over from scratch?

Thanks so much!

Hi Angela,
Sorry to hear about your missing worms!
The first thing I wondered about as I read your email was exactly how much “stuff” from the other person’s bin you ended up with. You are right about not needing quite so much aging etc when adding a full chunk o’ habitat from another worm bin, but this amount of material should be quite substantial if you not planning to really add much new bedding to your bin. The maturity of the material is also an important consideration. If the worms in the other bin are essentially living in pure worm castings (i.e. their own poop) it is fairly important that you fill your bin with lots of new bedding materials. If there is still plenty of undigested bedding that comes with the worms on the other hand, this isn’t as serious a concern.

You are right about the potential for killing the worms when a bin sits in direct sunlight (during warm weather). A dark plastic bin will soak up the heat of the sun and get very hot inside. If it’s a larger system there will still likely be some cool zones where the worms can safely retreat, but a typical home worm bin can basically just turn into a mini oven – assuming they get enough sun.

You also mentioned thunderstorms. Worms love moisture – and one of the reasons they stay in a worm bin is because there is a much higher moisture content inside than outside the bin (assuming it is an indoor bin). During heavy rainfall, the humidity outside the bin is obviously going to be very high, thus encouraging the worms to venture out – especially if conditions in the bin are not to their liking. You’d be surprised how small a hole they can squeeze through. I suspect that this is what happened to your worms (since you found other living creatures still inhabiting the bin).

As for the growth of fungus – this is not necessarily a bad sign, although it could indicate that you’ve added too much food, and not enough bedding (good idea to add more bedding each time you add food waste). While I would normally say that typical worm bin fungi are not something to be concerned about, given the fact that your family has serious allergies I would suggest that you don’t keep the bin indoors – at least not for now. Aside from adding bedding, it also helps to bury the wastes as well.

Should you give up on this bin? Absolutely not! Add a bunch more bedding and maybe a little bit more food, then leave it to sit for awhile. You may be surprised to find worms springing up after a couple months, especially given the fact that you received some materials from someone else’s bin (which likely contained cocoons). You might also want to create a full-blown outdoor system, and simply add the contents of the bin to it. I’d recommend digging a hole 3 feet deep and 2 feet across, then adding a nice thick layer of shredded cardboard (or strips of newspaper if you prefer) in the bottom. Next, add LOTS of food scraps mixed with more bedding materials along with some water from a watering can. You can put a regular backyard composter over top or any other cover you feel like using. It should be something that will allow you to control the amount of moisture added, since you don’t want the contents to get completely flooded every time it pours. Let this system age for a week or so then add the contents of your bin. If you keep adding food scraps and bedding to your worm pit (don’t need to be nearly so careful in terms of the amounts added) you should have a thriving population of worms before too long. Aside from whatever young ones and cocoons are left in the bin, you’ll likely attract any others that may still be hanging out in the area.

Not sure where you are located, but in case you are worried about freezing during the winter…
I have a couple outdoor systems – one is insulated during the winter and easily keeps the worms alive until spring, but even the regular backyard composter with the pit beneath it has a good survival rate – likely due to the fact that the worms can go down below the soil surface to zones that don’t freeze solid.

Anyway – hope this helps, Angela!


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