Worms Are Trying to Escape

Here is a good question from Jim:

I am somewhat new to worm composting. I started earlier this
year. The bins were outside during the summer.
I moved my worm bins indoors a couple of weeks ago, just before the
first freeze. I pulled most of the compost out of the bins. As I
separated the worms from the compost, I put the worms with a little
bit of the compost back into the bins. I put the unprocessed material
back in the bins as well. I mixed dry grass, leaves and shredded paper
in the bins. I put the bins in the house in the basement.

The issue I have is, the worms seem to be trying to escape the bin. Each
time I go down there, the upper rim of the bin has quite a few worms on it.
Yesterday I thought that maybe the bin was too wet and the worms were
trying to get out of the moisture. I mixed quite a bit of shredded
paper in the bin to absorb some of the moisture. Today I went down to
put some scraps in the bin and I found lots of worms up around the
edge of the bin again. I have holes in the bottom to allow it to drain
and there doesn’t seem to be much liquid coming out of it. I am
wondering if you have an idea why the worms are trying to climb out?
Thanks for the info I have gleaned from this site in the past.

Hi Jim,
The topic of escaping worms in general is always a good one (VERY common concern), but you’ve also touched on another very interesting occurrence – something I’ve witnessed a number of times as well. For whatever reason, worms seem to be sensitive to rapid (relatively speaking) temperature changes. I’ve seen this when – like yourself – I’ve brought worm-rich materials indoors during cold weather, but I’ve also observed something similar when I’ve tried to cool down a batch of worms that was already warm. In the latter case, I had put a bag of worms in the refrigerator as a means of slowing them down and cooling them off prior to a (summer) customer pick-up. Minutes later, when I opened up the fridge to check on them, many had already found there way out of the breathable bag and were crawling around in the bowl I had place the bag in! I can’t say FOR SURE that it was the change in temperature that did it, but I’ve never witnessed anything quite like that when the bags have simply sat in the dark, so I definitely think it at least played a role.

It sounds as though you have the right idea in terms of discouraging roaming behavior. One of my recommendations is always to add a bunch of (dry) bedding at the top of the bin to help dry the sides and lid, thus discouraging the worms from venturing up from the composting zone. I also recommend taking off the lid and shining a bright light down into the bin. This (latter) approach can have two benefits – firstly, the light itself is an effective deterrent (assuming there isn’t something going seriously wrong down below), and secondly, the greatly increased air flow in the bin can help to remove gases that may be causing issues and reduce that humidity that builds up in an enclosed bin.

You MAY also have created issues with the addition of “dry grass, leaves and shredded paper”, or perhaps with whatever unprocessed materials were added back to the system, but in all honesty I’d be quite surprised if these were the cause of the roaming.

Assuming the worms have not yet settled down, my recommendation is to try the lid-off and light-shining methods to see if that helps them settle in. If not, you may indeed have something seriously going wrong in the bin, and your best bet may be to start a brand new system.

Hope this helps!

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  1. JIm
    I just moved a 28 gallon bin in the house for the winter.
    One thing I do, and never have a problem, is leave the lid off and/or place some burlap on top.
    My other thought is: I worked hard to make a nice home for them and if they don’t like it and want to dry up on the floror, then that’s what they get!

  2. I have had worms trying to get out of the bin, by congregating on the perimeter of the bin. (I use Rubbermaid bins). When this happens I figure there is something in the middle that they don’t like, so I scoop it out, mix in some vegetable scraps with shredded cardboard, and mix the worms into it. I don’t like to expose them to the open air too much as then I’ll get beetles laying their eggs in the bin. I also don’t like to use shredded paper as it clumps and the worms don’t seem to like it much. The really like shredded cardboard. I run pieces of cardboard through my shredder, then mist it with water before adding to the worm bit. Sometimes I do get beetle grubs but I just pick them out and put them in a clay saucer for the lizards and birds to eat. I’m in So California so I don’t have to worry about the cold. I never put dry grass into the worm bin, as it can get hot and I don’t want to cook them. Other times when they are all trying to get out I just start a new bin.

    • Joe
    • November 29, 2010

    You put a bag of worms in the fridge?? And some escaped!?!

    You are lucky to still have a wife, my friend. 🙂

    • Ar-Pharazon
    • December 2, 2010

    A couple more thoughts:

    Jim says he pulled most of the compost out of the bins. I’m getting from this that the new habitat for the worms was mostly fresh bedding and unprocessed material. Maybe the worms now find that the bin contents are too fresh and un-rotted. And then, worms often dislike a major disruption like having the whole bin turned over — wandering is a typical response, I think? I suggest harvesting only half of the compost at a time.

    When my worms start increasingly wandering, I often find that adding finely crushed eggshells increases their satisfaction with the bin. They usually stop wandering and hang out around the compost surface.

    • Jim
    • December 4, 2010

    I left the lids off the two bins and turn a light on over them. The worms went right back down into the bins. I thought we were in good shape. I put the lids back on and waited a couple of days and went back down and some of the worms were up at the top on the bins again. I left the lids ajar for a day and the worms once again went back down into the bedding.
    I am going to check on them again today when I get home. If they are trying to escape again, I thing I am going to move those that are escaping into a composter that is outside. I was worried they would freeze. I checked the composter last night, and even though it had some snow on it, it was still warm inside. Maybe they will survive, if not they were trying to get away anyway.
    Thanks for the comments. I have tried putting some more food in there as well.
    One of the guys at work feeds his worms corn meal during the winter to keep the bugs down.

    • Jim
    • December 5, 2010

    I checked the bins last night. One of the bins has settled down. No worms were trying to get out. The other bin still has a few trying to get out. The moisture on the lids has dropped off a little, I don’t know if that is part of the reason they are staying down in the bin now. I dug around in there a bit and the worms in the bins look good. We will have to see.
    Thanks for the ideas.

    • Andrew
    • December 5, 2010

    Another consideration is that different worm species react differently to the various environmental factors. E. fetida and E. hortensis don’t mind bedding disturbances as much as E. eugeniae and P. excavatus. If a rookie vermicomposter happens to get a mix of EF & PE, things can get very confusing.

  3. I find when I move then inside or outside, they go to the top and try to get out. Doesn’t seem to matter if its from warm to cooler or cooler to warm, they seem to want to get out. Then after a day or two, they seem to adjust and no longer try to get out.

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