Vermicomposting 3: Mating Habits Of The Red Compost Worm

Back at the University of Saskatchewan where I used whatever spare time I could find to set up and maintain my first Website, “The Burrow”, which is where these composting articles that I am featuring once a week here on my new Blog actually come from (some of my very first pieces of serious written work), I also had enough daily e-mail coming in that I was able to take the best of this correspondence (usually from elementary-level school children) and feature it in a weekly article that served as a vehicle for explaining some of the ins-and-outs of worm culturing in general, and specifically, the art of vermiculture, or vermicomposting (composting with worms). today’s article is an example of one such question, and the answer to that question. I chose this particular topic because it’s something I’m still asked about quite often, and it is, of course, something that is quite crucial to the health of any worm bin since without it’s frequent occurrence, the bin would simply cease to exist. So, if I’ve managed to pique your curiosity, please join me now as we enter the favorite working environment of my old Burrow mascot, Willie the worm, as he flexes those 3 tremendous nerve endings that serve as every worm’s brain (or ganglion) and educates us by answering the following question which arrived one day at:

Willy the Worm’s Wonderful Words of Wisdom
(Letters, Questions, and Answers)

Mailbox 1

 

From: Raymond

(Ray comes from Timmins, Ontario)

  Could you please explain the process involved in the mating of two red worms. I would also like to know if there is anyway to speed up or encourage the process?  

Well Raymond, I have come across at least the following two items which various people have claimed increase the productivity of their red worms. Brown sugar, and corn meal. To tell you the truth, however, I’m wondering why anyone would be concerned about speeding up the reproduction rate of animals that make rabbits look like monks by comparison? Oh well, to each their own I guess.

According to the information which is available, either one of these substances, when sprinkled on the surface of the bedding, will increase the romantic intent of all the little “Wormeos and Wooliettes” in the bin, which in turn should dramatically increase the population (and I seriously do mean dramatically). As far as the scientific studies go, I don’t recall ever seeing any on this particular subject (like I said, breeding has never been a problem where worms are concerned). What I can tell you for certain, is that red worms certainly do like both of these substances as a food source, and considering the nutrients either of these items would add to the finished product (vermicompost), it definitely can’t hurt to give one or both of them a try. With the sugar for sure, though probably not so much for the corn-meal, be very careful not to add too much to your bin, because it could cause heating, and that could prove dangerous, or even fatal to your worms. This is a caution that should be kept in mind anytime you add a food source that is high in protein or carbohydrates, though its not as likely to be a problem in an indoor bin as it would be in an outdoor heap due, to the difference in quantity of materials.

Worms in love
This image was drawn for me and sent to my web-site by a gentleman named Jim Thomas to whom I am extremely grateful.

Now, I never had any idea that my mascot was the shy type, but it appears he is, because he would like me to take over from here and explain the mating process, which I agreed to do, as long as he would answer a few questions for me. Then after listening to his explanation of how he first likes to send his favorite partners-to-be a little box of garbage, or maybe some dead flowers, I decided it would be better if I tackled it myself. (It’s got to be for the best, since I notice he’s been a little dreamy-eyed [which is tough for a worm] ever since we started talking about the whole mating thing.) A.n.y.h.o.w, the procedure for red worms goes something like this.

If you take a look at a few of the worms in your bin, you will soon notice that many of them have a swollen-looking area located about one-third of the way down from the head. This area is known as the “clitellum” and is only present on sexually-mature worms. (Some people refer to this area as “the band”, hence the nickname “banded worm” for one which is capable of breeding.) From the point in their life where this area is noticeable, you can expect the following behavior to occur again and again….and again…etc.

As they travel about their environment, the red worms will secrete a fluid from bodily glands, leaving a scent which potential mates can use to locate them. (By keeping a high population density in a culturing bin, the chances of two suitable worms finding each other is greatly increased, which is why cultured worms breed far more prolifically than their counterparts in the wild.) It is when the two worms locate each other, that all the really tricky stuff begins. (For true burrowing worms such as the Nightcrawler, this procedure takes place on the surface, but for red worms, since they tend to be found in material which is far less dense than soil, breeding will occur at various levels in the bedding.)

Having found each other, the two worms will lie very close together, their heads pointing in opposite directions. At this point, size becomes important. During mating, two worms must successfully align certain points on their bodies, and if alignment is not possible, the chances of success are greatly reduced, though not completely destroyed. For this reason, two mating worms will almost always be of near-equal size. To test this point, I have on several occasions isolated two worms of different lengths in a private container, which I then checked on a regular basis for cocoons (worm eggs.) On virtually every occasion, no eggs appeared until the two worms had adapted to the situation by managing to equalize their size (either by an increase, or decrease in length.) It is also this requirement of compatible sexual organs which makes the natural occurrence of a “hybrid” so unlikely.

These are Eisenia foetida red worms, the composting worms most frequently used for indoor worm bins. Eating their own weight a day in organic waste, and producing a like amount of top quality worm castings, these little guys really are worth their weight in “black gold”.

Assuming the two worms that have come together are suitably matched, they then use their “clitella” (plural for clitellum) to secrete a large amount of a viscous fluid which forms a tube around them, joining them together. (This bond must be broken before they can separate, and while joined in this manner, worms often will ignore their natural instinct to flee from a light source.) Sperm is then injected by each worm into grooves on the opposing worm’s body, from where it moves down into the appropriate receiving areas. These areas serve to store the sperm (contained in seminal fluid), and are referred to as “sperm sacs.” Depending on the species of worm (and possibly how much they like each other?), the mated couple will remain in this situation for a period of time ranging between several minutes and a couple of hours, before finally separating to go their individual ways.

After the worms have separated, the clitellum secretes a second substance, this one containing “albumin”, an ingredient commonly found in egg whites. Unlike the first substance, this material begins to harden, and as it does so, the worm starts to wriggle out of it in a backward direction. While doing so, the worm deposits its own eggs, and sperm from its mate, into the albuminous material. As the hardening material slips off the worm’s head (more correctly called “the first segment”), the ends close together, trapping inside all the ingredients necessary for the next generation. Depending on how much material was transferred during the mating, each worm might lay more than one egg, though one is the usual amount.

The resulting cocoon (at least for Lumbricus Rubellus) looks very much like a tiny little lemon, the similarity greatly enhanced by its bright yellow coloring which, given suitable conditions, it acquires on the second or third day after being laid. (It starts off sort of creamy-white, then turns yellow, light brown, darker brown, and finally red or dark purple by the time it is ready to hatch approximately 3 weeks later, once again, given suitable conditions.) Though each egg (cocoon) is capable of producing up to 20 spawn, the average number per cocoon usually averages around 4. This is largely determined by such factors as, the age of the worm which laid the egg, the state of its physical health, and the environmental factors which not only the worm, but also the cocoon was subjected to. (A greater number of healthy spawn will be produced from a cocoon that was maintained at a consistent temperature throughout the gestation period.)

But before I get onto a whole new topic,  I had better let you go so that you can run out to the store and get the brown sugar, or corn meal. Oh, and Willy said not to forget the dead flowers!? Oh well, until next time…

Vermicomposting 3: Mating Habits Of The Red Compost Worm

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