How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room
(Due to the length of what is to follow, this article will be developed, and presented in a number of installments. Rest stops provided courtesy of… “The Worm Guy!” All gardeners extremely welcome.)
The most difficult problem encountered in explaining this concept to potential “breeders” is the amount of outside information which is required to make everything clear. With this in mind, I will begin by listing several facts regarding worms in general, and vermiculture in particular. Though some of these points may be obvious, and others may not, they are all important in understanding the various principles that are at work here. By making sure everyone understands these things up front, we can hopefully avoid any confusion later. (I have developed some of these points as a result of my personal research into this area, and if they should appear to contradict anything which you have read or learned earlier, all I can say is that you should try and set up an experiment or whatever to test these claims for yourself,… before you call me up and question the wisdom of my mother’s favorite son.)
Facts and Figures…Thoughts and Things
- It takes roughly 1000 adult red worms to equal one pound in weight.
- It takes roughly 4000 juvenile (or bed-run, pit-run, etc.) red worms to equal one pound in weight.
- It takes over 100,000 red worm spawn (probably way over) to equal one pound in weight.
- One pound of worms, irregardless of their size, will eat the same amount of waste as one pound of worms of any other size. (This is why we talk about the “biomass” of the worms, rather than using particular numbers.)
- Worms will breed most often for one of three reasons:
a) There is an abundance of food available.
b) Their survival is threatened by environmental conditions, or
c) They find themselves in an area which is saturated with suitable mates.
- Beginning with one thousand sexually-mature adult redworms, and including their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, etc., it is possible to produce over one million red worms in one year. (By the end of the second year, the total would be over one billion.)
- Except in a couple of specific situations (which we will be talking about later), if they are given adequate food and fresh “bedding” material, worms do not appear to be bothered by “overcrowding.”
- Worms are perfectly adapted to the purpose they serve in nature, which is evidenced by the fact that their genetic development has all but stopped. (They have remained in their present form for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.)
- Perhaps the most amazing thing to consider about worms (at least the red worms I have known and loved), is their remarkable ability to adapt to an environment while they are still in the cocoon, and their apparent inability to compensate for relatively small environmental changes during their lifetimes.
And now…on with the story…
It should be remembered that the system I am about to describe was developed by myself accidentally in the beginning. Since I came to realize what was in fact occurring, I have made some modifications to the situation (improvements hopefully). However, even after two or three years of careful observation, I probably have not completely isolated all the truly important procedures and conditions. Therefore, some of what I describe, and recommend, may prove to be of little value, and there may still be one or two important aspects which I have failed to realize. All I can say is that if you set up your conditions to mirror those I am about to describe as closely as possible, I can see no reason why things shouldn’t work just as well for you as they have for myself, and two other people who have been helping me test this matter. (Having originally written these articles 19 years ago during my university days, I have had much more time since to see the method work successfully in several other situations in which I set it up. So for those of you following it now, you also get the benefit of a lot more experience on my part that is being incorporated into these articles where necessary, though I am happy to say that mostly, the original articles have held up incredibly well with very little that needed to be edited.)
First of all, I need to explain the bin system I used. This is one of the areas that I believe to be truly significant, since it is the master bed that makes the whole thing possible. You should also be aware that I used only this bed for the first 15-16 months, and I really don’t think this part of the procedure can be done in less time than that. (Give or take a month or two depending on the size of the initial worm population.) By the way, this bed was built by myself, out of scraps of wood which I scrounged from around the neighborhood.
Basically, it is a plywood bed which measures six feet long, three feet wide, and thirty inches deep. It is divided into three equal compartments each measuring two feet by three feet, and thirty inches deep. I installed some old 6″ chesterfield legs on it for two reasons. First of all, it made it possible to place drip-pans under the holes I had drilled for drainage, and second, by placing each of the legs in an old tobacco can filled halfway with water, I prevented any ants that found their way into the basement from gaining access to the bed. I want to stress that while these measurements are not “carved in stone”, anyone wishing to try this system will need a bed of roughly this size. (The depth is also very important, and we will see why a bit further on.)
When I installed the original population of worms in this bed, I used only the first of the three sections, which for the sake of convenience we will refer to as RB-1 (redworm-bed #1.) Prior to the arrival of the worms, I had spent several weeks cutting cardboard boxes, which I obtained from the corner grocery store, into one-inch strips with a razor knife (the blisters are almost gone.) I then used a heavy-duty pair of scissors to cut those strips into one-inch squares (those blisters may never be gone). In all, I cut a total of eighty-three pounds of those little squares, and I will never even think about trying that particular stunt again. I soaked roughly thirty-eight pounds of the cardboard squares in water (my bathtub) for two days, and used it as bedding in RB-1, which resulted in a bedding depth of 22 inches. (I installed it almost two weeks before the worms arrived, but it never did heat up to any dangerous level.)
That first batch of “creepy crawlers” (my niece’s term) consisted of a little over a pound of rather small bed-run red worms. Though they started off as a pretty even split between Lumbricus Rubellus and Eisenia Foetida, the Rubellus took only a couple of months to establish themselves as absolute rulers of the place. I never actually witnessed any “murder most foul”, but the number of Eisenia Foetida continually dwindled until there were none left. (I thought I could do it, I tried to do it…I just can’t do it!) Please forgive the following digression.
S….o…o.. since we’re on the topic of “mixing” varieties of worms…..
“It seems everywhere you look these days, someone is advertising “hybrid” red worms for sale. The implication is that these “hybrids” are somehow superior to regular “old-fashioned” red worms. The simple truth of the matter is that it is very unlikely any such animal exists, anywhere. Hybrids of the type implied are not that common in nature, more often being the result of genetic manipulation by well-intentioned humans. The majority of accidental hybrids (those that occur in the wild, without human intervention,) are most often born sterile, with no chance of propagating the “new” species. To think that simply allowing two different species of worms (or any other animal) to live together will result in cross-breeding, and the manifestation of a superior life form, is naive to say the least. Though many “families” of worms are similar in appearance, the biological differences from one species to another can be incredible. Certain worms possess three hearts, others five hearts, and still others, only a single heart. To be certain, there are not many people who can even identify the species of a specific worm without obtaining a proper taxonomy report. The point is, similarity in appearance aside, the worms of the world are just not that similar. Now the only reason this whole topic gets me riled (you noticed?), is that people who tend to sell “hybrids”, also seem to be the people who demand top dollar for their product. The idea seems to be that if you’re going to purchase a superior worm, you have to expect to pay a superior (inferior?) price. Well, it seems pretty clear to me, if the earthworm was in any need of “improvement”, Mother Nature would be taking care of it through her natural processes, namely evolution. Yet most scientists tend to agree that the worm has shown no significant evolutionary change since shortly after it crawled out of the water onto dry land. This leads me to agree with the researchers who feel this animal has pretty much reached its evolutionary goal, becoming the perfect walking (well crawling) stomach. I’ll give you one last example of what I mean, and then as ‘The Thing’ used to say, ‘NUFF SAID!’ In their natural habitat, the various red worms commonly used for vermicomposting can be expected to have a lifespan somewhere in the range of one year. During laboratory tests, however, red worms in captivity have survived for as long as eighteen years. The researcher who performed this test later said he thought it was possible that the worm was such a perfectly evolved creature, that in the absence of its natural predators it might possibly live forever. Though most commentators might refuse to go quite so far in their assessment of the worms inherent abilities, other research has shown that the earthworm is very slow to develop any signs of aging, given adequate care. Thus, the original question of “hybrid” worms can be summed up in one of my father’s favorite sayings; ‘Don’t try to fix what’s not broke!‘ If you stick with the everyday Eisenia Foetida, Lumbricus Rubellus, etc., you not only can’t go wrong, but you’ll save money to boot. And now I thank you immensely for letting me get that off my chest, and we can get on with the task at hand.”
Actually, after taking a quick look at that word count, and realizing that we’re at one of those really suitable places for a break, I’ve decided to stop here for today, and next week we can continue on from here. This way, if anyone does want to give it a try at following along as I explain this thing, they’ll have a few days to set up a suitable bin, and even pick up a starter batch of worms if they are so inclined. If you are wondering where in your city or town you might find a supply of Willy’s friends, Garden Supply Stores, or Composting Shops are a good place to start your search, and for those of you, like myself, who dwell in a larger metropolitan area, the City itself quite often is a good place to check out. Many of the larger cities now have Composting Programs in place as they attempt to slow down the flow of organic waste going into the city landfills and such. So if I’ve managed to get you at all interested in this process, feel free to climb on board, and join in each week as I continue this series for any and all who are interested. Until then…
Copyright © 1995, D. Brian Paley
-“Axe-wielding-man graphic” courtesy of “wpclipart2.3” free public domain graphics.-