How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room
Oh, there you are. Having given this matter a great deal of thought, I think I know just what exactly has to be done. It seems to me the best way to convince you I’m serious about all this stuff, and the possible dangers to your worm population if we try to hurry any of these steps along, is to let you see it with your own two eyes. With that in mind, I am going to outline an experiment we can all try in the comfort of our own homes, and then I’m going to try and predict the results that I suspect your experiment is going to result in. Following that, I am going to try and explain why I think you got those results, and how exactly this is going to be beneficial to any plans you may have of raising quantities of red worms for the exclusive purpose of resale. If you want only to use worms to eat your organic waste, and produce for you some fine worm casts with which to make excellent potting soil, or to serve as a soil enhancer in your garden, then you really have no reason to go to the trouble of trying this experiment, or for that matter reading this particular series of worm articles, other than for the occasional tip you may pick up along the way that will aid you in the care of your regular worm bins, or for the enjoyment of partaking of my sparkling personality as it shines forth in each and every word that I write…with such care, and modesty no less . So, shall we begin?
- A container roughly the size of a one-gallon ice-cream bucket (with a few small drainage holes added.
- Enough garden (or potting) soil [not worm bedding] to fill one half of this container.
- An amount of ground food scraps also sufficient to fill one half of the same container. (If you have no way to grind larger scraps, use material like coffee grounds, left-over rice, etc.)
- A container for mixing (should be at least twice the size of the ice-cream bucket.)
- Approximately 25 sexually-mature red worms (they must be capable of immediate breeding.)
- And one pair of rubber gloves (optional.)
- Decide whether you wish to use the rubber gloves or not. (If so, now would be a good time to put them on.)
- In the larger container, mix the soil and the food scraps very thoroughly, ensuring that the final result is moist enough to be used for worm bedding, but not soggy. (Having second thoughts about the gloves?)
- Once these materials are completely blended, use this mixture to fill the ice-cream bucket to within two or three inches of the top. (Simply scoop the material into the bucket without packing it in. Whatever you have left of the mixture can be tossed into the feed area of your main worm bed.)
- Drop the 25 red worms onto the surface of the “bedding”, then place the bucket in an area with sufficient light to force the worms to burrow. Of course, if you have used an ice-cream bucket for your container, then the ideal situation here requires a little more work, but is well worth the time involved. Using any one of a number of different tools, with a soldering iron or an empty hot-glue gun being the absolute best, make a number of air-holes in the ice-cream container’s lid. Then, and once again, the hot-glue gun (now equipped with glue) is the best tool for this job, secure some window screen over the air-holes you’ve just made in the lid, and install the lid on the container. Now you don’t have to worry about using a light to force the worms to burrow, and you don’t have have any concerns with fruit-flies either thanks to the screen preventing them from accessing the bin through the air-holes.
- For the first day or two, keep the bucket constantly exposed to the light source ( unless you’ve set up the lid as in step 4. Remember, this is an ice-cream bucket, not a full-sized bin, and also the bedding material is much more dense than what red worms are used too, and they might just decide to take a little trip. Another really good reason for using the ice-cream bucket, and taking the extra time to set up the lid properly.)
- Starting on the third day, do nothing but add moisture if necessary. (Remember that soil holds water quite well, and take care not to flood the bucket.)
- Once every two weeks for the first month, the contents of the bucket should be table-harvested, and a check of the population should be made. (Pay special attention to the total number of surviving adults, and keep an eye out for the presence of cocoons.)
- Follow the additional directions contained in the body of this article.
NOTE: Do not add any more food to this bucket. Water if necessary, harvest, and inspect, but nothing else.
The Probable Results
Jumping two weeks into the future, everyone dumps the contents of their buckets onto a harvesting table (or a reasonable facsimile), and observes the following things:
- First of all, soil makes a really lousy bedding. It’s mushy, heavy, packed far too tightly, and may even be possessed of an odor, not so much unpleasant, as strange.
- Taking care to break apart the soil (bedding?), it quickly becomes apparent that of the 25 healthy (and sexually-mature) red worms that we started with, only 15-20 (maybe less) have survived, and of the survivors, roughly 5 have managed to maintain their size. The remaining survivors are noticeably thinner, and to be frank, unhealthy looking. (Not really so strange, since they’re dying.)
- There may, or may not be cocoons present in the soil, though by all rights, there should be. (They can be very hard to locate when they are covered with dirt.)
- Feeling rather sad on behalf of the worms, and none too happy with “The Worm Guy”, we gird our loins (I’ve waited years to use that phrase), gently put everything back in the bucket, and run off to prepare supper, deciding to have absolutely anything but spaghetti!
Two weeks later, and here we are dumping our buckets once again. Guess what?
- Soil still makes a lousy bedding (though the odor appears to be gone.)
- The number of survivors (the slithering dead), is now somewhere in the area of 3-4, and these are equally divided between those that appear to have a life-time measured in hours, and those that might possibly even look healthier than they did two weeks earlier! (Did I say healthier?) That’s right. There’s just no accounting for the adaptability of some red worms.
- Managing to tear our eyes away from the amazing SuperWorms for a moment, our attention is caught by something else equally amazing. We spot in this mixture of soil and what-have-you at least enough cocoons that we don’t have to dig around looking for them, and it would be my first guess that if this is not so at this stage in this experiment, there’s a good chance something is not as it should be. The problem is, if there aren’t cocoons lying around waiting to hatch at this point, and you have virtually no egg-layers left in the mix, well, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. But, since I’m only guessing at this point, let’s just say a few cocoons are evident. Thus,…
- Still feeling a little sad (possibly humming a few bars of the Battle Hymn of the Republic), but with a slightly better feeling about that darn Worm Guy, we once again return everything (g e n t l y) to the bucket.
……comes the tough part! For the next two months, we must do nothing to the contents of that bucket, but add a little water from time to time so that it doesn’t dry out, being very careful all the while, not to flood the bin.
So why exactly are we waiting these two long months you ask? We are waiting for that wonderful miracle of life to occur, the hatching of the cocoons, and a little extra time for the spawn to develop enough size so that we don’t bring about their early demise in our haste to locate them in the confined space within the ice-cream bucket.
Two months later
So, with great care now, we dump the bucket, and (assuming we didn’t forget the necessary waterings) this is hopefully what we find:
- At first glance, nothing! (We very quickly take a second look.)
- Now we start to notice in the bedding (soil), many, little tiny worms, not much bigger than those white “pot worms” which always seem to locate available vermicomposters, and waste no time in setting up their little condos, and holiday resorts, and things.
- A closer look, however, assures us that while there are definitely white worms present, most of what we are looking at is made up of very small, but certainly red, composting worms.
- Then for just a moment, realizing the amount of reading “The Worm Guy” has done on the subject of red worms, and realizing that there was a time when he was looking at a very similar situation for the very first time, you can finally grasp the essence of what was going through his mind the day he uttered that most famous saying of all…”My brain hurts!”
There were actually several reasons for that ache in my brain. It was quite a while, and a lot of testing later, before I spent a whole day aspirin-free. The whole episode, however, ended up serving as a great reminder that we make it very hard for ourselves to learn new things when we start out with too many preconceived notions, such as these which I had picked up from the more popular texts on vermiculture:
- Adult red worms are approximately 3-3 1/2 inches in length. (Very often true, but not always.)
- Red worms will not live in soil. (I couldn’t begin to count the number of times I had heard that particular gem.)
NOTE: The first time I encountered this situation, I was trying to decide which of the books I had read was correct. A few said red worms could live in soil, a large majority said they couldn’t. The ones that said they could, however, made no mention of any resulting change in their physical appearance.
- Though each book I read had its own ideas in regards to reproduction rates, none of them even suggested that a Lumbricus Rubellus could lay any more than 2 cocoons a week, and they all more or less agreed on a sexual maturation period of between 3 and 6 months. (I’ll be presenting my own ideas on this in a future article on “Reproduction”.)
- One of the few things just about all the books agreed on, and which I had verified on my own, was that even though each cocoon could contain as many as 20 spawn, the average hatching produced 4.
S..o..o, let’s do a little arithmetic. (By the way, I am aware that I have started talking about my first bucket of worms raised in soil, but I need to show you why the situation in the buckets which you may set up for yourselves is so strange. Then, I can offer my explanation of why.) Now on to the arithmetic…
As I outlined in the procedure above, that first batch of “soil-dwellers” consisted of 25 healthy adult Lumbricus Rubellus. (Though I know not only from that occasion, but from several others since then, that most of the “breeders” were dead within the first month, let’s assume for the sake of argument that they all survived the entire time of twelve weeks.) If every one of the worms bred to “capacity”, and produced two cocoons a week, each resulting in the average 4 spawn, we would have the following formula:
25 worms * 2 cocoons * 4 spawn * 12 weeks= 2400 new worms added to the bucket. If those spawn required a minimum of three months to sexually mature, then it is very unlikely that they added anything further to the population. Yet it was well within that three months that I noticed the last of the adults had died. At that point, the entire worm population consisted of what appeared to be spawn, measuring roughly an inch in length, and so slim that I had nothing delicate enough to measure them with. I immediately started harvesting these, 50 or 100 every week or so, transferring them into the larger beds. I figured if I made a little room for them, those remaining in the bucket would grow to adult size. No matter how many I took out, however, the supply never exhausted itself, and the worms which were left in the bucket, never grew any larger. (I had even started feeding them again, but to no avail.)
This, however, just might be a good time to check out a couple of the new features I’ve added to the main page, since I know that it’s time … To be continued…
So next week we will try and answer a few more of these questions, and I will be sitting here with only seven more weeks of my two months to go, but that’s the way things are if I want to run this experiment as close to the original as I can. Which is alright, because I can always use the practice at being patient. Anyway, everybody stay safe, and healthy, and keep on writing. I’ll read you later. Until then…