The Burrow Presents...


How To Breed, Raise, and Maintain A 100-Pound Stock of Worms in a Single Room


Part 5


We'r..r..e Ba..ack!


So, since I see no reason to doubt anyone's intelligence, I assume everyone has figured out there was breeding going on in that container (with a capitol B.) I'm also certain we agree, it is unlikely that breeding was occurring in the absence of any adult population, so the only point which needs to be addressed is whether or not these tiny adult worms could possibly be of any use to us (it has already been noted that it would require an immense number of these critters to establish any worthwhile weight. Or would it?)

At the beginning of the last installment, I mentioned my intention to supply you with the reasons I believed to be responsible for the results which you would achieve by the end of this experiment. I also promised to discuss how these results could prove to be of benefit to the worm grower who had resale in mind. In order to deal with the first point, I will now ask very humbly for your patience while I digress yet again (a mere walk in the park!)

Perfectly evolved?!...Perfectly evolved?!....What exactly does perfectly evolved mean? That's exactly what I had been asking myself ever since I first read it so many years earlier, but after considering those first soil-dwelling red worms of mine, I started to understand.

The process of evolution is the method by which an organism adapts to changes in its environment, as a means of ensuring the survival of the species. One dictionary defines it as "A gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition is licensed from Houghton Mifflin Company. Copyright 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved. Selected Illustrations from the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia. Copyright 1991 by Columbia University Press. I believe the key word here is "better". Let's consider for a moment what exactly that means. O.K., times up!

Now, if evolution indicates a gradual change in an organism which results in an overall improvement of the species, then the term perfectly evolved should indicate a species, or an organism, that has reached the end of that particular evolutionary path. This is not to say that the species in question will never again exhibit any change in its makeup that could be considered an improvement, but more precisely, that it cannot improve its position in relation to the original goal it first set out to achieve, whether by its own volition, or at the subliminal urging of nature. To try and put this in everyday terms, my most patient people (golly, I like you guys), when I reached the age of 39 (a whole 2 hours and 16 minutes ago), I achieved the specific evolutionary goal of becoming a 39-year-old, adult (that parts a little questionable), human being. I may someday become a 40-year-old human being, but I will never be any more 39 than I was a couple hours ago.

So the first thing we have to do then, is decide on exactly what the evolutionary goal of the earthworm is, or was. What exactly did nature have in mind for these little animals when she first whispered into their thoughts wonderful concepts of leaving their ocean home, and venturing onto dry land? What was to be their purpose? What niche in the scheme of things were they required to fill? (Oh, oh, I'm starting to sound just like Geraldo!)

Well, one of my favorite writers once put it this way:

"Earthworms are soil builders. Everything else..., plants, animals, man and bacteria, are food for earthworms whose function it is to mix (organic) matter with mineral particles and send them forth on their round once again." (Thomas Barrett, quoted in "Harnessing the Earthworm", section viii, 1976)

Now if the worms are going to perform this function, it seems sensible (at least to me), that they would have to be able to access the material that needs mixing. Furthermore, if they truly are "perfectly evolved", then this problem of access would already have been looked after. However, most worm breeders will tell you that transferring an adult red worm from one type of bedding, to a bedding of a different type, is an almost certain way to commit "wormicide." On the other hand, the young tend to survive transfer quite well, and this is one good argument for not purchasing a starter batch of worms which consists entirely of breeders, or banded worms." It may initially take a little longer to obtain reproduction, but when it finally happens (if you begin with young worms), there will be a lot more participants.

At any rate, the answer to this dilemma is beautifully illustrated by those buckets of worms I outlined in the last article (which you thought I had forgotten about...I may digress, but I usually find my way home!) It is not just worms inside those containers, but a beautiful example of what is meant by a "perfectly-evolved animal." I suspect the only reason so many worm-growers appear to be confused over this issue (stating that red worms cannot live in soil), is that they have failed to run tests themselves, or having run those tests, perhaps they failed to follow the path all the way to its inevitable conclusion. Upon observing that the initial stock of transplanted worms has died off, the experiment is immediately deemed a failure, and scrapped too early in the process. What the worm-grower should do, is continue to maintain suitable environmental conditions, stand back, and wait for the cocoons to hatch.

After observing this process several times, in many different bedding materials, I may (or may not) have figured out the reasons behind that which occurs, but I know for certain that I have figured out how to obtain the greatest benefit from it. The stages involved in bringing the red worm into the vicinity of the potential food source really is a thing of beauty. (It also works in only one direction, and this is very important to those of us who wish to raise these worms, but we'll get to that in a moment.) Nature's solution to the problem is so simple as to be amazing, and so intricate that I have yet to find any literature which adequately explains how it is done. With that in mind, we'll just have to settle for knowing what is going to happen, possibly even why it's going to happen, but not exactly how it happens.

When the adult red worm is transferred into a hostile environment (this takes us all the way back to part 1 of this article), it apparently spends the rest of its life (not a very long time) doing three things.

  1. It seeks out other worms to mate with.
  2. It deposits the resulting cocoon (or cocoons, depending on how much time it has in the lethal environment.) And...
  3. ...it dies, an event that will soon be tempered by the occurrence of the true miracle.
It is now three weeks later (trust me!), and those cocoons we mentioned a minute ago begin hatching. From within each of these wonderous little parcels emerge anywhere from 1-20 (but probably 3-5) little tiny red worm spawn, with a difference. Nothing you could put your finger on, but a difference nonetheless. You see, each of these red worms, unlike the adults which spawned them, happen to think that a soil-type bedding is just peachy-keen, or as my teenage neice would say, way cool! I really don't know if this is a change they underwent while still in the cocoon (remember that young tend to survive transfer better than adults), but it really doesn't matter a whole lot, as long as they're happy,...right? Right! The tolerance for soil, however, is just the beginning.

Since soil by its very nature is a dense material, containing very little in the way of a food supply (compared to a compost heap), these worms still require more in the way of adaptation. You see, contrary to popular belief, it is very rare for any worm to move through soil in the way many people believe they do. The fact is, even true burrowing worms such as Lumbricus Terrestris (the nightcrawler) seldom move through dirt. They certainly can work their way through relatively loose soil, but in the case of hard-packed dirt, they have only one option, which is to eat their way through it (a slow process made even slower by several necessary trips back to the surface to empty the bowels.) When you observe a worm disappear quickly into the ground, it is retreating into a previously constructed burrow. As a matter of fact, many nightcrawlers live their entire lives in the same burrow (which can extend as much as twelve feet down), and hunt their food (usually leaf-fall) in the immediate vicinity of their home, keeping their tail-end firmly anchored in the entrance-way as an aid to hasty retreats (the length of a nightcrawler serves to enlarge his "hunting grounds", another of Mother Nature's thoughtful gifts.) On those mornings after a rain, when you see worms that have fled their burrows (they do that because they breathe through their skin, a process known as osmosis, and once the rain which has entered their burrow is depleted of oxygen, their "house" very quickly becomes a "coffin"), you might as well accept the fact that you are looking at a soon-to-be dead worm, since he will seldom have time to make sufficient progress on a new home before he dies from light-exposure, or as the dinner-guest of that world-famous "early-bird."

In the case of the red worm, however, its size alone makes the idea of living in a burrow kind of silly. There would be little chance of finding either enough food, or enough possible mates within the inch or two which it could cover, considering part of its body would have to remain in the burrow. (For those of you who still aren't convinced of that particular point--remaining atttached at all times to the burrow--remove a nightcrawler from its dwelling sometime, and place it gently on the ground 5-6 inches from the entranceway. No matter what you've heard about "slime trails, or remarkable senses of smell, it should only take a moment or so for you to agree that the worm is hopelessly lost.) Besides, the red worm's nature is to move around between the individual particles of its bedding environment, and most often (though not always) no more than several inches deep (6-7 inches would be a fair estimate.) Thus, rather than adapt the animal's basic instinct, Nature simply modifies the body to suit the environment. What you end up with is a tiny little worm, that doesn't eat a whole bunch (sort of like Twiggy, but not so skinny.) Now that the worm is small enough to comfortably move through its environment, and the need for food has been reduced, we have one more point to consider.

Back in part 1, I listed three situations that could be expected to result in an increase of breeding among red worms. To that list of three, I am now going to add a fourth (I can do that,...I'm allowed!....Besides, I forgot.)

  1. Red worms will breed (providing there is sufficient food) until the worm breeder can't resist offering them a shoehorn.
Thus, this is the situation that we finally arrive at: A rather small container of really lousy bedding material, stocked with perhaps 20-25 times the "normal" amount of healthy, sexually-active, and apparently happy red worms! As long as you keep them in that container (or another container filled with the same material [the size is not relevant]), they will continue to thrive like any other red worm population, except they will be smaller, and the food required to maintain them will be proportionately less. They will also require lesser amounts of "bedding", and less strenuous (though more time-consuming) maintenance. The best, however, is yet to come.

Let us assume you get an order for 2 pounds of red worms (we'll say the entire population in this bin, though possibly numbering in the tens of thousands, weighs roughly 8-10 ounces.) Either you (if that's what your customer wants), or the customer on their own, must set up and prepare a bin that will properly sustain at least a 2-pound population of regular-sized, adult red worms (in other words, at least 2 cubic-feet of bedding will be needed.) Unlike what the older worm-books recommend, however, there is to be no waiting period before the first feeding (many of the older manuals suggest a 7-10 day "adjustment" period for the worms to get settled in.) Using this method, the food should be installed in the bed prior to the worms arrival, and it should be food that is worm-ready, ie. soft and ready to be eaten. When these conditions have been satisfied, and only then, the time has come to transfer the worms.

NOTE: Whereas moving adult worms from a high-quality bedding into soil is very likely to end their existance, moving these small worms (in spite of their adult status), from soil into a better-quality material appears to do them very little, or no harm (at least none that I've ever noticed.)

Now I just know this is going to cause some screaming, but I'm going to do it anyway. The first couple times you get orders for worms, try to handcount at least 1000 of them. This is simply because no one who has not seen how small a pile 1000 of these tiny animals makes, will be even close in their first few estimates (it only takes one or two times to develop a pretty good eye for it.) Assuming you have informed your customer in advance of the situation (most people buying worms for the first time are very open to new ideas), there will be no problem when you arrive with this r.e.a.l.l.y small pile of worms, and when these little critters are turned loose in what to them must look like a football field, and the biggest smorgasbord they ever set prostomium on, the results will astound even the most "set-in-their-ways" worm breeders among us. If you have the inclination (and your customers permission), go back and harvest that bin in roughly 3 weeks. If the customer has been maintaining the food supply and moisture and temperature levels, I will lay odds you have no trouble whatsoever harvesting the poundage that was originally asked for (the request I get most often is to teach the customer about dividing the bed, since I don't like hand-counting any more than you people, and I worry a lot about shorting my customers when I have so many surplus worms.)

And now, I'll bet you think this article is finished. Well, not quite. I've been saying that soil is a lousy bedding, and it is. It was the easiest way, however, to demonstrate these principles. There is another way though to acquire the tiny version of the red worm, and it is actually the method I use (it takes longer to set up initially, but it is a superior method, and just as effective.) In the concluding installment to this article, I will describe this method, and then....on to something new. For now, however,...

To be continued...

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Original Text

Copyright 1995, D. Brian Paley
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