Willy the Worm's Wonderful Words of Wisdom

(Letters, Questions, and Answers)

I guess I knew eventually I would need a page of this nature, and I was only waiting for the right reason to install it. Well, the other day I got the reason, and now you have the page, so help me to fill it up. If any of you worm lovers out there have any questions about worms, or vermicomposting, or would like to make a comment about The Burrow, or have a suggestion on how this page might be improved, then send off some e-mail, and let me know about it. I will try to answer all letters personally, as well as include the best ones at this location for everyone to see. I have only one or two things to ask of you in return.

First, please include your name and location somewhere in the e-mail since neither myself, nor any of my umpteen million worms, have ever figured out how to decipher the mailing labels which come with the mail. (If you choose not to include it, that is fine, but you'll miss the chance to see your name alongside the rest of Willy's friends.)

Second, if your life is so dull that you feel you have no choice but to flame me, that is also fine, but don't hold your breath waiting to see it in print. A lot of younger people visit this page, and if they're going to learn anything while they're here, it's not going to be anything I'll ever regret.

With all that said, there's nothing left to do, but get down to it. But always remember, you're in The Burrow now, and if you hear anything that sounds even remotely like a mole,... Run like the dickens!!

I Want to Read Willy's Mail

Willy's Mailbox

I said earlier that I had found a reason to install this page, but actually it was two reasons. I found both of these letters in my e-mail one day, and if I never receive another one, these two make it all worth while. They are both from the same group of young vermicomposters, and I'll let their first letter give you an idea of the true meaning of "cool."

From: Crooked River Elementary School

We are sending you a message again from Ms. Eddings second grade class. Our class continues to watch our worms growing. At first we had 1000 worms and after misplacing one in Krissy's hair, we are now down to 999. We will write you later to keep you informed about our progress.

Well, I've got to tell you guys, since I read this letter to Willy, he hasn't stopped slithering back and forth in his bin. When I asked him if there was something the matter, he just kept saying...."Oh, that poor worm! That poor, lost little worm!" (I'll let you know if he ever gets over it, and you let me know how Krissy's doing.)

The second letter these worm-lovers sent me was full of questions that I had to answer myself since Willy is still in his bin muttering something about whether or not that little worm's picture is going to be on someone's milk carton in the morning. Oh well, I knew most of the answers, and I got some help from one of Willy's relatives. (I think she's his cousin, 1,345,462 times removed.) To help keep things clear, I've put the answers and the questions together in one piece.

From:Crooked River Elementary School

Hello again from Mary Edding's Second Grade Class! We have a few questions we would like to ask you about worms.

Well hello yourselves from Brian Paley (The Worm Guy.) It really is nice to make new friends, and questions about worms are one of my favorite things to answer.(I'm sorry if you had trouble reaching my guest book, but the company which provides the service for me sometimes gets very busy. But keep trying, and when you do get through, you can all add your names to my list of link friends.)

Erin would like to know how the worms move through the dirt. Albert would like to know how the worms stretch.

We'll start with Erin and Albert's questions first since the answer to both is pretty much the same. If you could look inside a worm's body, you would see that it is not much more than a couple of hollow tubes, one inside the other. In the space between these two tubes, the worm stores a liquid substance which is known as "colemic" fluid. (In many red worms, this colemic fluid is yellow in color, and if you were a bird, a mole, or some other animal that hunts worms, you would know that this fluid often smells a little like "garlic", which is the reason that red worms are also called "garlic worms.") If you pick up a red worm, or he is frightened for any other reason, some of this fluid will come right through the pores in his skin, which is really the only way he knows to try and protect himself. (It figures if it smells really bad, the other animals won't eat it.) But anyway, when the worm wants to move (frontward or backward), he squinches himself up really short, then uses the fluid to stretch his body (he also has muscles for this reason) in the direction he wants to move. Once it is stretched out, the worm will get a good grip on the ground using his "setae", which are like small, stiff hairs along his body (this is the same way larger worms anchor themselves in their burrow when they are fighting with birds.) Once it has a good hold on the side it wants to move to, the worm will let go with the other setae and squinch his body up again, and start all over. If there is a pebble, or a piece of hard dirt in front of the worm, the "hydraulic" (I hope you have a dictionary) pressure created by the colemic fluid is enough that the worm can move objects that weigh as much as 10 times its own weight! Though red worms are usually found in compost, or manure piles, where they can simply move between the larger pieces, true earthworms very often have to move through soil that is very packed. In that case, they spit a substance from their mouth onto the soil in front of them, and when it softens the soil, they eat it. Later, they back up in this "burrow", and expel the "cast" on the surface, where it becomes a very good plant food.

Alexandra wonders if they see.

Well, Alexandra, worms have no eyes, so they don't see things the way you and I do, but they make up for it in other ways. First of all, worms have a very good sense of smell, which they use to locate food, water, and even their mates. If you put two different foods in your worm bin (let's say old lettuce leaves, and mashed potatoes), I'll bet the lettuce leaves get eaten first, if your worms are like my worms. That's because worms really like lettuce, and their sense of smell will lead them right to it. (They'll also eat the potatoes, but probably not until the lettuce is gone.) Worms also have very sensitive organs with which they detect vibration. If you are looking for worms, and stamping your feet, you probably won't find any because they will feel the vibration, and hide. In the southern United States, some people can stick a piece of wood in the ground, then tap on it with another piece of wood, and all the earthworms will come out of their burrows. Nobody really knows why this works, but I think it must make the worm think a mole is digging in his direction, and he leaves the burrow in an attempt to hide. (Moles eat their own weight in earthworms every day.) And finally, worms will die if they are exposed to light for any length of time, so they have light "sensors" built right into their skin, which tells them if they are in a lighted area. Most of these "sensors" are near the head and the tail of the worm, and if you cover both sides of the worm with a little soil, and leave his middle exposed, he sometimes can't tell that light is hitting him, and he won't even try to burrow away!

Stefan would like to know how long red wigglers live.

Stefan's question depends on where the worm is. In the outdoors, most red worms live less than a year. That is because they have a lot of enemies, such as birds, moles, snakes, and even some people. There also may not be enough food for them, and even more important, water. Many worms die in the heat of the summer, but before they do, they lay lots of eggs which will hatch in the damper fall, or spring, giving us a whole new batch of worms to eat up all the garbage we can give them. If you have your worms in the house, however, and you take good care of them, nobody knows how long they can live. Eighteen years ago, a scientist tried to find out by keeping one worm all by itself in a private container. Since that worm is still alive (at least it was the last time I read about it), you'll have to wait with me till we find out together. Maybe yourself, or one of your classmates (or all of them) should take one worm home, give him a little bin of his own, and see if its still alive when you graduate. (Make sure you keep me informed.)

Our teacher would like to know how many worms we will have by the end of school.

I think I'll answer your teacher's question like this. Given ideal conditions, enough food, and lots and lots of worm bins, two adult worms, and their children's children, and their children, etc., can produce over one million worms in one year. (After one more year, all those worms could easily produce one billion worms, which would require over 4000 commercial-size worm beds!) The actual figures look like this: each adult worm can mate roughly once every 10 days, and from that mating, each of the worms can produce usually one, but sometimes two "cocoons". Each of those cocoons can hold anywhere from 1 to 20 babies (spawn), though they usually average out to 4 which hatch out successfully. Before anyone gets nervous, however, remember that worms will restrict their breeding to match the available food, and size of their enclosure. Most vermiculturists assume an average increase in population of 100% every 4-6 months, but as long as you keep your worms in the same sized container (remember to keep the bedding fresh), you don't have to worry about the worms ever taking over the classroom.

Laura would like to know how old a worm needs to be to have babies.

First of all, I would like to say that Laura must be a very patient young lady to have waited this long to ask her question. Well Laura, in the answer to your teacher's question, I said that each of the mated worms could produce 1 or 2 cocoons. If the temperature and the amount of moisture is kept at the right level, then those cocoons should hatch in just about three weeks. (You can tell how close a cocoon is to hatching by its color. When it is fresh, it is yellow and looks just like a little lemon. As it gets nearer to hatching, it gets darker in color, until it is almost a dark purple.) Once those worms hatch, it will take them only 10 to 12 weeks before they can start laying cocoons of their own. At that age, however, the resulting cocoons do not usually hatch as many babies as they do when the worm is a true adult at roughly an age of 4-6 months, depending on the exact family of worm, and the conditions it lives in.

Thank you!! We look forward to hearing from you!! MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

I hope I haven't taken up too much of your time, but I warned you that I like to talk about worms, and I especially like to talk to young people about worms, since it is something which may be very important a few years from now. Always remember, every time you throw away your leftover food, somewhere....there is a hungry worm, and a landfill that's full.

We had trouble getting to you through The Burrow.

Once again, sorry about that, but someday when I can get my own computer system, I'll be able to install a better message board. Have a wonderful Christmas, and a safe and happy New Year. (I would also like to know where your school is located. In case you weren't sure, I live in Canada, which means I'm really close to Santa and the elves!

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)


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From: Merv Brough

(Merv is a worm farmer in Perth, Austrailia.)

Worm sorting, Have you got any fast and easy ways??

Hi Merv,
Nice to hear from you again. Hope the holidays are treating you right.

I guess the methods of sorting depend on the amounts which need to be sorted, (if sorting is required at all), and the resources available to the individual breeder.

The larger commercial growers here in North America (unless things have changed recently) tend to use a device which is known most commonly as a "shaker". Basically, it is a rather ponderous device, but for large quantities of material, it can't be beat.

Consisting of a large tabletop with a box container attached above, this machine is motorized, causing it to shake (thus the name) rather violently. The base of the box area is replaced with a mesh screen of suitable gauge, and the worms (and the bedding material) are placed on the mesh while the machine is shaking.

The vibration serves 2 separate functions in that it causes the bedding to break up and fall through to the tabletop, while at the same time keeping the worms bouncing so that they cannot get themserlves in a position to wriggle through the openings themselves. Once the bedding has finished sifting through, the worms are quickly transferred from the screen to their desired location.

The two basic problems with this device are as follows:

  1. The one I saw made enough racket to convince everyone for quite a distance that Armegeddon had arrived. And...
  2. Since the demand for these devices is not exactly overwhelming, the price to purchase one is usually very steep.
Your best bet would probably be to locate the plans for one (I think there is a set in the book, "How to Raise Earthworms for Fun and Profit), and then grab a few of your fellow wormers, divide the cost of materials and the labor, and build one for "community" use. (A half-talented individual, unlike myself, might even be able to improve on the basic design.)

A device of this nature makes it possible to sift several hundred pounds of worms in an hour, depending on how large the individual unit is.

For smaller amounts of worms, the method you are using is as good as any, though the above idea can be adapted along the lines of a "sorter box."

This is simply a cabinet of boxes built one on top of the other. Again, the bottoms of the compartments are replaced with screens, but in this case, starting from the top, the gauge of each screen should get smaller as you head toward the bottom.

Dump a pile of material (only a couple inches deep) into the top compartment, and shine the brightest light you have on it. Try not to disturb the bedding too much, and the worms will burrow down through the screen to the next level (along with the finer bedding which fell through the openings.) Remove the top compartment, shine the light on the second one, and while you are emptying the coarser bedding from the first box, the worms will be repeating their retreat from the light, ending up in the third compartment.

Depending on the mesh of the screen you used, this not only separates the worms from the bedding, but sorts them according to size, which is handy if you happen to be in need of a quantity of bait-size worms.

Myself, I use the old tried-and-true "table-harvesting" method whenever I find a need for sorting, which is just about never. (One of the benefits of using the process I am currently outlining in "The Burrow Presents...")

In the meantime, Merv, I hope this information is of some use to you, and I hope to hear from you again real soon. Bye for now.

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)


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Original Text

Copyright 1995, D. Brian Paley