Willy the Worm's Wonderful Words of Wisdom

(Letters, Questions, and Answers)

Part 2

From: Ray Lauzon
(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 Ray, 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. (I wonder why anyone would be concerned about speeding up the reproduction rate of animals that make rabbits look like monks by comparison?) Oh well.

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. As far as scientific studies go, I don't recall ever seeing any on this particular subject. 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 it a try.

To answer your question about the process involved in mating, I asked Willy. 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 to tackle it myself. (It's probably for the best, since I notice he's been a little dreamy-eyed [which is tough for a worm] ever since.) 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 occurrance of a "hybrid" so unlikely.

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 consistant temperature throughout the gestation period.)

Before I get onto a whole new topic, however, I had better let you go so that you can run out to get the brown sugar, or corn meal. (Willy said not to forget the dead flowers!?) And one last thing Ray, on a more personal note,...Did you ever go clear?

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)

(Special thanks to Jim Thomas)


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A while back I was asked to set up a worm bin in a small school in Saskatchewan. Just before I left, the grade 3 class chosen to be "guardians of the bin" asked me three questions. I remember the questions, I remember my answers, but for the life of me, I can't remember which school it was. Therefore, if any of you "guardians" are still out there, and recognize what follows, please drop me some e-mail (maybe your teacher could do it) so I can include the name of your school with these answers to your questions.

As I recall, it was actually one big question with three distinct parts, and it went something like this...

"Of all the things I have studied about worms, what was the "most important" thing, and the "strangest" thing I ever learned, and what was the funniest thing that ever happened to me with worms?"

The answer to the first part of that question is still the same as it was then. I think the thing about worms that is of greatest significance to me lies in their potential for helping to feed the world. We all know that things which grow in the ground, grow best in good, rich topsoil. How many people, however, are aware that if we use all of Mother Nature's resources, except the earthworm, it takes roughly 100-150 years for a single inch of top-soil to form. By adding an average population of earthworms to the picture, however, we can increase that rate of formation to one inch per year. Another way of illustrating the problem is to point out that in our current situation, we are using up our topsoil 17 times as fast as it is being produced by nature. Perhaps we should consider not just tolerating these little critters, but doing whatever we can to help increase their numbers.

Like the first part of the question, the answer to the second also remains the same. The strangest thing I ever read about earthworms has to do with what happens when a mild electrical shock is passed through their bodies. It seems, when an earthworm is laid on a metal plate, and then wires are attached to either end of the metal plate (causing a mild current to pass through the worm), it immediately curls its body into the shape of a "U", with the open side facing the "positive" pole. If the wires are reversed, the worm will flip over and resume the same position, still facing the positive pole. If anyone out there can tell me why this should be so, I would be very happy to hear from you! In the meantime, it could prove useful if I'm ever lost in the woods with no compass, and just happen to be carrying a metal plate, two wires, a battery, and a worm?!

Now, to be honest, I'm not sure how I answered this last part of the question, because so many funny things have happened since I got involved with Willy and his friends. This is, however, Willy's page, so I thought I would tell you about the funniest thing (at least for me) that has happened while Willy was actually with me. It wasn't that long ago.

Willy came up to me all excited one day, telling me he had been accepted into the "Worm Olympics", and inviting me to come along and watch him "strive for glory." I was a little skeptical, but agreed to go along and partake of the momentous occasion. All day I sat in the bleachers waiting for Willy to appear. When he finally did, he proudly slithered out to the center of the stadium, stretched his body out straight, and as far as I could tell, simply laid there for a few minutes, before slithering off the way he had come, possibly even prouder than before.

When Willy made it up into the bleachers (to find me rolling around on the ground laughing), he immediately got upset, and told me I had no right to laugh at the 100 push-ups he had just done, a very difficult thing for a worm! I had to fight very hard to get control of myself (I'm still not sure Willy believed me), but I was finally able to explain, I wasn't laughing at his "push-ups", I was laughing at the other worms who were trying to clap for him!

Oh well, maybe you had to be there!

Original Text

Copyright 1995, D. Brian Paley


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From: Richard Lahne

Can you tell me whether it is safe to use shredded office paper as a bedding material. My office shreds a fair amount of paper from copiers and laser printers, and I'm wondering about the inks and lubricants in the "toners". I understand that newspaper inks are relatively safe, but what about these?

Thanks for any information you can give.

Thanks for the nice words, they are always appreciated!

Your first assumption about newsprint is correct, it is a safe bedding for worms. Whereas a few years ago, there was concern about lead-based inks, that is no longer a problem.

In an effort to prevent infant deaths, the feds made it an offense to use toxic materials in any substance that a child could readily place into his/her mouth. The comics section of the newspaper was one of the first things to be changed. (The inks used in virtually all newspapers in North America are now based in edible oils such as Canola.)

Photo-copy paper, however, is still somewhat of a question-mark, due to the toner it may be coated with. (Another of those wonderfully toxic-type substances.)

As far as my own testing goes, I once had a well-meaning customer bring me several large garbage bags of this material after shredding, so never one to miss an opportunity, I immediately used it as bedding for a large population of worms. When the material was fully converted, I still had a large population of worms (much to Willy's relief), but I can't say for certain if that was first or second generation. There was no sign of suffering on the part of the plants which I later planted in this material, so again I can't really say anything for sure.

My best suggestion on this one, is try it out with a sample population of your worms, and see how they do. It might also be a good idea to use the shredded photo-copy paper as only one ingredient in a mixture containing something known to be safe, such as newsprint or cardboard, or both (a one third mix sounds good to me.)

If you do try this, I would certainly appreciate hearing from you again to find out the results. In the meantime, keep on worming!

Brian Paley (The Worm Guy)

Since I first printed this letter, and its reply, I have again spoken with Mr.Lahne and I would like to thank him for bringing to my attention a very important point I failed to include in my answer to his letter. (My only excuse is that most of my compost these days gets used for house-plants, rather than in a vegetable garden.) In the event, (such as in Richard's case), where the resulting vermicompost is to be used as a soil enhancer in the family garden, any questionable bedding (see the letter presented above) should be avoided since plant up-take of possibly contaminated soil compounds, could be indirectly passed on to the gardener and the gardener's family through the vegetables they eat. Willy says, "When in doubt, throw it out!" (By which I'm sure he means to properly, and carefully dispose of it.) Once again, my thanks to Richard Lahne for giving me the pinch which I needed to wake up.


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