Worm Composters: Spring Tips, Troubleshooting, and FAQ’s

Now that it’s time to bring worm composters out from the basement and to the outside, we are getting quite a bit of email with questions, comments, and even pictures that we thought we’d share.

Q. What temperature can we bring  the worm bin outside?
A. Once temperatures reach above freezing reliably, you are good to go. Worms like temperatures are between 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Red worms generally prefer temperatures in the 55 to 77 degree range.

Q. We are seeing little red round mites in our bin now that it’s outside. Do we need to start our bin over? Are they hurting the worms?
A. No and Maybe. So, don’t start over, at least yet. Mites can be a worm composter friend. But in big populations they can bother your worms and send them down below the surface. How can you tell if your worms are bothered? Are they hiding in clumps below….time to think about mite reducing strategies.

mites gathering on melon

mites gathering on melon

Q. OK, so what are mite reduction strategies?
A. First mites are not necessarily bad. Red (or reddish brown) mites find the conditions in a worm composting bin an ideal habitat. They are part of the composting cycle, helping to break down any tough fibrous materials. Increased mite populations happen when a bin is too wet, or the pH becomes too low. How did the pH become too low…probably you put a bit too much food in the bin, it got nice and fermented and then the pH dove down. Then the mites threw a reproduction party! So now that you know the reasons, here are a few solutions ::

  • You can raise the pH with lime, egg shells, or even wood ash.
  • open the lid and let the sun UV light kill off some mites.
  • trap them on melon skins or bread soaked in milk. Lay these on the surface of the bin, and when they are covered in mites, lift them out and dispose of them. Repeat the procedure till numbers are reduced.
  • scrape the top layers of worm castings off each day and the mites go with it. It took me about 4 days doing this on the 3 layers of my own can-o-worms worm composter and the mites were back to levels where I didn’t notice them anymore.
  • lastly, I offer it up but do not recommend it…some people use a propane torch on the top layer of the bin to kill the mites. My son offered to help me with this one! 😉

Q. Are you sure these red worms will not escape into my yard, killing all my native earthworms and take over?
A. Nope…some will escape. But they can’t live in a typical garden setting so they are not going to compete or even fight with your native earthworms. Know there is actually no way to get all those little worm egg sacks out of the worm castings you harvest. However, the red worms that we recommend don’t live in gardens well because they can’t burrow or take dry conditions. They can live in piles of stuff, compost piles, and bins where the moisture level is high and even.

Eisenia fetida, known under various common names, including redworms, brandling worms, “tiger worms” and red wiggler worms, is a species of earthworm adapted to the environment of decaying organic material. It thrives in rotting vegetation, compost, and manure, i.e. it is an epigeic worm. It is rarely found in soil, and instead, like Lumbricus rubellus, prefers conditions where other worms cannot survive.

Q. Yikes, my bin is smelling all of a sudden. What’s up? Is it because it is moved outside?
A. Nope. It’s because the pile is too wet or there is food decaying before the worms can get to it.

And that brings up something very important…worms don’t actually eat the food scraps…they eat the microorganisms and bacteria that are breaking down the food.

That said, if the problem is rotting food, you may be feeding too much or need more worms. If it is stinky food on top of the pile, I have found if you bury anything stinky, the odor goes right away. And in general, I leave onions out of my bin because I hate that smell.  If the problem is a wet pile, air it out, add some dry bedding, and mix it up. If you are using a home-made bin, consider drilling more air holes.

Q. Why are my worms laying together on the top of my can-o-worms side-by-side?
A. They are having a party of sorts. Shut the lid and come back later!

Q2. OK, I shut the lid. Now my worm numbers have quadrupled in size. How did this happen?
A. Time for a worm “birds and bees” talk::

Worms are hermaphrodites — each worm has both male and female reproductive parts. When a worm has the urge and finds a suitable partner, they lay side-by-side with their heads pointed in opposite directions, glue themselves together with mucus bands and deposit sperm in pores on their partner’s body. After each “mating event,” which can last up to an hour, both worms go to work making a number of little cocoons with their partner’s sperm and their own eggs. The eggs meet the sperm inside the cocoons, fertilization takes place, and a few worms emerge from the cocoon several weeks later.

You may ask: Why not just stay home on Saturday night and fertilize ones own eggs? That’s an option, but not a popular one due to the desire to diversify the genetic pool for worms. Generally, worms are self-fertile only when they can’t find a mate.

Q. I am harvesting my castings and trying to save all those lovely egg cocoons. Help my motivation, please tell me how many worms am I saving each time I do this?
A. Sure! You are saving the lives of approximately 5-20 worms for each little sack you find. I can pick roughly 10 cocoons a minute out of my castings so at the rate of between $20 and $50 per 500 worms, I think that worth the time and truthfully, I just love to keep every single worm in my bins!

Each cocoon can hatch up to 20 worms within about two to three weeks depending on temperature and moisture. Cocoons can also lie dormant in the soil for over two years until temperature and moisture conditions become tolerable for survival.

Q. Mold is growing on the top of my worm bin pile. Is this bad?
A. Mold actually helps break down the food so worms can digest it. However, molds and fungi also serve as an indicator, telling you if the feeding rate is adequate. Mold grows most prolifically in still, quiet environments, so large amounts of mold and fungi indicate there is more food than the system can quickly manage. So that means get more worms or reduce the feeding rate.

Q. Is it true that if you cut an earthworm in half, it will grow into two individuals?
A. No! No! Absolutely No!

Q. What are the foods I should never feed my worms?
A. Well, obviously meats, cheese, oily things. But in the vegetable family, the 3 no-no’s are citrus, onions, and rhubarb which send the worm bin ph acidic quickly.

Q. What are these blind weird crawling maggot-like things in my wormery?

picture-271

critters 1

critters 2

critters 2

A. They are both actually the same bug. They are the larvae from soldier fly. I hate them, as I often see them chase the earthworms out of my outside composter in mid-summer. However there is a whole world of soldier-fly composters and fans out there and they are very effective aggressive digesters. They are just not as lovely to me as earthworms. So I snip them in half when I see them and my worms eat them up! A bit persnickety…I know. Unless your worms are hiding from these critters tho, there is really no need to get rid of them as they hatch and fly off. This is truthfully, a personal vendetta and dislike so you should pay no attention to my advice here! 🙂

Q. I’m off to a Tropical Island for a week. Do I need to hire someone to watch my worms?
A. Nope. A well established wormery can be left for up to a month before the worm numbers start to fall. If you are going away give your worms a good feed just before leaving. IMPORTANT: Leave the tap open while you are away to ensure the wormery does not get waterlogged and your worm drown. I personally have forgotten to do this and after just one week I came back to a nasty smelling pool of dead worms in fermenting liquid at the bottom of my can-o-worms.

That’s it for today. Next up we are gathering the tips for the spring maintenance for your sun-mar continuous composter and getting it’s pile off to a great hot start.

RELATED POST :: Really Happy Worms! My Easy Winter Worm-Composting

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