6 Reasons Your Red Wigglers are Making a Run for It: How to Keep Your Worms from Escaping
Excited and full of visions of fresh rich worm castings, your red wrigglers arrive in the mail. You set up your worm bin and put them in. Going to bed with images of garden glory in your head, you wake up only to find dead worms all over the kitchen floor.
What am I doing wrong? Why are they trying to escape?
In short, the answer could be a few different things. Below are a few common problems. It is helpful to see yourself as a sort of detective and observe the conditions in the bin. Recall any changes that you have made to help figure out your problem.
Survival of the Fittest
If you have just a few stragglers getting out, then you are doing nothing wrong.
As frustrating, and a little gross, as it may be, this is perfectly normal. There will always be a few less than bright little wigglers going in search of a different home. This is what we call the survival of the fittest.
Especially when first setting up a new environment for them, they are likely to take a little time to get used to their new surroundings. You can help them stay put by putting a light over the bin during the night. Worms do not like light and will burrow down into their bedding to escape it. If on the other hand, you have droves of worms collecting on the edge of the bin and trying to make a run for it, read on.
An Italian’s Dilemma — Overfeeding
If you come from a culture like I do where grandma is constantly feeding everyone and you can never have enough food on the table or in your belly, you might feel a little hesitant when I say less feeding is better than more.
One of the most common problems that can occur with worms is overfeeding. If you researched a bit before you purchased your worms, you read that red wiggler worms can eat half their body weight in food. This “fact” can be debated as it is often seen how easy it is for newbie worm farmers to overfeed in an attempt to make sure their worms are getting enough food.
You can tell if you are overfeeding if you have a lot of food scraps not being eaten, and your bin is smelly because the worms are not eating the rotting food fast enough.
Experts suggest to just give a little bit of food at a time every few days in the beginning.
Make sure to put the scraps in different places each time you feed. By feeding a little at a time, you will soon find out how much you really do need to feed them. Rest assured, you do not have to worry about the worms starving because, in addition to the food scraps you give them, they will also eat their bedding. You will see problems of overfeeding a lot faster than you will see problems of underfeeding, so when in doubt, feed less. If you see a lot of uneaten food scraps in the bin, try taking some out to see if the worms settle down.
While worms do need a wet environment to breathe, it cannot be too wet. If there is excess water, they will drown, your bin will be very smelly, and it will create rotting which could also cause acidity problems.
Your bedding should be as wet as a wrung-out wet sponge.
Try squeezing some of the bedding. If water drips out, it is too wet. Make sure your bin has holes at the bottom to drain the excess liquid.
Overfeeding can also create too much moisture, as most of the food given is high in water content. An easy fix is to add some extra dry bedding such as torn up newspaper or cardboard to the bin to help soak up the extra moisture.
Most people do not have this problem but if you live in a dry climate, it is important to make sure that it is moist enough in your bedding for the worms. Worms breathe through moisture in their skin so if they are not moist enough they cannot breathe. Check your bedding, if it does not seem as wet as a wet wrung-out sponge, add some non-chlorinated or filtered water to the bedding.
pH Problems: Too Acidic or Too Alkaline
While worms can tolerate a small amount of acidic food, it is easy to give too much and create an environment that has much too low of a pH for the worms. Foods like tomato, pineapple, and citrus peels are usually best not to add unless it is a very small amount of the total food content. Even adding too many used coffee grounds, grains or foods high in protein can make it too acidic. So, be careful to give a good variety of foods and not to add too much of these highly acidic foods. You can also cause acidity problems just by overfeeding the worms in general because the rotting process could make the conditions too acidic or too alkaline depending on the moisture in the bin. Yet, another reason not to overfeed.
One indicator of a pH problem is a rotting, mildew, foul smell. You can buy a pH soil tester or test strips to test your pH if you are having problems. Test your soil in a few different areas to get a better idea of what is going on in your bin. For healthy worms, the pH for a worm bin should be between 6.0–8.0, although ideally 6.0–7.0.
Whether your bin is too acidic or too alkaline, you want to pick out any acidic or rotting food pieces that you can, change the bedding to fresh bedding, and add some eggshells to the worm bin.
Eggshells have the benefit of reducing the acidity without ever making it alkaline. Some experts recommend rinsing and baking your eggshells in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes to make sure there are no pathogens in them. As a minimum, make sure to rinse the egg whites out of the eggshells very well before adding to the bin. Personally, I prefer to just use hardboiled eggshells. Crush the eggshells into fine pieces with a rolling pin or blend in the blender before adding to the worm bin so they are small enough for the worms to eat easily.
If your bin is too alkaline add some acidic material like citrus peels, coffee grounds or peat moss, and some carbon-rich materials such as newspaper, dry leaves or cardboard. Make sure to moisten the dry carbon materials.
In order to prevent future pH problems get into the habit of adding eggshells to your bin three to four times a month.
Is it Stuffy in Here?
Not enough ventilation can sometimes be a problem in worm bins as well. Worms need oxygen so make sure you have enough holes in the lid or sides of the worm bin. In addition, make sure the bedding and food are not dumped compactly on top of the worms. The bedding should be loose and airy so they can breathe and move.
Hopefully, with a few of the above changes, you can rest easy knowing that your worms are comfortable and not all over your kitchen floor! And, before you know it, you too will have loads of that beautiful rich vermicompost we like to call “black gold”.
- Vincent, Wendy. “Caring for your Worm Bin.” The Complete Guide to Working with Worms: Using the Gardener’s Best Friend for Organic Gardening and Composting. Revised 2nd Edition, Atlantic Publishing Group, Inc, 2015, pp. 134–137.
- Uncle Jim, “Why are My Composting Worms Trying to Escape?” Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm Blog, 8 June 2016, https://unclejimswormfarm.com/why-composting-worms-escape/
- B, Donny, “How to Check and Manage pH in your Worm Bin.” The Squirm Firm Blog, March 2015, https://thesquirmfirm.com/check-manage-ph-worm-bin/
- Martysgarden, “Worm Farm Problems Solved.” YouTube, 27 Jan. 2019, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TeXhe6bj4no