Did you know worms of the species Eisenia fetida can live up to 5 years?! The same goes for each of their thousands o’ composting offspring.
I like to think of those as purpose driven lives. But unfortunately they’re cut short, before we, their caretakers, are expecting it. Today we’re getting one step ahead of all that.
From here on out, you’ll be well prepared in case a 2020-style worm disaster strikes.
It’s not the most glamorous part of worm composting, (what is?) but as responsible stewards to 1,000s of red wigglers at any time, we need to recognize the causes and signs of death, and prevent it whenever possible.
So today, we’re putting on our big squishy hearts and thinking about how to pay homage to worms that pass. Then we’ll get on our kneepads and clean up the mess.
Sound crazy? It’ll be fun!
And seriously, the show must go on, because, look! There are cocoons laying around already becoming the next generation. So let’s just get to it, okay?
I don’t know about you, but to date, I haven’t seen a streak of gray, extra wrinkles, or whiskers to give away the age of any of my worms. I’ve looked!
At first, their life exists entirely within the cocoon. Hardly noticeable, but visible if you look close. After about 23 days of gestation, 2 to 3, baby fine, transparent worms emerge by crawling out the pointy end of their cocoon.
Between 1 and 2 months later, each yellow-tipped (have you noticed?) juvenile develops its clitellum. The clitellum is the prominent pink band near the head of the worm. They are then able to reproduce and are considered mature.
Red wiggler compost worms continue to reproduce throughout the remainder of their lifespan.
Signs of Imminent Death
In captivity, red wigglers live on day after day eating and pooping, mating and eating. Sounds pretty nice, huh? In a consistently well-maintained tower system, worms have no predators and generally, things remain stable for a long time.
In my dreams, generations of worms grow old gracefully then expire in their sleep. In truth, however, sometimes an unfortunately predictable fate is met instead.
Here’s a heads up. Be on the lookout for these red flag situations:
- When temperatures exceed 95F
- When temperatures fall below 40F
- When bedding is submerged underwater
- When moisture has fallen below 65%
- When pH levels fall much below or above 7
Easy peasy, right? Well, usually, but not always.
When You Discover Danger Too Late
Hey, it happens. Things happen. The bin got too much sun, someone left the lid off in the rain, you forgot about that other bin over there too long. Oops! Dang.
But then what?
Man, I’ll tell ya. I’ve had the best intentions with worm bins that went really, really bad. One in particular I mixed with too many coffee grounds, left open in the rain, then dropped and busted ‘cuz it was too heavy. I was dejected, so It sat in the yard growing maggots, not worms, for a long time.
It was a pathetic situation. I really had no idea what to do. And I know I’m not the only one who has had a worm bin mess up. Right?? Come on, back me up here!
Post Mortem Options for Probable Causes
With summer just behind us, hot-weather related problems may sound familiar. The good news, generally speaking, is that though a bin full of hot dead worms is terribly stinky, it need not render your compost useless.
That being said, adding it to the garden in such a state would be very gross work and would likely attract pests.
In cases like these, you’re better off tossing your worm compost into your hot compost to get things rebalanced. There, various bacteria and microbes continue to decompose worm matter as well as accelerate the activity of your hot compost.
What if they have been frozen?
Heat isn’t always the issue. Sometimes the opposite end of the temperature spectrum is the culprit. Here’s what you need to know when this happens.
When frozen worms defrost they release moisture and stink a bit. However, if you leave the bin out through to spring, the bin may recover. Bacteria will continue to feed off the organic matter and eventually defrosted cocoons release babies that start the colony growing again.
Plus, in a large, established bin, the center may remain warm enough for some worms to survive. They then continue to repopulate, eat, and compost as temperatures allow.
What if they’ve drowned?
This is so unfortunate. This seems the hardest obstacle of them all.
Oftentimes, a moisture event kills off the oxygen-loving bacteria as well as the worms they feed. Anaerobic bacteria quickly take over and make a reeking cesspool of your worm bin.
In this case, add it to your hot compost with an extra load of dry brown material above and below it. Getting rid of the moisture is the only way to get the right microbes back in action. In this way, the compost will be usable again once it’s been dried and repopulated with beneficial bacteria.
What if they’ve been pickled or poisoned?
Salt in the worm bin is hard to avoid, but easy to manage. In excess, sodium damages the worm’s outer mucus membrane impairing its ability to breathe.
If it comes close to too far, you may have some worms living and others that succumb to the salt. This is a good time to rinse, harvest, and rebuild the bedding. Start fresh to make a suitable habitat for those that remain.
Watch out, too acidic or alkaline a bedding will harm your herd as well! When this happens you need to bring things back into balance ASAP. Learn more about keeping pH in check and never worry again. If you’re thinking egg shells, you’re on the right track!
As for poisoning, did you know humans utilize Eisenia fetida specifically for removing contaminants from soil? They absorb heavy metals without releasing them back into the soil.
Worms used for such applications should be harvested and contained to protect our soil and waterways.
What about dehydrated worms?
At more than 80% water themselves, low humidity poses a dangerous threat. When levels fall too far you run the risk of bedding sucking the moisture right out of your worms. Still, if you find that you’ve lost a worm herd due to dehydration, you may not have lost everything.
Bone dry compost is considered “dead”, meaning even the microbes and bacteria and basically inactive. Moisten dry compost and add fresh worms to jump right back into business. Old worms will quickly decompose and become part of the bedding.
Stay on top of moisture maintenance with a simple to use moisture meter. For soil or compost, this meter is a great way to be sure that your bedding neither draws moisture from your worms nor leaves them swimming.
Doomed Due to Starvation
We’ve covered water. Now let’s look at what happens when feedings go wrong.
I envision this situation involving a rescue. One in which you swoop in and save an abandoned bin of starving worms from the hands of rogue worm composters who accidentally got distracted by another awesome life saving project.
Here you’re left with both dry compost and no living worms. And yet, it’s highly likely that nothing is actually wrong with the contents, aside from the lack of life part.
That compost is still totally usable for both the garden and for hosting a new colony of worms. All that’s needed is a worm refresher. One pound of fresh red wigglers will do the trick.
Moving forward, use a handy What Can Red Wigglers Eat refrigerator magnet to ensure that enough of the right food gets into the bin.
Keep the Grim Worm Reaper Away with Simple Tools
How can you keep worm-death at bay? You’ve seen what to be on the lookout for, but a few tools will assure your observations are accurate.
Keep worms in their happy place, between 68-77F, using The Squirm Firm compost thermometer to be certain.
Maintain moisture and pH at once with a dual-probe meter that gives you accurate readings in less than a second.
And there you have it. Now you can prepare for the worst while you expect the best.
One sure way to do that is to keep The Squirm Firm close at hand. Sign up for our free monthly newsletter for tips, tools, and expert advice delivered right to your Inbox. We’ll keep your vermicomposting hobby fresh and fun as you learn how best to incorporate green living into each day
Until next time,
Happy worm composting!
I’m always a little confused about what proper moisture level looks like as far as the soil texture. I know that when you squeeze a fistful, water shouldn’t run out between you fingers, but that is only showing the wet side of the soil. Is the “right” level just on the fringe of this test, or should it bea little dryer? Maybe it’s more of and art than a science? I guess I’m doing something right, as I have tons of very young worm(lings) . I have plastic lid on the tote, and many of these young worms are out of the soil and up on sides of the tote or on the underside of the lid. Not sure this is a normal thing for them to be doing.
Good info.presented some things that I did not know.
My worm farm was overrun by ants. I didn’t realize that was a problem. I need to start over with new worms and put something on the feet of the composter to prevent this from happening again.
My experience with ants is they’re not really a problem. I have ants in mine, they seem to come and go. The worms just keep eating and making babies.
I recently had a death event. My worm bin is in my laundry room by an unused back door. Several weeks ago a cold front dropped temps 40ish degrees. I moved my bin away from the door and about a day later I saw that a bunch had jumped ship and dried up on the floor! I have no idea what happened! Moisture level is good and I only feed them foods from your chart. Could the temp change have cause the great escape? What can I do to keep this from happening again?
Interesting that this should be the feature article when I came to the website today. We just discovered a catastrophe in our worm bin. A good number of dead worms in the bottom catch basin, and in an empty bin that we stored below the active bin (should that be stored elsewhere?). Our bin is in the garage, so we’re pretty sure they just got too hot. Besides finding a different location for the bin, what might we do to help keep them cool?
You’ve probably worked this out by now. For what it’s worth: freeze a few 8-12oz water bottles and bury them in bedding on the hottest days. Use a small fan to keep air circulating around & through the bin. Check to make sure your bedding is staying damp. I keep mine on the concrete-slab floor in my garage, which tends to stay relatively cool, even on 95-105 degree days. Always keep in full shade during summer.
My mass extinction event occurred when I was distracted by a garage catastrophe. My washing machine overflowed and flooded my garage.
I picked the work bin up off the floor before it soaked up too much soapy water and placed it outside on the shady west west side of my house (this was in the morning) to drip dry. I then went about cleaning up the mess and laying things out in the sun to dry. It was nighttime by the time I remembered I had put the bin on a rack outside. Horrified I opened the bin, and was met by a fetid cloud of steam. The outside of the bin was well over 100 degrees, even as it was probably 65 outside. A few made it by burrowing into a wet blended food ball in the center of the bin. The rest went to hot compost. It was awful, but a learning experience.