Worms running away? Stop the escape before it’s too late!

Worms running away? Stop the escape before its too late!

Are your worms trying to stage a mass escape from your worm bin? For some reason or another, they have decided that their environment is unsuitable to live in and have begun to run for their lives. They are in serious danger! In this article, we will walk you through the process of determining the most likely reason your worms are making a squirm for it, and teach you a few quick fixes to prevent them from escaping before they’re all gone… (or worse!)

Why Are My Worms Trying to Escape?

New Environment? If your worms are new to their environment, they may be having a hard time acclimating to your worm compost bin because they’ve been raised in a particular feedstock and probably farmed in a roomy, open bed. If your worms are new and not used to their new home, consider giving them a couple days to settle in. In the meantime, you can leave a light turned on over your worm bin, as the worms do not like light and will return to the comfortable darkness of your worm bedding. If your worms still want to escape after a few days, read on to learn more.

If your worm bin has been established for a while and your worms are suddenly trying to escape, one of these four things in your worm bin are generally the issue:

1) Temperature

2) pH Level

3) Moisture Level

4) Aeration

If your bin has any trouble with one (or more) of these factors, your worms’ home will feel more like a toxic wasteland than a luxury apartment. Your worm bin has become a death trap, hence why your worms are moving out. In the next section, you will learn how to figure out which measurement is causing problems in your worm bin.

There is one last potential cause that we must not forget to mention: weather change. Worms can sense changes in barometric pressure and will instinctively adjust to this accordingly. Thunderstorms and other rapid climate changes will force your worms to the top of their bin.

Remember, worms breathe through their skin, so if they sense a chance of rain, they’re going to move accordingly to keep themselves from drowning. If you’ve ever walked the sidewalk on a rainy April day, you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about.

If your worm escape happens during extreme weather, the conditions in your worm bin are probably nothing to worry about. However, if your worms keep trying to escape after the storm has passed, something is definitely going haywire and you need to figure it out ASAP.

How Do I Figure Out The Problem In My Worm Bin?

Remember, the four most likely culprits that could be causing your to worms flee are also the four environmental conditions that are fully within your control. Check the temperature, pH, moisture level, and areation of your worm bin. You can quickly and easily estimate these with our quick tips below.

1) Temperature

Worms and people enjoy a similar temperature range. Above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and below 80 degrees Fahrenheit keeps your worms at their happiest and healthiest. In case of emergencies (like a massive worm evacuation) where you don’t have a thermometer, you’re going to have to quickly touch your worm bin for an extremely rough estimate of the temperature inside. Get your worms in a shady, cooler place if it feels hot, and a warmer place if it feels cold.

Once your resolve your emergency, consider starting to regularly check the temperature in your worm bin using one of our worm compost thermometers so you always know for sure if your worms are safe and can avoid another temperature-related “Great Escape” in the future. They are color coded with the worms preferred temperatures so you can tell at a quick glance if your worms are comfortable or if they are in danger.

2) pH

pH (or Power of Hydrogen) is essentially a measure of the acidity in your worm bin. It is measured from 0 (acidic) to 14 (basic). A pH of 7 is considered neutral. The optimal pH range for composting worms is between 6 and 7, but they can survive in an environment with a pH as high as 8 or as low as 5 for a short time.

If you don’t have a pH meter, try a quick and easy smell test. Do you smell a rotten, mildew-ridden and musty stench? If the smell is off, then the worms might be escaping because of a pH imbalance.

Have you fed them any citrus lately? Citrus fruits (such as oranges, grapefruit, and lemons) are highly acidic and can bring the pH in your worm bin outside of the worms’ comfort zone. If you have recently added any citrus, remove it from your bin until the emergency is resolved. It just might be the cause of the problem.

If you have not added any citrus recently and you think you’re still having pH issues, crush up some eggshells and mix them into your worm bedding.

Note that a smelly bin does not always mean that you are having problems with your pH. The only way to truly know when you are having pH issues is by testing the pH level in your bin with an accurate meter.

3) Moisture

You might not have much time left, your worms are in danger!

In order to quickly estimate the moisture content in your worm bin, perform the “squeeze test.” Simply pick up some bedding and squeeze it in your hands. If your bin is at the perfect moisture level, you will see one or two water droplets wring out of your hands.

If you notice a dribble, a trickle, or a stream, your worm bin is too moist. Add some dry bedding to soak up the excess moisture and take care to avoid adding moisture-rich foods until levels drop back down to where they should be. If the bedding is sandy, dry, and crumbly, you will need to add water to the environment for your worms. Use a squirt bottle and evenly mist the bedding until it seems moist enough.

Check on the worm bin again in a few minutes. You need to check your moisture levels again after the water has had time to seep down into the rest of the bin. In the future, you can prevent this from happening again by regularly checking your worm bin’s moisture with a moisture meter and taking heroic action the moment H2O levels in your bin go astray.

4) Aeration

Your worms may also be escaping because they are on the hunt for oxygen.

We mentioned earlier that pH isn’t the only thing that can cause a worm bin to smell. Your worm bin may also have a foul odor because it has gone anaerobic. When your bin goes anaerobic, it means that odor-producing anaerobic bacteria are breeding inside because there is not enough oxygen in the bin. Proper oxygen levels are crucial to your worm colony’s survival, so a bad smelling bin is a key indicator that corrective action must be taken immediately.

Technically, an anaerobic bin is the result of a moisture problem, but we want to differentiate between the two for the purpose of this article. If you suspect your worm bin might have gone anaerobic, gently turn the bedding to break up clumps and to make passageways for oxygen to penetrate the bin. Be careful not to hurt your worms! Leave the lid off of your worm bin for about 30 minutes after turning so that the oxygen outside your bin has a direct route down into your worms’ bedding. Keep a watchful eye on your worms to make sure they don’t squirm away while you are airing out your bin.

If you consistently have issues with aeration in your bin, consider drilling a few small holes in the sides for extra airflow.

If All Else Fails…

Give Your Worms Some Wiggle Room

It’s always possible that your worm bin is just too crowded, and your worms are escaping because they need more space. Worms will instinctively base their mating behavior off of the size of the container they are in. Because of this, people rarely have issues with an overcrowded bin.

However, if you accidentally put too many worms into too small of a container, they lose their ability to self-regulate their population. (They can choose to breed faster, but will never choose to die faster!)

Imagine living in a single room packed full of people, with gravity crushing you up against one another. Doesn’t sound fun, does it? Your worms will naturally start to look elsewhere for a place to live. Do they have enough space in their bedding material to share amongst themselves?

Take a look at your worm bin. Do they have enough space in their bedding material to share amongst themselves?

Out with the Old, In with the New

Some bedding can be irritating to certain species of worms.  Some bedding contains salts that will dry out the skin of your worms, making it hard for them to breathe. Maybe the specific bedding material that you chose was perfect for the worms, but it was contaminated with chemicals that you weren’t able to see. If you still can’t figure out why your worm workers are crawling off, try switching out their bedding material—they might just be uncomfortable!

It should be rare that this will be necessary. Nine times out of ten, your escape issues will stem from either temperature, pH, moisture or aeration, but this is available as a last resort when nothing seems to be working to end the escape. Save as many worms as you can, and hopefully they will be much happier in their refurbished home.

Preventing Future Worm Emergencies

If temperature, moisture, and/or pH are out of balance, or your bin has gone anaerobic, your worms will be uncomfortable. Make sure you are consistently checking on these elements of your worm bin to prevent future emergencies. If you do a good job monitoring and maintaining your worm bin, you will preserve the health and happiness of your worms for years to come.

If you’re new to worm composting, educate yourself about your worms, about proper worm bin maintenance techniques perfected by experienced worm farmers, and about problems that can occur in a worm bin so you can stop them before they start.

Remember, even if the week gets busy, check on your worms! It only takes a few minutes, and it will save you time in the long run. You’ll be in for an even busier week if you have another massive worm evacuation on your hands.

Now What?

Now that we’ve successfully gotten through the escape and solved the problem(s) in your worm bin, you may be wondering “What’s next?”

You can become a worm farming pro and prevent emergencies like this from happening in the future. Simply sign up for our free newsletter to receive a once monthly email with our expert worm farming tips, tricks, and how-tos. Our newsletter will give you everything you need to maintain a healthy existence for your worms and a pleasurable experience for you. Just enter your email address into the bar at the top of your screen, and you will be on your way to becoming an expert worm farmer yourself.

If Facebook or Twitter is more your thing, you can like us and follow us with the buttons on the right side of this page. Why not do all three? You can never have too much insight into the welfare of your worms!

Proper worm bin maintenance is paramount to providing a healthy and happy environment for your worms to do what they do best—eat, poop, and reproduce. If you love their superior recycling abilities and the rich composted material they provide you, why not thank them by maintaining their home like it’s a five-star hotel? Measure and correct the important variables in your worm bin when appropriate, and you will have successfully secured the health, happiness, productivity, and reproductive speed of your red wiggler family.

Article by Natalya Cowilich

Readers Comments (23)

  1. Very helpful. Thank you. After 6 months, a few have started trying to crawl out at night. Haven’t hit on a reason yet, though I’ll continue to check all the problems you mention.

  2. Last summer, all of my worms started crawling out of the bin I had in the garage. I’m pretty sure it was too hot in there. Next time I start a worm bin, I’ll have a thermometer as you recommend! Thanks for the tip.

  3. my worms keep dropping? into the collection tray for the liquid. Every day there are 2 or 3 or so. I just keep adding them to the top again. Is there anything else I can do?

    • Hi, Chiara- I find that my red wigglers do the very same thing. I’m not certain why they drop down there or if many others do the same and then just migrate right back up using the ladder. I started putting crumpled up newspaper down there so the worms don’t accidentally drown themselves and have more to climb up onto. I do the same thing you do too- I pick them out and put them right back into the active tray. All in all, I’m pretty sure they can get themselves back up if they want to and there is little harm in them hanging out below for a bit. Let us know if you find another great way that works for you!

      • Mine seem to be trying to bug out regularly. The soil/castings have a beautiful, loamy feel and smell like rich earth. I turn/aerate it regularly, and don’t feed items from the “no-no” list. I recently took a bunch out to give to friends, as I was worried about overcrowding, but if they self-regulate, I’m baffled. Once I take the lid off, they head back in, if it seems wet, I’ll add more shreds of cardboard to soak up any excess moisture and fluff the whole thing. Help me Obi Wan, you’re my only hope! ;’)

        • Hi Deb, my first thought jumped to soil salt levels. Would you say your worm bin been harvested recently enough? I’d say no longer than 6 months. Checking the bedding temperature and pH would be a great first place to start. Next, you can test for salt or just harvest. It sounds like you’ve got some nice finished compost already!

  4. gary greenawalt March 19, 2019 @ 1:05 am

    had worms for about 9 months now, lost about 50 overnight, put a light on them it should do the trick I hope

    • Hi Gary, after 9 months most worms are well settled and unlikely to pull off an escape attempt. When something “strange” like that happens it’s a good idea to go ahead and run a check of temperature, pH, and moisture content. Generally, red wigglers will want to stay where the conditions are best and won’t leave unless they are seeking more comfortable conditions. Good luck!

    • My worms keep escaping downwards and I’ve been putting them back. Now I seem to have an infestation of another critter – white wiggly things that are getting bigger and I fear the worms are running away from them! Sound familiar to anyone? I’m now trying to entice the worms into another bin with new bedding

  5. Just set up my bin yesterday and came out this morning and many of them had escaped! I’m so new to this! I’ll keep the light on tonight and see how they do.

    • Ooh, Suzie, I feel for ya! I’ve been there. How are they getting out? Sealing them in well won’t suffocate them overnight. It does take a little time for certain worms to settle down after a move. But don’t worry, not long. Once they’ve broken in their new digs they’ll be content to stay home. Have fun!

  6. Elizabeth Allstaedt July 18, 2020 @ 2:57 am

    Excellent information. I just signed up for your newsletter. Thanks

  7. Oriana Middleton December 5, 2020 @ 12:17 pm

    We have had our wormery a couple of months now, arrived in October. They have been trying to escape from the start. They don’t seem to be eating that much either, I have been putting the right kind of food down. It’s not too wet and they are kept in the shed. I can’t think why they haven’t settle down. We find them in the sump tray, they’ve not drowned because they have not produced anything. The only possible thing I can think of is when my husband assembled it he accidently and very briefly mist strayed the coir with a container that had had mint essential oil in it. It was clean, but as you can imagine, mint and oil linger not matter how much you try and wash it. Could this be the problem? Would it be better to start again, new bedding etc.? My last thought was maybe because we got them late in the year they are going dormant and not interested, but they must still need food? So frustrated, can anyone help please?

  8. I can’t seem to get an answer.i am interested in trying to raise night crawlers in my yard.is this possible or will they escape?i want to do this for profit and for my own bait.

    • Unfortunately, our business focuses on composting with the red wiggler worms, and we do not have any experience working with the nightcrawlers. I would suggest reaching out to a company more familiar with nightcrawlers, as they should be able to give you much more useful information.

  9. I started my bin in mid March, so 1 month ago and whenever I open the top, about every 4-5 days, there is always 1-3 trying to escape. Last week I moved my bin to a different room in the house, and when I opened it today I had about 20 lumped up in the top corners trying to get out. I put a few sheets of newspaper layered on top of it all and sprayed it with water and resealed the bin. I’ll check it tomorrow. Oh, I also fed them too. I think the moisture seems fine and there isn’t a bad smell.

    • The worms will only feel the need to get out of the worm bin if the condition is not favorable for them. That is why it is important to monitor the moisture, acidity, and temperature in your worm bin to ensure that the worms will not want to escape.

      The ideal conditions within the worm bin would be moist like a damp sponge, at a temperature between about 65 – 75 F, and at a neutral (7) pH.

      When it comes to maintaining the worm bin, we cannot assume that things are in order simply by appearance. That is why we need the aid of the thermometer, moisture meter, and pH meter to ensure that nothing is amiss.

  10. Cheryl M Salee July 31, 2021 @ 5:49 am

    I’m not a farmer, just trying to maintain my fishing worms left over from one fishing trip to the next. They are expensive. They keep getting out of the bait box. I’ve sealed the cracks, but don’t know where and why I find them on the floor. I feed, and try to keep moist yet fill is dry. And why do the roll up in a ball? HELP

    • Hi Cheryl!

      The worms will only feel the need to get out or group together (forming a ball) if the condition is not favorable for them. That is why it is important to monitor the moisture, acidity, and temperature in the container where you placed them to ensure that the worms will not want to escape.

  11. I got my worms at petsmart in February of this year. They are called big reds. They don’t look like red wigglers at all, nor do they act like them. They are big fat nice worms. They don’t seem to congregate together to eat anything…and they stay in the bottom of the bin, but they look so fat and healthy! I am actually wondering what kind of worms they might be and why they prefer to stay out of the bedding, in the bottom of the bin. Any ideas? Thank you very much!

    • Big Reds is another name used for Red Wigglers. But can you send a picture here so we can be sure?

      Usually, worms go to the bottom of the bin when they are trying to get cool. You will want to add some damp newspaper or cardboard to the top layer of your bin to encourage the worms to go upward.

      If you don’t have one yet, you will also want to have a Worm Compost Thermometer to help you regularly check the temperature in your bin. This way, you will be able to maintain a temperature that is favorable for your worms.

      Check out our blog post here to know more about maintaining the temperature in the worm bin:


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