Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 11:16, July 1 2015.
My name is Chris. I own and run Wiggly Woo Enterprises. This is my first blog so be gentle....
I have had much experience with worms over the years, but my experiences have not always been gratifying. There is much misinformation out there on worm husbandry. As a result, the majority of people experience disappointment and failure. Worms are suffering unnecessarily!
By sharing my experience and knowledge in this blog, I hope to change the way people attempt to keep theses fascinating creatures and thus help others to achieve their wormy aspirations.
Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Where and how? (part I)
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 13:52, July 1 2015.
The first question we should be asking ourselves is - “where and how?” – where and how do we keep worms?
Baby Bear’s porridge: neither too hot nor too cold
A safe temperature range to house worms is between 4oC and 26oC all year round. A cellar is an ideal place, however, you might get objections from people who are not as enthusiastic about our wiggly friends when the odd one escapes. Insulated and temperature-regulated sheds are used commercially. Guidance on ways to prevent them leaving will be detailed in this blog.
Stay in the shallows!
The modern way of keeping and culturing worms in is shallow trays 8-15cm in depth; in a thin layer of bedding, there is less chance of souring and acidic conditions. Commercially, trays are used stacked on top of each other.
It’s a breeze!
Good ventilation is beneficial and has been referred to as essential. Small 25W clip-on fans can be bought for around 12 GBP and run 24/7. When using fans the bedding will dry much quicker. Worms cannot absorb oxygen if they dry out; it is essential that moisture is available to worms. Conversely, if their bedding becomes too wet, too quickly, they will leave.
Dendrobaena veneta (Eisenia hortensis) commonly known as either the European Nightcrawler or simply Dendrobaena, are the most commonly available worms for fishing and composting in the UK. They are a European woodland worm and not native to the UK. Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises we use almost exclusively Dendrobaena.
It is essential that the peat is pH neutral and moist. A buffering agent such as garden lime (crushed limestone) can be added to help stabilise to pH and bring it up to pH 7.
The ideal ratio of bedding to worms is 6 litres of compacted peat to a kilogram and a half of worms; around 2,000 worms depending on size.
Waste paper pulp is by far the safest food to feed your worms. It is made of mostly wheat straw. Cardboard egg-boxes are made of the same type of pulp. I like to feed it wet. Feeding wet food negates the need to add extra water to the bedding. Feeding wet cardboard of this type reduces the risk of over-watering or your worms dying because food that has soured the bedding. Commercially, poultry and dairy feeds are fed but they must be used in the correct ways, otherwise the worms will get ill and die.
The egg-boxes need blending in a kitchen blender until they are the consistency of sloppy porridge. I have found the budget blenders sold by supermarkets are the best; a cost of around 15 GBP. Care should be taken to add sufficient water otherwise the blender might break. If it is your mum’s blender, get her permission and then proceed with caution! 1 Litre of water should be approximately right.
You can leave the light on....
A washing machine on spin cycle!
Moles eat up to 66% of their body weight of earthworms per day. Worms have evolved to avoid these predators at all costs. When burrowing, moles cause vibrations that worms can detect. Once worms are alerted to vibrations, they stay in a state of alarm for several days. They will do all they can to avoid moles and rise to the surface in an attempt to escape. At this point, they will leave the trays.
Any sources of vibration should be kept to a minimum. A washing machine on spin cycle every three days can cause your worms to leave. Try to house worms in places where vibrations are kept to a minimum.
Keep them in their place!
When I first experimented with worms I had the following challenges to overcome: they would leave when I added too much water; they would leave when the washing machine was on spin cycle; they would leave, they would leave, they would leave....
I designed and commissioned a mini electric fence which I found to be a perfect solution.
Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Where and how (part II)
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 00:25, July 14 2015.
Last time I began a brief overview of where and how worms are kept and how you might keep them yourself. The last thing I mentioned was a mini worm electric fence an explanation of which is continued below.
The mini worm electric fence runs on very low battery power (max 9v). It is meant as a deterrent. I have seen worms try to cross the one I designed and they simply withdraw from it. It is very effective and quite humane.
A single wire running around the tray simply connected up to a battery doesn't work. The battery and the wire get warm and the battery soon discharges. There also might be a risk of fire from the heat.
You will need two electrodes; one connected to the positive and the other to the negative of the battery. The electrodes must be positioned so that a worm trying to leave the tray will contact both electrodes at the same time. Only then will the worm be shocked. The electrodes must be continuous, easily connected to a battery and very close together. Not a simple thing to achieve!
In sickness and in health
Worms have a voracious appetite and food must be constantly available. I've heard people make reference to feeding worms too much. This made no sense to me when I first heard it. An animal knows moderation. I have seen trays of worms where some are actively feeding and the majority are on the periphery perhaps digesting after a gorge.
When I feed worms I blend up the food as described above. Blending the food breaks it down into smaller pieces therefore maximising the potential bacterial have of breaking it down. Worms then are able to feed on the simplified “liquor” produced by the bacteria.
If high calorific value foods are buried in the bedding, they will produce heat from bacteria breakdown. So much heat can be produced that you can literally cook your worms! It also stresses them and encourages them to develop bacterial infections. I feed at the surface ONLY by pouring the blended material over the surface whilst leaving some bedding free from feed at the outer edges. The waste paper pulp I suggested feeding last time is so low in calories that it does not heat up when bacteria get to work on it even when buried. It is a very “safe” food.
The bedding eventually gets cycled through the worms' guts. Once it has been through a worm it becomes to a certain extent mineralised. It has become worm poop (worm casts or castings). What comes out the back end of a worm is the best fertiliser ever created for plants. That's why worms produce it right where it is needed at the roots.
There are claims that other miracle sources of nutrition for plants exist. I do not dispute that. However, they cannot ever better what Mother Nature intended when she created worms!
To most companies, worm casts are a by-product of their worm-growing and keeping activities. It is, therefore, an added bonus to their income but not something that deserves special attention or production techniques. They are happy to get what they can for them.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we have developed a way of separating the worm casting from the bedding that yields them in an ultra-pure form. This is one factor that makes our worm castings the most sought-after. We have developed this technique over years of trial and error and at one point until very recently, something we specialised in. We did not sell the worms. We sold only castings.
It is not just our separation process that differs from other companies. The processes we employ ensure the castings have been through many worms' guts over-and-over. Albeit, not the same worms! This ensures that the castings we produce are far more mineralised than our competitors and thus of greater benefit to your plants!
This extra processing does cost which, unfortunately, means our castings are not the most uncostly. We have recently started selling our worm castings in bulk and this means we have dropped the price to 2.20 GBP per litre including carriage when purchasing 15 litres at a time.
Worms do not do well if they are left in old bedding. I don't know of any animal that does well drowning in its own poop (excreta)! The animal excretes it because it is of no use to it and often contains harmful toxins. For worms to thrive, their bedding requires changing at regular intervals.
When using the ratio of bedding to worms I described in part I, depending on what you are trying to achieve, the bedding will need changing every four to six weeks. If you are trying to produce something that will be good for your plants, then you would change the bedding at five to six weeks. If you are trying to put as much weight on the worms and grow them to as larger size as possible, you would change the bedding every three to four weeks.
Worms that have their bedding changed every five to six weeks will lose weight. I would use those worms for two rounds of late bedding changes then put weight back on them by changing the bedding every three weeks for a further two cycles.
Wetting the bed!
Feeding wet paper pulp over time will wet the bedding. A small clip-on fan as described before can be directed at the surface of the bedding. This will dry the surface. From time-to-time, the dried bedding can be mixed into the wet. This will over a number of drying and mixing cycles, dry out the bedding.
The best way I can describe how to judge the water content of bedding is to take some in your fist (minus the worms) and squeeze it. If the bedding sticks to 50 to 80% of your palm then it is within the moisture range that worms will tolerate. I wish I could reference this to the person who wrote it, I read it on a Canadian worm forum.
Leaks like a sieve!
It's now time to change the bedding, what will you do? You can purchase garden sieves with interchangeable screens of 2mm, 5mm and 7mm. It is best to dry the bedding well in the above manner before you sieve it. It makes the process far easier. Be wary not to dry it so much that the worms asphyxiate
To get the worms out, you'll need to use the 5mm screen. Then the worm castings can be retrieved by using the 2mm screen. The leftover bedding can be used as a soil conditioner in the garden.
I think I have now covered the basics in parts I & II. Something might come to me later but for now, I think you are armed with enough information to keep worms at home either for fishing or for producing worm castings. Next time worm composting including domestic food and packaging waste.
Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Waste not, want not: vermicomposting 101 (part I)
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 09:28, August 15 2015.
I must apologise for not writing anything for a while. Ah, the demands of business and life….
Composting is a natural process. It occurs without worms. Composting is performed predominantly by fungus and bacteria. Bacteria and fungus decompose organic materials and in so doing gain energy. Some small animals also get involved such as White Worms (Enchytraeus albidus), Grindal Worms (Echytnraeus buchholzi), maggots, slugs and other worms such as the Brandling (Eisenia fetida). Culturing earthworms within compost speeds up the process and results in a far better and safer product for your plants.
I can't discuss composting without first providing you with some information that might help you develop your own way of doing things. The information below is more scientific than my previous posts, however, I will use ordinary words and explain in simple terms anything that is challenging to understand. Any confusion that may occur can be eased by sending me an email. I am happy to help.
Hazard a guess!
Composting with worms is far more challenging than people make out. Worms can die if: they are fed the wrong food in the wrong form; the water content of where they are kept becomes too high or too low; oxygen levels drop in the compost and acid is produced souring the culture, or it becomes too warm or too cold.
Food for thought!
Feeding the right food in the right form is very important when keeping worms. Composting garden waste is far less problematic than composting kitchen food scraps. The problem lies in the amount of energy stored in the material used. Plant leaves, stems and twigs have far less energy stored in them than kitchen food scraps. The only exception I can think of is hay or grass clippings. I suggest that grass clippings are not composted using worms. Dried hay contains lots of energy so will need to be pre-composted in a similar way to kitchen food scraps before your worms are exposed to it. Compost heaps can spontaneously combust on hot summer days.
Shredded newspaper is a safe food; shredded letters and confidential waste is not due to some inks that contain toxins. I have seen problems arise when using glued cardboard. I suggest not attempting to compost cardboard if it contains glue. There are indications that industry is attempting to find new environmentally sound ways of gluing cardboard. Printed shiny cardboard or glossy paper is not suitable because of toxins in the ink.
A breath of fresh air!
High oxygen levels help the composting process and prevent souring. Adding structurally-complex elements in your compost traps pockets of air. Twigs and branches can be used when composting garden waste; torn apart cardboard egg-boxes can be combined with your kitchen food scraps.
The reason why worms find cardboard egg-boxes so palatable is that they are made from wheat straw. This type of “cardboard” is also very low in energy.
Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Waste not, want not: vermicomposting 101 (part II)
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 20:40, September 14 2015.
The idea of recycling our waste to produce wholesome products that are good for the environment appeals to many. It conjures up warm, fuzzy feelings of satisfaction and good will. This would be a better world where utopian idealism became reality….
Back down to earth!
The earth has evolved by virtue of its organisms, extremely efficient ways of purifying waste. There are mechanisms everywhere that utilise and convert waste into usable products. Each environmentalist's dream is to live life in harmony with nature. The use of worms is a great way of recycling waste into mineralised products that plants can use. Life on land would not exist without plants.
You are what you eat
Worms are particularly sensitive to what they eat. String of pearls disease (protein poisoning) appears to have something to do with what earthworms eat and the conditions in which they are kept. The symptoms include anything from the loss of tails to death. There seems to be no hard evidence for what causes it.
I have put together some observations and theorised what it might be, however, please be aware there is no objective scientific evidence for the following. Not one of my observations was taken under experimental conditions and the results were not reproduced. I have simply taken what I have seen and applied scientific reasoning to it. In short, I am making it up as I go along….
Neither head nor tail
String of pearls disease manifests itself as constrictions along the worm's body as if someone had tied thread tightly around the worm at intervals along its length. I hypothesise that this is a mechanism that the worm's body uses to jettison portions of the gut that are blocked or damaged. Worms that successfully lose their tails appear to survive this illness.
I have also seen other worms rise to the surface ignoring the light and lying there with red, inflamed skin. These worms die within 24 hours. They do not develop the constrictions. These worms die before they've had a chance to starve. It may be that these worms are falling prey to some infection? That might explain the reddening of their skin? I have also seen worms die with either the constrictions or skin reddening in the presence or absence of sour bedding. Unfavourable conditions will make worms more susceptible to infections and other diseases they carry.
A pearl of wisdom
I have noticed string of pearls disease when I have fed cornflour and fine maize meal within the bedding. I have also seen this malady when feeding meadow hay. When bacteria get to work on high calorific value feeds such as these, the localised area experiences a rise in temperature. The results are not the same when feeding whole grains of corn which are more resilient to bacterial breakdown.
I have heard people theorise about what worms actually eat and some think they eat the bacteria that surround the feed. Some believe that they feed on the food directly. I think the reality is probably a mixture of the two. They couldn't I believe differentiate between them, and both will be consumed.
It might be that worms do require help in breaking down certain foods and the presence of bacteria, fungi and protozoa - common in composting cultures - would aid that process. The theory therefore that worms prefer fresh food would then be flawed because fresh food contains only small amounts of organisms.
When starting a new vermicompost culture, I have read that some people mix a bit of the old culture with the new in order to maintain healthy levels of bacteria and other organisms. In commercial farming and rearing it is best to remove as much of the old bedding as possible (see).
This link suggests that string of pearls is caused by introducing worms into conditions that they are unfamiliar with. This also fits with what I have witnessed. I have used various suppliers and when I have fed worms what they are used to, I have not observed this condition. I have noticed it, however, when I have introduced them to a new type of feed. In these circumstances, the condition usually subsides after two weeks.
Feed a cold starve a fever
A relatively safe food and one that worms appear to do well on is potato waste such as discarded chips and peelings. Other vegetables, teas and coffee grounds are acceptable with the exception of onions; they and citrus fruits are too acidic in large quantities. Steer clear of fish, oils, meats, eggs (apart from their shells) and dairy.
Onions, citrus fruits, hay and flours can be pre-composted to make them safe for worms. When pre-composting you will have to be very careful and include layers of soil, structurally-complex material (see) and lots of water because the compost will heat up, possibly to temperatures that will ignite.
Pre-composting can be performed outdoors in the shade, in a shallow tray with a lid. Holes can be put in the tray including the bottom and the lid to allow air to circulate and excess liquid to drain. Pre-composting is best performed in spring and summer when temperatures are higher. The whole process should take around three weeks. The contents can then be added gradually over time to your existing vermicompost culture.
It's a bittersweet remedy
The term aerobic is used when describing an environment that contains adequate amounts of oxygen from the air. Aerobic, healthy vermicompost cultures tend to have pH values around 5.5 to 7. These pH values indicate that the culture is slightly acidic to neutral.
If a vermicompost culture develops pockets where: oxygen levels are low, bacteria and sufficiently high calorific value materials are present; the culture can quickly use up the remaining oxygen. Environments that have zero oxygen are known as anaerobic.
Anaerobic pockets in vermicompost cultures through the action of anaerobic bacteria produce acids, some very strong acids such as sulphuric (H2SO4); characterised by the smell of rotten eggs (hydrogen sulphide gas, H2S). The culture is then considered to be sour. PH values in sour cultures can range from 4 to 2 and even lower. At these pH values, the culture can become hostile to life.
If worms can escape to the sides they will although I have seen Dendrobaena tolerate even the sourest of cultures and they can for the most part survive. I have witnessed string of pearls disease in these cultures indicating that the worms aren't happy.
Strange as it may seem, worms that are stressed are likely to breed at a higher rate. It is an evolutionary adaptation that organisms that are stressed will reproduce more readily. If your Dendrobaena are breeding like crazy, I'd suggest re-examining the culture and your procedures. It is not always as one would think a great sign….
A sour culture can sometimes be improved by turning the culture over to: introduce air, release the hydrogen sulphide gas and reinstate aerobic conditions. Avoid inhaling large amounts of the gas because it is harmful. The addition of garden lime (pulverise limestone) can also help to neutralise acids and raise the pH.
Wiggly Woo Enterprises Blog
How to look after and culture worms
Posted by: Chris Wiggly Woo Enterprises at 11:16, February 2018.
Back again after a rather long hiatus. As far as I am aware, breeding Dendrobaena is not something that is done in this country by any other worm company. I am pretty sure that all the current worm suppliers in the UK, just grow on worms either from cocoons or order them from an importer. The importer then supplies the growers worms at a weight of around 0.75 g. Worms are simply grown on for around three weeks until they are 1.2 g or more then sold.
Dendrobeana are imported from either eastern Europe or from the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, companies grow an abundance of flowers (RE: tulips from Amsterdam) and the green waste left over from flower production is fed to worms. This green non-smelling soup is fed directly on the surface of the worm beds. This s a multibillion-dollar industry; no small potatoes. There is a massive demand globally for Dendrobaena worms. In the Netherlands the worms respond incredibly well to this type of food and breed at an accelerated rate.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we breed exclusively Dendrobaena and it appears we are the only company in the UK doing so. It is a bit of an art form in many respects and requires dedication and knowhow. There are many factors that need to be taken into account before we attempt to breed Dendrobaena.
In what will they breed?
As described in an earlier blog, Dendrobeana will live and breed happily in a shallow tray. A large cat litter tray is most suitable for domestic use. A light should be shone on the surface of the tray 24/7. If it is a halogen light source from say a desk lamp, the running costs for an entire year will be around 30 GBP. Using LEDs will cost far less. The point being is that it won’t break the bank…
Ammonia is a foul-smelling substance usually associated with the smell of maggots or stale urine. Ammonia is very toxic to worms and is capable of wiping out an entire tray. Dendrobaena are omnivorous and gladly dine on the remnants of their peers as they rot and as they rot, they produce ammonia. Exposing Dendrobaena to high concentrations of ammonia is stressful for them and they “break out” in bacterial infections. Bacteria are present in the culture at all times and some are potentially disease-causing (pathogenic) agents. Usually, the worms can live in harmony with the bacteria whilst they are unstressed and in good health. When they are healthy, their mucus layer protects them.
As soon as Dendrobaena become stressed, long-term, they are then vulnerable to infection, become ill and die. When they rot, more ammonia is produced. Then the bed goes into a downward spiral where the concentration of ammonia rises higher and higher and more and more worms die. The whole culture can become a big smelly mess with hardly any worms surviving. Some might head for the hills and leave. A healthy bed of worms smells like humic acid and has a very pleasant earthy smell to it.
Absorbing ammonia within the bed whilst worms are breeding is the safest option because when they breed, it opens up pores in their skin and makes them more vulnerable to infection. When breeding worms you don’t want to disturb the bed physically.
Dried plant material is capable of absorbing ammonia because it contains cellulose. A 50:50 mix of peat and this plant material is made, and this forms the basis of the bedding for breeding Dendrobaena.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we supply at a very reasonable cost bedding suitable for breeding, already mixed and at the correct moisture content so all you need to do is add this to your tray.
All living organisms require minerals to be healthy. Worms are no exception. It is not possible for Dendrobaena to get sufficient minerals from their feed, therefore, the minerals need to be included in the bedding.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we supply at a very reasonable cost, minerals required to breed Dendrobaena so all you’ll need to do is mix this into the bedding described above.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, the peat used for bedding needs to be pH neutral or around pH 7.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we supply at a very reasonable cost, buffering agents that stabilise the pH of the peat to pH 7. These then need adding and mixing into your bedding (described above).
How much bedding per tray?
You will need to add, of the type of bedding described above, around 80mm depth to your tray. This should be around six to eight litres. The bedding is only good for a maximum of four weeks. At the four-week interval, worms will need removing from the bedding with a 5mm sieve as descried in an earlier blog,. The worm castings and egg cases (cocoons) can be removed using the 2mm sieve. The egg cases if dried will remain viable for an extended period. They will need wetting down to hatch. Hatching and rearing are beyond the scope of this blog and will be discussed later.
Your Breeding Stock
One of the most important factors to consider when breeding worms is: what worms will you breed from? The worms that you require need to be raised and nurtured in a certain way to a certain age to bring them into breeding condition. Just buying worms from a worm grower and expecting the worms to breed is unlikely to be successful.
Sexually mature worms have a collar one third along from the head called the . Worms in breeding condition have a slightly pink clitellum; not red that might indicate a bacterial infection. Worms “past their best” with regard to breeding, have a grey to whiteish clitellum. Actively breeding worms, have a flat clitellum on their belly with two nodules either side of their head. Those worms are in prime breeding condition and have recently bred.
Worms can be too old to breed. Dendrobaena usually have a window of around two months where they will breed at a reasonable rate. During that time, they will produce around one cocoon per worm per week for around eight weeks only. This window of opportunity may have already past in worms supplied form elsewhere or the worms may not have been raised in the right way to ever breed successfully.
Here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises, we supply at a very reasonable cost, breeding condition worms that have been prepared for you so that when they arrive, they will be in tip top condition and ready to breed.
How many worms?
If there are too many worms added to the tray they won’t breed. If they sense there’s no room for their progeny they will be discouraged. Therefore, if you add around six to eight litres of carefully prepared bedding to your tray, that should be able to accommodate around 950 worms in breeding condition. This is around 800g of worms weighing around 1.2g each.
What will they eat and when whilst breeding?
All the above factors are essential to get right before Dendrobaena worms will breed successfully, however, what you feed them is one of the most important factors to consider. It is sometimes beneficial to not feed the worms over the first week. This is because they are vulnerable to infection. Breeding opens up pores in their skin that are normally closed. If you feed in the following way from day one, I have found that worms do not fall ill.
I suggest that when you feed worms, you feed exclusively on the surface. They are then free to approach the feed from underneath.
N.B. If you mix the feed into the bedding, you will produce anaerobic pockets of acid and sour the culture, leading to widespread infection throughout the tray.
The feed should be blended - using a blender - with water to a consistency of sloppy porridge and then spread out thinly, as to allow as many worms as possible to access it at any one time. Thin layers of feed are also less likely to become acidic in the centre. It is important to leave a border around the tray of 50 mm exposed to the air with no feed on it; worms require air.
For worms to breed successfully, it is essential they get feed that includes all the: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals and vitamins that become rapidly depleted during the breeding process. You can experiment with food waste of a vegetable nature, but remember you have only a very short window of eight weeks to get this right, otherwise your worms won’t breed. I’ve tried for years to reproduce the equivalent of green waste they use in the Netherlands and failed at getting great results.
Little and often is best
Over the years here at Wiggly Woo Enterprises we have performed all the experimentation for you; we supply at a very reasonable cost, the correct feed that has all the protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals required to get worms to breed at an accelerated rate.
A small amount such as 350ml of wet blended feed should be fed at any one time. This should last the worms around three to five days. Food should be available to worms constantly ,so it is important to keep checking whether they have sufficient.
N.B. We suggest not to disturbing worms whilst they are breeding. A light should be shone on the surface of the tray at all times but physically, they should be left undisturbed apart from spreading feed on the surface every few days.
What is the optimum temperature?
Worms will breed best at approximately 16 Celsius.
What will you see?
During the breeding process, you can keep inspecting the tray visually. Worms like to breed at the surface but will be discouraged from doing so by the light. If you don’t use a light they may leave. Occasionally you might see two worms locked in an intimate embrace near the surface. They will appear to have been together. Worms are both male and female. Organisms with this multi-sex capability are termed hermaphrodite. During their embrace, sperm is swapped between the two worms and then a cocoon is produced in which the sperm and an egg are .
Next time hatching and raising your baby worms. Until then…
Dendrobaena veneta cocoons (egg cases) shortly after harvesting. We average 800 cocoons per litre of waste bedding.
Young Dendrobaena veneta up to a month after hatching.