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Where did my worms go?  RSS feed

 
Posts: 16
Location: Lehigh Valley, PA zone 6b
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Hi all. I’ve been hoovering up the accumulated wisdom of these forums for a while now, and I hope someone here can help me with a bit of a puzzle. My compost pile has been really quite healthy for a while now; I’m using a three-bin system, not being terribly stringent on composting principles, but keeping my ratios healthy. It has been full of earthworms all year, but in the last month or so, they’ve disappeared. I didn’t change anything, and while it has periods of higher heat, now isn’t one of those times.

I’m in eastern PA, and it’s been really wet this summer, but I don’t think they’re abandoning my easy-to-move-through compost pile for the clay soil underneath. There’s either a possum or raccoon in the area that needs to be relocated for a host of reasons, and I think it’s been digging in my compost. I covered it with chicken wire, and the digging has stopped. Still, it’s a largish pile,  and I raked it all out to see if they’d moved deeper into the mound. Not a one. I know raccoons and possums can be pretty thorough, but I can’t imaging they snagged every last one.

Any thoughts?
Thanks!
Daniel
 
Posts: 641
Location: Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada
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Worms eat bacteria and other microorganisms that feed on the material. The chances are they moved on because the food isn't there anymore to support the population that was present.

One of two things is the likely cause of this:
1.  The compost has past the point of peak decomposition.
2.  The conditions changed to the point where it became hostile to your microbiome in the system.

Seems to me it's most likely the first option. The compost is essentially turning into, well, compost.

If the worms are earthworms and not composting worms, they borrow down into the subsoil for the winter. They might also be preparing their tunnels, and bringing food down there. I don't know a lot about earthworms but it wouldn't surprise me if the decreasing daylight times trigger a winter prep response in them.
 
Posts: 520
Location: 4b
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Nick Kitchener wrote:

If the worms are earthworms and not composting worms, they borrow down into the subsoil for the winter. They might also be preparing their tunnels, and bringing food down there. I don't know a lot about earthworms but it wouldn't surprise me if the decreasing daylight times trigger a winter prep response in them.



That's my thought.  It's getting colder so they will move deeper.
 
pollinator
Posts: 2404
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Hi Daniel.

Worms do have a preferred temperature range. As Nick mentioned, when conditions stop being ideal, they will move up and down the soil column in an effort to find better conditions. They will also leave, as mentioned, if there is no more, or no appropriate, food for them. I don't see this as likely if you're constantly adding to and maintaining your system.

If you've accidentally added something that's caused a die-off of the bacterial life, some persistent -cide of some kind, for instance, the lack of food might have chased them away, or the contaminant itself. It's ridiculously easy to do that if you're working from mixed food waste streams, for instance.

I am actually trying to nurture my worms through the winter in an effort to keep them composting. I am wrapping my black bin composter, which never really ever gets to a hot compost state, but which makes an excellent ground-connected high-volume worm bin, in old foam camp pads (I am keeping the vents open with wool, as it breathes better), and surrounding those with a foamcore box (again, more scrap, my girlfriend works at an art supply store), complete with lid, hopefully. I am hoping that, with all the paper content of the rabbit bedding throughout the bin as added insulation and my digging down into the centre of the bin to start a miniature hot compost core of blended greens (with a blender) and more wadded paper bunny bedding, it will generate heat enough to keep them not only alive, but eating away.

I am also layering the falling leaves thickly on the ground around the bin, and I am laying tarps such that they keep the leaf layer dry. In my brief stint as a landscaper, I did this in the first week of January with straw and tarps on an area where we were digging a french drain by hand (six feet by six feet, six feet deep). The straw and tarps worked like a duvet on the ground. Not even a foot off the tarp, and the ground was frozen so hard you couldn't get a shovel in, and under the straw, it was muddy.

I was told when I got these that they would die in a hard freeze (I actually purchased red wigglers at a farmers' market. I had done every conceivable thing to draw worms to my garden naturally short of importing them, but that's what I did when all else failed), but the eggs would survive. So even if we fail, chances are that if they aren't a hibernating breed of worm, their offspring will return next season.

Incidentally, I am in a zone 6B as well, though the Canadian and American systems vary slightly. Depending on how cold it's already getting at night for you, they might be hunkering down for the winter, or dying.

Let us know if you get it figured out. Pictures are always great. Don't give up, and good luck.

-CK
 
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Posts: 5475
Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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Like Chris and the others brought up, most likely they are going deep because winter is coming, you can follow Chris' suggestions and probably bring them back up for at least a while.
Spent coffee grounds are like candy to worms, they love them and will travel quite a distance to get to them, the fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms found in spent coffee grounds are treats to worms.
The coffee grounds can also be used like greens in a compost heap, they will do the job of heating up the heap which will warm the soil beneath and that too can call worms to the space.

Otherwise, you just need to wait till spring, the worms will return as long as there are food organisms for them to eat.

Redhawk
 
Daniel Ackerman
Posts: 16
Location: Lehigh Valley, PA zone 6b
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Thanks for the great replies, all. They disappeared before it started getting properly cold at night here, but I can imagine it now. In retrospect, yeah, it makes a lot of sense that they might have moved on as the food was used up, especially if the varmints have been stealing the newer kitchen scraps.

I like the idea of bedding the pile for the winter. I’ll need to keep next year’s active bin accessible, as we manage to generate a lot of kitchen scraps, even in the winter, but I could definitely cover up the finished/finishing compost.

Vis a vie hostile environment and persistent -cides, I wonder... but I’m not sure there’s much to investigate at the point.

All of this does suggest that there’s an argument for keeping an additions and observations log of the compost through the year. Who knows what one might discover?

Thanks again, and now that I’m registered here, I’m looking forward to being a more active member of the community.

Daniel
 
pollinator
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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I'll bet that they haven't gone too far.  If you continue to pile up the biomass as you prepare your garden for winter, you'll see them again next spring as things warm up.

Perhaps they are looking for a great place to raise the next generation of new worms.  That might not have been in your pile, so they've moved on to a better location.  If so, you'll see exponentially more worms in the future.  I'd made sure that you put down a thick mulch layer of wood chips or some other biomass all around the compost pile, outward to at least 10 feet away.  Create a massive nursery for them to find the best spot for ongoing propagation.
 
Daniel Ackerman
Posts: 16
Location: Lehigh Valley, PA zone 6b
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That’s encouraging. I have a good-sized brush pile next to the compost bins. And by that I mean a good-sized pile for my 1/3 acre urban lot, heh heh.  Hopefully they’ve moved in underneath there, and once I work out how to get a chipper/shredder to my house, there will be plenty of wood chips for the little guys.
 
Posts: 353
Location: SW PA USA zone 6a altitude 1188ft
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I went manuring yesterday and dug out of two piles. One was about two years old at the bottom. I was there about six weeks ago and what I dug out then had filled in; I think the weight just smushed it down. One of the horse boarders came and showed me the old pile. I bring this up as the fresher pile had small red worms in it. The old pile didn't have a single worm.... that I saw.

I got a half truck load which surprised me. I couldn't push the wheel barrow up the planks, I went to a half wheel barrow load at a time instead of shoveling half into the truck. I had to rent the pickup and for a half truck load don't think it was worth it. Cost me $42 for the rental. For $62 I could have bought two yards of mushroom manure.

edit:

If there's no worms in the manure does that indicate that it's not as good a soil improver as manure that has worms in it. Would I be better with the fresher manure? What I'm doing is taking a lawn with an inch of sod over clay and making it into a garden. I'm thinking there's two improvements to the soil possible. One is the solids and the second is the nitrogen. I'm thinking that without the solids that the worms have eaten up and taken below I'm not really improving my soil. What do you folks think.

I sort of kept the two sources separated (somewhat) in the truck and shoveled the older manure where I'm putting potatoes next year. Maybe I'd be better with the newer manure which is well composted also. The old manure looks more like rich loamy topsoil, somewhat dry and loose. The newer manure is full of water and well.... mucky.
 
Posts: 81
Location: Zone 9, CA
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If there's no worms in the manure does that indicate that it's not as good a soil improver as manure that has worms in it.

There are a few reasons why there are no worms in the manure. One reason is that there are no worms in the soil to move into the manure. Another is that the worms are on their way, they can tell there's a food source there, but they haven't gotten there yet. A third reason is that the animal that the manure comes from has been on antibiotics/dewormers and so the manure is actually rejected by the worms as unfit. They might circle around later, once there's enough bacteria to make up for how it started, but for now, it's inhospitable to the worms, and they are uninterested.
 
John Duda
Posts: 353
Location: SW PA USA zone 6a altitude 1188ft
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There's an interesting discussion at this thread.

Dr. Redhawk stated:

"usually people who raise horses are not going to use any herbicides in their pastures.
If you are collecting manure that has self composted for more than a month, you are not getting any residual wormer contamination either."....

I felt comfortable after I read that, but then it seamed to get contradicted by some of the later comments. Also the hay that's used comes from an unknown, to me, source. I think that I'm better off growing my own veggies than what's for sale in the store. Shortly after that thread I was told by someone I know that her father used a herbicide on his family garden plot before he plowed it. I think that old pile might be 5 years old, more or less. I don't know why there'd be worms in the soil below one pile and not the other. The piles are maybe 50 feet apart and on the same hillside. But I have no idea what might have changed over the years there.

We all need to eat. I'm going to grow some of my own veggies. I've never used bagged fertilizers, herbicides or any kind of ick products. I don't spray for insects in my gardens. I'm not 100% comfortable with the manure, but then what was in the ground before I bought this place?

 
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