What Do Worms Eat?

What Do Worms Eat?

Below we have a look at the importance of common squiggly worms in the ecosystem. Read on to learn more about the different types of worms and the role they play in eco-diversity. Worms have become popular to keep or nurture for home gardeners or those seeking a more sustainable lifestyle. These little creatures can help you compost pretty much any food waste and increase the yield of your garden soil. To keep them happy, we first ask what do worms eat?

What does a worm eat?

Worms feed on organic matter, mostly plant matter, and microorganisms like bacteria and fungi. Worms out in nature can find food on their own - but what do worms eat when confined to a worm bin? You can feed worms with food scraps. However, it is important to keep the green and brown matter of their food input balanced when feeding worms. This will ensure that the worms have a balanced diet since the green matter is rich in nitrogen and brown matter is rich in carbon.

  • Eggshells: A Worm can eat eggshells, which provide calcium and grit to break down other foods. Eggshells are good for balancing pH levels.
  • Paper: is also a rich source of carbon when feeding worms. Worms cannot digest inorganic substances. The paper you might feed worms with should not be coated with chemicals or plastic. The paper should be soaked in water and shredded before you add it to the compost.
  • Cotton: Cotton is a natural plant fiber; worms can eat pieces of clothing made with cotton.
  • Fruits and vegetable waste: these make an excellent addition to a worm’s meal. Banana peels, apple cores, leaf stalks, potato skins, and fruit skins we throw away are things worms enjoy munching on. Worms like to eat food waste like moldy bread and cooked or soaked grains.
  • Coffee grounds: worms eat coffee grounds and the contents of tea bags. Not all tea bags are biodegradable, so you can just pour the contents into your worm bin and thrash the bags with other plastic.
  • Manure:  worms eat animal dung too. They particularly relish cow and horse manure.
  • Leaves: worms like to eat dead leaves and other decaying parts of plants.

Large chunks of food take too long to break down into worm sized bites. Therefore when feeding worms, break food down and spread it evenly on the soil surface.

What not to feed a worm

When you’re considering what worms eat, there are certain foods that you should not feed them. You should avoid foods that are acidic, processed, and slow to biodegrade.

  • Acidic food: orange, lemon, lime, papaya, and pineapple have high acid levels and will burn the worm's skin.
  • Oily food: worms breathe through their skin and therefore don’t feed worms oily foods that will coat the skin and make it hard for them to breathe.
  • Salty and spicy food: salt is an irritant that will cause a worm to dehydrate and die off. Therefore you’re best not to feed worms spices like onions and garlic that are also acidic.
  • Grass: grasses release heat and ammonia as they decompose, which endangers the lives of the worms.
  • Dry grains: worms don't have teeth to chew on hard, dry grains, and the grains will give off too much heat.
  • Meat and Bones: pests will invade the worm’s dwelling quickly if you add meat and bones to the food, and therefore you’re best to avoid these when it comes time to feed worms.
  • Dairy foods: dairy foods produce a foul stench as they decompose; this pollutes the environment.

Make sure you sort through food scraps before feeding them to the earthworms; this way, you can avoid accidental poisoning.

All About Worms

Worms are everywhere. They exist inside living creatures, under the ground, and even in marine habitats. We have about 2,700 different kinds of worms; some are parasitic while others are not. Parasitic worms live inside the body of other animals. The non-parasitic worms are known as free-living worms; they live underground or in marine habitats.

Worms have neither arms nor legs. They have just a tubular segmented body and no bones either. They move around by wiggling their bodies to initiate a crawling motion. Worms can crawl in forward and backward directions but crawl forward more often. The bristles or setae on their body helps them crawl and anchor themselves firmly in their burrows. Worms vary in size, and they range from microscopic to two yards in length.

Worms do not have teeth but possess strong mouth muscles that let them chew their food in bits. However, they’re still small creatures, and therefore, when it comes to feeding worms, they need small enough bits to intake.

Perhaps the most famous of free-living worms is the earthworm. They are classified under the phylum “Annelida.” Earthworms are a common sight where you have cool, moist soil. They are the most populous of soil invertebrates.  Worms live in tunnels under the ground to protect themselves from the scorching sun. Earthworms have over 7,000 species, and each has its preferred location to burrow in the soil. An earthworm has about 100 - 150 body segments, each providing important structural support.

Earthworms are chief agents of the decomposition of organic matter. Worms feed on bacteria, fungi, dead leaves, tiny seeds, among other things. By going about their everyday activities, eating, moving, and excreting, earthworms recycle nutrients that plants find useful.

Types of Earthworms

Earthworm

Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Earthworms are hermaphrodites, and they have both female and male reproductive organs. Although a single worm has the organs to reproduce by itself, most earthworms need a mate to reproduce. Earthworms do not have lungs but breathe through their skin by diffusion.

Below is a list of the most popular earthworms:

Red worms

These are popular bait worms. They are hardy and able to tolerate a large concentration of decaying organic matter. Red worms mature within 179 days and produce at least 79 cocoons per year. They grow to a varying length of 1 to 4 inches and live for about 700 days.

Nightcrawlers

These grow best at a higher temperature than most earthworms. Under an ideal room temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit, a nightcrawler will mature in 350 days and produce 38 cocoons per year. These worms can grow to a length of 8-10 inches.

Red wiggler

Also called the “brandling worm,” you’ll find red wigglers the most common composting worms. They find it easy to compost very large scraps of organic matter. If handled roughly, they can emit an unpleasant odor, and some people may find themselves allergic to it. Red wigglers live close to the soil surface.

How Worms affect Eco-diversity

Earthworms, although small, have the power to change soil and plant communities. Little wonder they are called "the ecosystem engineers". We classify earthworms as “Epigeic,” “Endogeic,” and “Anecic” based on the depth at which they live in the soil.

Epigeic worms live close to the soil surface and feed on decaying plants.

Endogeic worms live deeper in the soil in permanent burrows, and they feed mostly on soil and microbes. Anecic worms live near the subsurface of the soil.

Earthworms are known to survive best in aerobic systems. Most people agree that earthworms are beneficial to the ecosystem, but a few researchers point out some negative effects.

Improved Soil Nutrients

Worms disintegrate plant residue and drag them deeper into the soil. Thus allowing the nutrients from these plant matter to get deeper into the soil. They feed on decaying plants and manure. Their digestive system mixes the mineral and organic substances in their food to form highly concentrated castings. Worm castings are rich in nutrients beneficial to plant growth. Earthworms generate tons of casts per hectare every year. And when worms die, their bodies decompose quickly, adding more nitrogen to the soil.

Better Soil Structure

The casts of earthworms glue soil particles together to form water-stable aggregates. They also enhance soil porosity and significantly improve soil drainage and water holding capacity. Their upwards and downwards movement moves topsoil deeper into the ground and pushes up the soil in the lower strata to the surface. This mixes up the soil thoroughly.

Increased microbial activity

Earthworms consume microbes for food but release many more microbes in their feces or cast. Higher microbial activity is beneficial to plants.

Plant root growth

Tunnels dug by earthworms form a network of passages. That enables easier plant root penetration deeper into the soil. They line the tunnels with their cast, which is rich in nutrients. This allows plant roots to absorb nutrients with relative ease.

Vermicomposting

When making compost, you can speed up decomposition by introducing earthworms to your compost bin. Red wigglers, Nightcrawlers, and red worms are common composting worms used in vermicomposting.

Food source

Several animals find worms to be a delicious meal and source of nutrition. Birds, frogs, weasels, turtles, otters, and raccoons are some animals that eat worms. The eastern earthworm snake is a species of snake that feeds on worms.

Fishing bait

Recreational fishermen and small scale fishing businesses rely heavily on worms to bait fish.

A report claims that European earthworms cause declining species diversity in North American forests.

The researchers state that the worms disrupt the symbiotic relationship between soil fungi and roots. The report notes that worm activity in the area prepares the soil for non-native plants while endangering the survival of native plants.

Opportunities in earthworm farming

Worms in Soil

Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn from Pexels

Raising worms commercially can be lucrative [3] if you stay in a location where there are many fishing activities. Fishers buy earthworms to use as bait. According to the United States` National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, there are 30 million recreational anglers. And they exhaust over 40 billion USD annually in recreational fishing. Farmers and gardeners who use compost also buy earthworms for vermicomposting.

Once you have identified a demand for earthworms, all you need is some earthworms, food scraps, a worm bin, and your worm farm is ready to go. A worm farm does not require an enormous budget or space, and you can start up with a worm bin or two. Ensure the worms eat the right foods in the proper quantity, and you can harvest them soon enough.

Worms are best harvested in the morning before they move deeper into the soil for cooler temperatures. You can use a sorting screen to separate the worms from the soil safely, without causing them injury.

What do worms need to survive?

In natural environments, worms fend for themselves without help.  But on a worm farm, certain factors may make them less independent. An example of such a factor is the limited space of the worm bin. It makes it impossible for them to just migrate to another location when their burrows become uncomfortable.

Worms need more than food to survive in the worm bin. You have to ensure PH levels, soil moisture, temperature, and other factors are favorable for survival.

Right temperature

Compost can get heated during biodegradation. Therefore, you need to regulate the temperature of the worm bin often. A temperature above 95 degrees Fahrenheit will boil the worms to death, and at below freezing point, they will die.

PH level

Adding the wrong foods will put your worms in danger. Citrus fruit, papaya, tomatoes, pineapples are acidic, and they do not have a chance of long-term survival in an acidic environment. A sign of unbalanced PH levels is a rotten smell, and the worm bin should have an earthy smell. You can correct an imbalanced PH by adding neutrals like paper or eggshells.

Diet ratio

Worms should not be overfed or underfed. A worm will eat twice its body weight daily. Having less food will stunt its growth and performance. On the other hand, too much food can cause excessive fermentation and protein poisoning as the food will rot. The wrong foods can also be an open invitation to pests like earwigs, rodents, fruit flies, and centipedes.

Moisture level

Worms thrive in soil with water in it, but too much water slows down their oxygen intake. This forces them to come up for air. On the surface, worms become disoriented and have difficulty finding their way back into the soil. This endangers their life in many ways.

Soil renewal

The soil in a worm bin can not be fresh forever; after a while, it is full of worm casting, plant food, and microorganisms. Changing the soil can help to make sure that harmful microbes do not overpopulate the bin.

Conclusion

Worms are an important part of the ecosystem. They perform a vital role in recycling organic material. These slimy creatures enrich the soil with their castings, improve soil structure, and aid plant growth. They aid decomposition and prove very useful in compost making. They also serve as a source of food for other animals, like birds and raccoons. Worms can also serve as a source of income for worm farmers and vermicompost producers.

So what do worms eat? They will consume almost every kind of organic matter as long as it is not acidic or dry and hard.

Jennifer is a content writer with an educational background in Public Relations and Advertising. From her desk in Lagos, Nigeria, she helps businesses around the world reach and connect with their audiences.
Main Photo Credit schizoform on flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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