Composting With Red Wigglers: What you need to know




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What Are Red Wigglers

A Red Wiggler is a type of epigean earthworm or non-borrowing surface-feeding worm.

This species of worm is found close to the soil surface, where it can remain near the source of decaying organic matter. It thrives where decaying plant or animal remains accumulate at ground level. So, you are likely to find Red Wigglers below leaf litter in deciduous woodland, or compost and manure piles.

In appearance, they have reddish-brown rings along their body length and a more pale-yellow tail. They have a mouth at the head and an anus at the tail end. Like other worms, despite not having eyes they can sense bright light, which allows them to disappear under the surface and out of sight of predators.

Although native to Europe, Red Wigglers can now be found across the globe. Often their introduction to new regions has been deliberate because they can convert large amounts of decaying organic material into valuable soil fertilizer.

Compared to other composting worms kept in a worm bin, Red Wigglers are tougher, faster breeding, and easier to raise.

Red Wiggler Worm Size – How Big Do They Get?

Red wigglers are smaller than common earthworms, averaging about an eighth of an inch in diameter and 3 to 4 inches in length, some growing to about 6 inches. This is good for worm composting and even for fishing bait. However, the larger European or African Night Crawler is more popular as bait.
Naturally, Red Wiggler size depends on age, being quite small when first hatched from the cocoon.
Look carefully in your compost bin and you should spot individuals who are quite small at ¼ to ½ an inch long. However, they won’t stay small for long, reaching a decent size within a couple of months of hatching.

What is the Best Bedding for Red Wigglers?

The best bedding for Red Wigglers is fresh vermicompost, i.e. worm castings. Fresh vermicompost will be rich in microbial life, so the food waste you add to your worm bin will be quickly inoculated with bacteria and fungi to start the process of decay.
Worms do not have a stomach to digest the food waste. They rely on the population of microbes in the bin and their guts to extract the energy and nutrients they need.

Although vermicompost is the ideal bedding, because of its microbe content, other materials can readily be used.

Coconut coir is frequently supplied with bought worm factories or bins. Damp newspaper or cardboard can also be used but will need to be torn of shredded. If using coir, paper, or cardboard you will need to add a little soil to the bedding. The soil will include some bacteria and fungi that will help the decomposition of the food to get underway.

How Many Red Wigglers are There in a Pound of Worms

The number of Red Wigglers in a pound of worms is approximately one thousand individuals. However, the worms will usually have a range of ages and hence be of different sizes.

Do not be concerned if you find lots of small Red Wigglers in the packet you have bought. This is not a bad thing. If your packet of live worms contains lots of small Red Wigglers this is a great deal for you.

A pound of worms could be 800 fat full-grown worms or perhaps 1,100 smaller worms. The latter case is the better deal for you. Those 1,100 small worms will grow and reproduce quickly, and you’ll be well ahead in growing your worm colony.

How Many Red Wigglers Do I Need?

Most worm composting bins will support up to 1 pound of Red Wigglers per square foot of surface area. However, this does not mean you have to buy the maximum weight of worms that your worm bin will support from the get-go.

Red Wigglers are quick to grow and reach sexual maturity, so start with a pound of worms and let them do reward you with lots of vermicompost and a growing population.

Another reason you should be cautious about the number of worms you buy is that you don’t want to waste money. Your worm bin population will self-regulate. If the population rises too high for the available space, it will naturally fall as some of the worms die off.

So, what do you do when the worm population reaches the maximum for the bin? Do not worry, as I said, the population will self-regulate. But you might consider that a missed opportunity.

Red Wigglers are not cheap to buy, so you could take some of the worms in your bin and start a second worm bin. If you don’t want to expand the number of bins you could give away or sell your excess Red Wigglers. For example, they can be used as fish bait or as food for pet lizards and snakes.

How Long Do Red Wigglers Live

Red Wigglers have been reported to live for up to five. But the average Red Wiggler is likely to live between one and five years. The life span of Red Wigglers depends on the conditions under which they are kept, including temperature, moisture, and nutrition.

You will find that plenty of your worms will be born and then die within the same year. This is not unusual. But to ensure your Red Wigglers live as long as possible, aim for a steady temperature of around 77°F (25°C), do not over-feed, and keep the bedding moist but not wet.

Under normal circumstances, you are unlikely to find dead worms in the composting bin. Their bodies do not last long the composting bin environment.

First, most of their body weight is water, perhaps 70-90%, so there is not a lot of body tissue that needs to decompose. Secondly, the composting bin has the perfect conditions for a body to decompose. It is moist, warm, and has a high level of microbes that are involved with the decay of organic matter.

However, if you do see a lot of dead worms, or that the worms are gathering at the surface and trying to climb out of the bin, this can be indicative of there being something wrong in your composting bin. Check for excessive moisture, a lack of airflow, the wrong pH, the wrong type of food, too much food, or a lack of space for the number of worms.

How Quickly Do Red Wigglers Reproduce

These worms reach sexual maturity quite quickly and can produce large numbers of offspring.

Although Red Wigglers are hermaphroditic, they usually mate with other worms by joining clitella, the light-colored band on their bodies. The worms will produce a lemon-shaped cocoon within 4 days. As the pale-yellow cocoon matures it gradually turns a browner color.

When kept under favorable conditions, the cocoons will hatch in about 23 days or a little over 3 weeks. An average of just under three hatchlings emerge from each cocoon. They are quite small, to begin with, but they grow quickly, reaching sexual maturity in about 40 to 60 days, although this will depend on the environment.

From the parent worms mating to the young worms becoming sexually mature will take about 90 days. So, with a colony of mixed aged Red Wiggler worms, you can expect the population in your composting bin to double in approximately three months.

How Quickly Will Red Wigglers Produce Compost?

Under good conditions, a Red Wiggler composting bin will produce compost within two months of setting up. Within three months the Red Wiggler population will have doubled, potentially accelerating the production of vermicompost.

In contrast, a regular composting bin will take at least 6 months to produce a crop of compost. Depending on conditions and how often you turn the material, it may take 12 months or more.

What Do Red Wigglers Eat?

Like other composting worms, Red Wigglers will eat most decomposing organic matter. They can be fed coffee grinds, tea leaves, as well as fruit and vegetable waste, but not citrus fruits, garlic, and onions. They will also eat their bedding of newspaper, cardboard, and coconut coir.

Like all composting worms, your Red Wigglers will not appreciate acidic food that can burn and damage their skin. Acidic foods can include citrus fruits and left-over salads with vinegar or citrus juice dressings. Salt is another no-no when it comes to composting worms, so avoid foods with added salt for seasoning.

Foods that Red Wigglers will eat but should be avoided include starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes. These types of food take longer to decompose and will attract unwanted guests to your worm bin.

Other foods to keep out of the worm bin are those with a high protein or fat content. These include dairy products, fish, meat, eggs, fats, and greases. Such food items will produce strong smells that will attract vermin to your bin that will feast on the food scraps and possibly your worms.

Lastly, do not place pet waste in the bin. Although the worms can process the waste, the pet feces may contain dangerous pathogens or even traces of deworming medication. Worm composting toilets have been considered and developed in some parts of the world, but it is not something I would recommend for most American or European homes.

How Much Do Red Wigglers Eat?

When composting with red wigglers you will need to feed them approximately every one to three weeks. But how much should you feed?
When your Red Wiggler worms have settled into their new home, say 7-10 days, many sources report that the worms can consume up to about half their body weight each day in food. However, after settling in my Red Wigglers there was still an excess of food leftover. Obviously, my worms had not read the same reports!

My experience shows that Red Wigglers, at least, to begin with, will eat about ¼ of their body weight in food. After some time, this can increase to around ½ their body weight in food.

It is always better to underfeed your Red Wiggler worms than to overfeed. If they cannot consume the food quickly enough, it will get stinky, and make things unpleasant for both you and your worms. Do not worry about underfeeding your worm colony. If they are still hungry, they will consume their bedding, so make sure you provide plenty of bedding.

Nor do you have to worry about the weight of worms to judge how much food you should give. At least initially, go by the weight of worms you bought. So, if you bought 1lb of worms, which is about 1,000 worms, they should be able to consume between ¼ and ½lb of food each day.

As your worm population settles in completely and begins to grow, you can increase the amount of food you add each time. You will know when to stop adding extra when you find your worms have not managed to get through everything from the last time you fed them.

You will quickly know if you are over-feeding your worms. They will not be able to consume the food scraps fast enough and the food will start to rot. This will produce a stinky bin, which is a sure sign that you need to reduce the amount of feed.

Where Can You Find Red Wigglers?

Finding red wigglers in nature is a challenge. They can be found deep under leaf litter in deciduous woodland, but that might not be a good source of Red Wigglers. First, it may be illegal to collect wild worms. Second, the effort required in finding and collecting a sizable quality of worms may not be worth it. Third, if you have never kept worms before, can you identify a Red Wiggler from any other type of worm? I do not think so.

Where you are likely to have much more success is with manure heaps. If you are happy to get in among the muck, you will find plenty of Red Wigglers beneath the manure. So, if you keep livestock, or know someone who does, you could try this method.
Another option is to look for worms in your own backyard.

Can You Find Red Wigglers in Your Yard?

If you are lucky, you may find some Red Wigglers in your yard, depending on how neat and tidy it is.

If you have let some timber fall, lift and move it to see what might be hiding underneath. If you already have regular compost bins you may be fortunate enough to find some Red Wigglers that have migrated in to take advantage of the food source.

But again, is it worth the effort? Most backyards won’t yield many worms, and you probably will find the wrong type. The best option when it comes to getting your Red Wigglers is to get them from someone else.

Getting Red Wigglers from Tackle or Bait Shops

Red Wigglers are often found at bait shops, since fish find them a tasty morsel, so they make good fishing bait.

However, if you want to start composting, purchasing your worms from a bait shop can prove tricky. The bait shop owner or staff will probably be experts in fishing tackle, and will probably be able to give you good advice about local fishing hotspots, but are they experts on worms? Probably not. You could end up buying a completely different species of worm, possibly even a burrowing type and not a composting type.

Another reason buying from a bait shop might not work out for you is that they are used to selling small quantities of worms as bait. It is common to buy a dozen or multiples of a dozen worms at a time. You’ll need much more when you set up your worm bin, so buying from a bait shop could work out being expensive.

When buying compost worms, you need a much larger quantity, and it is normally cheaper to buy them by the pound. So, unless you don’t have any other option, buy your worms from a local worm farmer or from an online supplier.

Getting Worms from Friends or Family

Another way to get worms for composting is to talk to friends and family who already compost.

Their worm population will double approximately every 90 days. So, if you have friends and family who compost, it won’t take long for them to be in a position where they can harvest some worms for you.

They will more than likely be happy to give you the worms that you need to get started.

Where Can I Buy Red Wigglers?

When buying composting worms it is best to use their Latin name. The problem is that they may have different common names, depending on where you live. The same common name may even refer to different species in various locations. For instance, Red Wigglers are often also known as Redworm, Brandling worm, and Tiger worm. However, the names Red Worms and Tiger Worms normally refer to Lumbricus rebellus and Eisenia andreia respectively.

When looking for Red Wigglers check that you are being offered Eisenia fetida. Although Eisenia andreia are about the same size and frequently mistaken for Red Wigglers.

Now that you know the Latin name you are looking for, check local suppliers or go online. One of the easiest ways to buy Red Wigglers is to get them from Amazon. You will find a few suppliers offering various quantities, including Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, the USA’s number 1 supplier of composting worms.

How Much Do Red Wigglers Cost?

If you intend to buy your Red Wigglers from bait or tackle shops you’ll probably end up paying about $2 for dozen worms. But a dozen worms, even if they reproduce prolifically, will take a long time to grow your colony to a point where it can produce a significant amount of vermicompost.

You need about a pound or approximately 1,000 Red Wigglers to establish a wormery. So, you will pay about $83 for a pound of Red Wigglers from a tackle or bait shop.

A further complication is that some tackle shop staff may not know one species of worm from another. So, you could end up buying European or African Night Crawlers instead of Red Wigglers.

A better option is to buy your worms online. You will end up paying between $55 and $85 for a pound of Red Wigglers and you should get the worms you expect.

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