Now I happen to have it on very good authority (quite possibly an older sibling), that the first question asked by Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Generals Custer and Patton, and even Rambo, before going off to wage battle was, "So who we fighting?!" That's also the question we have to ask ourselves before we take any action, or we may find later that that action was not necessary, or even worse, that the action we took served only to create a larger problem. So before we think about killing anything, let's take a look at what a worm bin really is, and as such, what it can be expected to contain (in fact what it must contain if it is to function properly.)
No matter how we look at it, or what fancy terms we tend to use, a worm bin is nothing more than a self-contained, adapted for the indoors, miniature compost heap. The precise manner in which we use the worm bin may differ from the outdoor pile (but not really very much), and it may house a proportionately-larger worm population than its larger outdoor cousin, but in the end, the fact remains, it is simply (and wonderfully) a small compost heap which produces an extremely high-grade finished product (there really is a difference between compost and vermicompost.) Therefore, like every other compost heap, it must, by its very nature, be teeming with life. Of the individual animals which make up this plethora (great word!) of life, very few actually deserve to be called "pests", since they are a vital ingredient for the successful decomposition of the organic wastes which all of us, as vermiculturists, are trying to have converted. With this in mind, let's take a quick look at exactly what it is that is happening during the transformation of organic waste into "black (or brown) gold." Some of what I am about to describe will be missing in a worm-bin situation (due to the smaller amounts of material), but it will be helpful as an aid to understanding the overall process.
Now when a large amount of organic waste is brought together in a heap, the following things tend to occur (assuming there exists a suitable temperature range, adequate moisture, and in certain cases, air). The pile is invaded, and occupied, by bacteria which specialize in breaking down organic compounds. Among the first of these invaders are those which are commonly referred to as mesophilic decomposers. These critters (much too small to be seen with the unaided eye), thrive in temperatures ranging between 50 degrees and 113 degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. Having gotten word of the "block party in progress", these little critters (25,000 of them laid end-to-end should measure close to an inch) do pretty much the same thing that you or I would do in the presence of all our friends, and all that food,...they party hardy. In no time at all, things begin to heat up, literally. What's really interesting, however, is the result of this increase in temperature brought about by all the energy which is being expended. The mesophilic decomposers fall victim to the heat and begin dying in large numbers.
If my admittedly limited understanding of this entire procedure is correct, the next step is the inevitable arrival of the party crashers, in the form of thermophilic microorganisms, which just happen to enjoy temperatures between 113 degrees and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, the very temperatures which are quickly eliminating the mesophilic bacteria, whose activity caused the heat increase in the first place. In the event that the food supply is running low (in the sense of fresh compost), not an immediate problem; the thermophilic organisms have plenty of mesophilic corpses to clean up (nice guys, huh?) And now things really get interesting!
You see, while all this frenetic (another great word) energy is being expended (bringing the temperature in the pile up to its peak of 170-180 degrees Fahrenheit), a new group of critters has been quietly massing their troops at the borders to the frontier (the compost heap), unable to effectively join the party due to the rather uncomfortable temperatures. As the thermophilic microorganisms deplete their food supply, however, the overall activity diminishes, and the temperatures start to drop (a process referred to as stabilization.) As the temperature continues to fall lower, and the party crashers begin to crash (again having been the cause of their own demise), this new batch of troops, comprised mainly of actinomycetes and fungi decide to make their move, and take over the pile which is once again nice and cool (at this point, a fresh supply of organic waste could be used to start the entire cycle all over again.) Also at this point, so many different actors take the stage, that I think I had better switch to a slightly different approach, such as referring you all to the wonderful (I sincerely mean that as a compliment) Master Composter Programs that are becoming more popular, and thus more available, every day. In all seriousness though (I will try to finish what I've started), these programs are well worth taking for anyone who is serious about their gardening and/or environmental concerns. An article of this nature, is simply no substitute for what these fine people can teach the rest of us.
The New Approach
These critters are basically a higher form of bacteria, which have several very notable characteristics. Just for starters, close your eyes for a moment, and imagine the beautiful smell so commonly associated with fresh soil. That's actinomycetes you're smelling. Now think of all the wonderful benefits you have heard of being derived from humus (if you haven't heard these things anywhere else, you certainly will when I manage to get my articles on "The Benefits to Plants Derived From Vermicompost" up onto these pages.) The actinomycetes are crucial to the formation of humus. Often working very deep in the soil, these ambitious bacteria convert dead organics into a type of peat, and also release various nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon, making it available for mixture into the top-soil. Since actinomycetes possess the ability to produce antibiotics, many other bacterial populations decrease as the number of actinomycetes increases.
When you speak of small animals (as opposed to bacteria) protozoa are about as small as you get. Other than that, there's not really much to add, except that they are present to a certain extent in compost, and are probably closer to bacteria in their actions than they are to the other animals.
Fungi are very simple (primitive) plants which are incapable of producing their own carbohydrates, since they lack the chlorophyll present in higher-level plant-forms. The family of fungi includes yeasts, molds, mushrooms, etc., and they survive on energy which they obtain from the organic matter in dead plants and animals. The presence of mushrooms in your compost heap or worm bin (very common with cardboard bedding) is a good indicator that the temperature of the bedding is around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit (a great temperature for red worms), since only a few fungi can survive the higher thermophilic temperatures (around 120 degrees Fahrenheit.)
NOTE: With the exception of some of the larger fungi, all of these things we have discussed so far have at least three things in common.
-They are microscopic in size (don't bother looking for them.)
-Their diet consists of the material you thought you were feeding your worms (dead organic matter.) And...
-They make up a large portion of what the worms really are eating (in the strictest sense.) It's a good possibility that if all these organisms were somehow removed from the feed source, the worms would make like frogs and croak.
Another thing the above-mentioned organisms have in common is that they are basically what is referred to as level-one (or first-level) consumers (or decomposers.) This simply means that as their numbers increase in the pile, other larger decomposers will come along and invite the first-level decomposers out to dinner (as the main course...of course.) In this manner, population levels are kept in check, and the same thing happens to the second-level consumers in their turn. Since the higher-level decomposers are usually more suited to moderate temperatures, they will only be residents of the pile at certain times. It is mainly the second and third-level decomposers which are most often mistaken as pests (I'll bet you thought I was never going to get around to that), but the true fact of the matter is that they are often among the most beneficial of the critters in both the heap and the bin. (Keep your eyes open, however, for also in the list which begins in "Pests and Pest Control (Part 3)" you will find those that are "Not So Beneficial", and even the "Downright Nasty".)
Members of the same family as the spider and the tick (8 legs in common), this little creature is inevitably found in any compost situation, and if you think your bin is free of them, maybe take another look. Those most commonly found in a worm bin will be a reddish-brown in color, and very numerous. Moving around the surface of the bedding material, they attack dead plant matter, fly larvae, springtails, and even other mites. Several of the more popular books on vermicomposting describe these animals as hunting down red worms, paralysing them in some manner, and effectively reducing the worm population. Others talk about them stealing worm cocoons and drinking the fluid from them, also reducing the worm population. The most common fear I have run into among novice worm-breeders regarding the mite, is the fear of damage to their houseplants. For my part, I can tell you that the only time I have seen a worm and a mite share dinner, the worm was in fact the only menu item, but I have never deduced anything significant from it except that the mites (there were several at work) were cleaning up the carcass of a recently deceased worm. (You very seldom find dead worms in a bin simply because the other decomposers tend to clean them up very fast.) As far as actually chasing the little wiggler down and thus creating his own dinner, I have never seen anything even suggestive of that type of behavior. Nor have I ever seen even one mite in the process of making egg-nog, scrambled eggs, or even eggs Benedict. As for the plants, the mite which is to be feared in that regard is the red spider-mite, obviously some cousin of this mite, since I have planted numerous plants of various types directly in active worm bins which were saturated with these little animals, and never has even one taken up residence among the living portion of the plant. Aside from the fact that they are a little unsightly, they have never caused real grief in any worm bin in my care (and as I said, this is not due to lack of numbers, they obviously breed at least as well as the worms.)
Not to be confused with centipedes (a whole different story), the millipede can be distinguished by the two (2) pairs of legs attached to each body segment with the exception of the sections nearest the front (a centipede has only one set of legs per segment.) Vegetarians by nature, millipedes break down the larger pieces of plant matter, resulting in finer pieces being made available to the other decomposers which lack teeth, such as (you guessed it) the worms!
Now here is a third-level consumer (it feeds only on living animals such as insects, spiders, and worms), which must be hunted out in turn by something slightly larger, about the size of an average worm-breeder. Though more commonly found in an outdoor situation, just one of these things, in the confined space of a small worm bin, can do a lot of damage. On the upside, they're rather territorial (as are most predators....ask Arnie), so if you find one in a small bin, chances are you've eliminated the problem. The first real pest we've talked about.
This is one of those compost critters with a face only its mother could love. Even though it is strictly a vegetarian, and most common in an outdoor pile, that is probably where you would most like it to stay. Its fat little form would probably clash with the furniture anyway, and a good scream or two from your spouse should be enough to remind you that the best prevention for most of these particular animals is to simply never bring outdoor compost into the house without first cleaning it. (A good dose of solarization works wonders!)
Snails and Slugs
Another true pest as I'm sure any of you who garden have known for a long time. I'm just as sure that nature had a real good reason for these particular animals, but how she expected us to accept the fact that its favorite food is living plant material (such as that found in the garden you just wrecked your best jeans to get planted) is beyond me. The usual beer-traps (the non-alcoholic beer actually works better than the "real thing") is fine for outdoors, and if you have them in your indoor bin, try lightening up on your watering schedule. These animals like moisture.
The big brother to that little mite we were discussing a little earlier, and one of the least appreciated animals in the garden. Rather than being a pest, this animal is a great form of natural pest control. Every garden should have plenty, and if the one in the house is particularly bothersome, try looking it right in the eye, speaking to it in a very calm voice, then give it a wink...and step on it!
This is another of those little critters that I can almost guarantee will be present in virtually every vermicomposting situation sooner or later. Very small animals, usually no more than 1/4 inch in length, springtails will range in color from white to light grey, and even a sort of metallic blue from time to time. Feeding on decomposing plant matter, fungi, and pollens, as well as grains, they are most easily identified by their habit of "jumping" to a new location when they are disturbed. Since they accomplish this "jumping" by utilization of a specially-adapted tail-piece, their name becomes rather self-explanatory. Since they will die if they leave the environment of the worm bin, and since they are performing relatively the same job as the worms, I have never really considered them to be a problem. If you simply can't sleep at night (due to all that jumping around), then you may want to try method number one in the realm of "pest control." (The method I'm referring to will be explained a little further on, along with a couple of other "pest management strategies.")
The largest number of these compost invaders will be made up of the rove beetle, and the ground beetle. Both of these guys are third-level consumers, preying mainly on insects, snails, and even slugs. As a matter of fact, the black rove beetle is so efficient at this particular task, many people deliberately import them into gardens where slugs and snails have become a problem. Both of these beetles, as well as their larvae, will also feed on decaying vegetables.
Now these guys are certainly not welcome in most homes, and we will discuss steps to eliminate this problem in the section on pest control (method two). In the meantime, you may wish to know that an ant's idea of a smorgasbord would include any, or all of the following: any fruit, fungi, seeds, anything that is sweet, most other food scraps, other insects, and even other ants. (Get the picture? They like just about everything.) To make matters even worse, ants tend to think that compost piles, indoors or out, are really nifty places to build their nests. I once came across a nest over a foot around in one of my outdoor compost piles. It looked like some crazed drug dealer had decided to stash thousands of little white "pills" in the middle of my compost, and the only way I knew what I was looking at was by the frantic efforts of the ants to remove those "capsules" to a place of safety after I uncovered them. Unfortunately for the ants, the portion of the pile they had built their nest in was only two or three feet from the still-hot section of the pile, and by quickly transferring a couple shovelfuls of "eggs" into the center of the heated area, the invasion was very rapidly squelched. In a normal compost situation (outdoors, and without worms), I wouldn't worry about the ants, since by their very presence, they tend to mix the minerals around in such a way that they increase the phosphorus and potassium balance of the pile, but when the pile is home to a population of worms, the situation changes (the ants tend to deplete the carbohydrates which the worms require for food.) Thus, when it comes to a choice between the ants and the worms, I'll have to resort once again to Arnie's wonderful words...."hasta la vista, babies" (or something like that.)
There are many types of flies, and many of them are true "pests." Some of them can also be very, very difficult to get rid of once they take up residence in or around the bin area. Most of those "strategies" which we will be getting to very soon now, relate to these airborne invaders, since they truly are the peskiest of the pests. Just before we get to that, however, there is one more type of "pest" to deal with, and I always find it strange that this is the "pest" I am most often asked about, and the one that people are most often bothered by.
Other Wormlike Critters
First of all, let me tell you straight out, the red worm population in your "worm" bin, is by no means the largest population the bin contains. Aside from the obvious winners in any contest which deals with population, the bacteria, there are also tremendous populations of "flatworms, rotifers, and nematodes, all of which are usually small enough that you don't have to bother looking them in the eye. There is also, however, at least (I stress at least) one other critter that is not only present in almost all compost situations, but usually in quantities vastly outnumbering the red worm population, and this little guy can easily be seen with the unaided eye. The animals I am referring to are the little tiny white worms, about a quarter of an inch long, that so many people mistake for red worm spawn. First of all, these are not red worms at all (red worm spawn are transparent at birth, with a visible red vein running the length of their body, and their normal red coloring is present within hours of the time they hatch), and these little white worms are also full grown. Commonly referred to as "pot worms" (since they're usually found in flower pots), I believe their proper name is "enchytraeid." Other than the fact that they're white in color, and very small, they are basically doing exactly the same thing as their red worm cousins, eating decayed organic matter. Since they are rather unsightly, however, it seems that most people would like to be rid of them, and though I am not of the same opinion, I will suggest a method (good old method one) that will help to at least keep their numbers down. In response to the various books which claim that these little guys could conceivably grow in such vast numbers that the resident red worm population might suffer from either lack of food, or lack of space, I can only say that I have never made it a point to deliberately try and keep the "pot worm" population in check, and I have never experienced any noticeable decline in the growth rate of my red worm population.
At any rate, though this list of "compost critters" is not exhaustive by any means, I think we've looked at the main occupants of both the indoor and outdoor-type compost piles. Next, we'll take a quick look at how we can possibly deter a few of the peskier ones from choosing our specific location.
This particular method is designed as a way to reduce an unwanted population rather than eliminate it totally (which may in fact be impossible in regards to the pests in question). I can't take credit for the system, but I can testify to its effectiveness, and also to its inherent danger. As a result, the first comment I need to make is directed at any younger readers (though I suspect most of them abandoned me somewhere around the middle of this admittedly long article), and the message is this:
Do not try this on your own. Adult supervision is required, and I don't want to hear any excuses or explanations! Got it? Good.
With that said, the following method is probably the most effective way I have come across to reduce the population ofmites, springtails, and pot worms, should you decide that they simply must go.
Begin by watering the bin very heavily, soaking the upper layers of bedding thoroughly. (Make sure you have drip pans in place if this is indoors.) Wait a few minutes, during which time the red worms will head down in the bedding in an attempt to get below the excessive water, and the various pests we mentioned earlier will rush to the top of the bedding in order to avoid drowning.
Now simply use an acetylene, or butane torch, to scorch the surface of the bedding material (which should be sufficiently wet to avoid catching on fire.) A few slow passes in either direction will do the trick. Bye bye, billions of bugs. Remember to alter your future watering schedule to give the bedding some time to dry out. Leaving the bedding too wet for too long is a sure way to create a whole new batch of problems.
As an alternative to this solution, many of the older "worm" books recommend setting "traps" in the form of bread slices, or potato peels, around the surface of the bed, and then removing them when the offending "pests" have congregated (and they certainly will) on them, thus removing large quantities of the critters at once. My concern is that by using a food source that so readily attracts the little animals, you are probably supplying them with exactly what they need to actually increase their rate of reproduction, and it may be the case that you are simply aggravating the problem. Of course, I don't have this particular problem, since I don't regard any of these critters as an actual threat, and I'm almost certain that their populations just regulate themselves naturally.
There is one thing, however, I will recommend in regard to these particular "pests" and I do so because the thing I am recommending is of great benefit to the red worm population. Very simply, watch your pH levels. The pH level most suitable to the red worms we use for composting is right around the neutral range of seven. The mites and their friends on the other hand prefer conditions which are slightly more acidic in the areas they choose to breed in. Therefore, test your pH regularly (you can buy inexpensive kits at any garden shop), and if the bedding is too acidic, sprinkle a little dolomite lime onto the surface, or even add more crushed egg-shells to the food scraps you are feeding the worms. CAUTION: Make sure you use dolomitic lime, or another lime that is not going to heat up and kill your worms! And now, on to methods 2 and 3.
In regard to our industrious little friend the ant, I have learned by experience that "prevention" really is the answer. I personally, use a three-pronged defensive strategy, and though it has worked fine for me, you may decide to enhance it in any number of inventive and imaginative ways. (Should any of you come up with a system that either works more effectively, or is easier to implement, I would always love to hear from you.) In the meantime, my method consists of the following:
-First, I attempt to prevent the little monsters from entering through the "front door", literally. This is easily accomplished by sprinkling a little lemon juice (or a lemon-scented oil, etc) across the thresholds of both doorways into my house, as well as on the window ledges. Ants despise the smell of lemon, and this works very well to keep them on their side of the doorway. You should repeat this procedure at least once every two weeks or so in the summer months.
-Second, I never bring leaves or grass-clippings into the house for use as worm-feed, unless I take time to put the material into an old roasting pan I have, and then insert it into an oven at a temperature of 180 F. for at least 45 minutes. This will kill not only the ants, but many other critters, and their eggs which might later hatch, and decide to take up residence in your worm-bin specifically, or your house in general. Though I very seldom use soil for bedding, I do use it as an ingredient in the planting mediums I blend, and this same procedure is followed without fail.
CAUTION Temperatures in excess of 180 F., or times in excess of 1 hour in the oven, can drastically reduce the nutrient content of the material, bedding, feed, or soil.)
-For those "superbugs" that get passed these first two lines of defence, I utilize one final trick. As I may have mentioned elsewhere (and most likely will yet mention again), my worm-beds are built with six-inch legs designed to raise them enough to facilitate drip-pans. Each of these legs sits inside an old tobacco-can which I keep 3/4's full with water, creating a sort of moat which any little animal who has managed to get this far inside, still has to cross before gaining access to the bedding. I figure my first two methods must be quite effective, however, since I only found one beetle in the can of water while those beds were set up.
An Additional Note:
-Should you decide to make use of the various ant-traps which are available at any number of stores, keep in mind that they should not be placed directly in the worm bed, since the ant will first have to drag a mess of dead worms out of his way before he can discover what all the excitement's about!
Now we come to the undisputed "King of the Pests", the fly, and the first thing we have to do, is clear up another common misunderstanding. It seems when people first start to suspect that they have a problem with flies (if the whole bin is drifting around from room to room, it may be too late to deal with it), the attempted solution is to start burying the food that is being placed in the bin, or in the event that it was already being buried, then to bury it even deeper. The reasoning goes something like, "If the flies can't smell the food, they'll leave." WRONG!
Once you have enough flies kicking around that it becomes obvious something is wrong, there is only one solution that has any real chance of working. A complete change of bedding material combined with follow-up measures designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the same problem. You see, it's like this. While it may have been the food which attracted the original flies to the bin (a very good possibility), the current reason they are so thick that you can notice them is because you are standing in the nursery. Many types of flies, such as "minute flies, house flies, and most insidious of all, the dreaded fungus gnat, spend the earliest parts of their lives living in compost as maggots. Add to these numbers, their cousin the fruit fly (found wherever fermenting fruit is available), and then work in one more rather disturbing fact. The average housefly, paired with a suitable mate, and in the absence of its natural predators, working in conjunction with its own off-spring, can breed enough of a family that their dead carcasses could cover the entire earth 47 feet deep, in one year. Oh boy, have we got a problem?! Not really, and once again, preventionis the key.
First and foremost, I'm going to assume that you are taking my word for it about the only possible solution being the change of bedding. There are less drastic methods which will even work, if (and this is a great big if ) the bedding is caught before it is saturated with potential off-spring, but do you really want to take the chance? If not, we will assume that the bedding has been changed (dispose of the old bedding outdoors, or use the "baking" method we discussed earlier to eliminate the future flies it contains), and now we just don't want this sort of thing happening again. In that case, there are a few things we should try to keep in mind:
-All food scraps being placed in the worm bin must be buried with at least 2-3 inches of "clean" bedding. By "clean", I don't necessarily mean it has to be fresh, just free of "attractive" food odors. Suppose you scrape away an inch or so of bedding, pour some left-over fruit-juice into the opening, and replace the bedding you originally moved. Since most "bedding" material is absorbent, the liquid which you just added, will soak "up" into the top layers of the bedding (the material at the top of the bed is almost always dryer than that at the bottom), and you might just as well have poured it on top in the first place. Unless there is at least 2 full inches of bedding on top of that juice, if it decides to ferment, hello fruit flies.
-When new food is being added to the bed, we should locate it in such a place that the last-used location is not exposed, if there is any danger that it is still only partially decayed. This is one of the biggest arguments for having bins which are large enough to provide several locations for adding the food scraps. A simple rotation of locations will guarantee that the first spot is completely cleaned up by the worms before it has to be used again.
-Another helpful point to remember is that most of these flies which lay their eggs in compost, require that a certain amount of moisture be present. Thus, a layer of dry leaves, or grass clippings (remember to bake them when they are first brought in) on top of the bedding, will often discourage any attempts they might make at installing their daycare center in your house. (This also works with outdoor piles.)
-And finally, we should always remember, that all the care we take with the bin and its bedding will amount to very little, if we forget to keep an eye open for other potential sources of trouble. If the container which we save our scraps in is sending a message to every fly within a hundred miles,...well you all saw "Field of Dreams", didn't you? To paraphrase Mr. Costner, "If you leave it lying around....they will come!"
But seriously, everything I am trying to stress simply amounts to good housekeeping. As in any other situation, a little effort before there is a problem will go a long way to preventing the problem from ever arising. In all the years I have raised worms, I have only had one major problem with bugs. How that little sucker got up my nose I just can't figure out, but man oh man, does he ever tickle my brain?!
Meanwhile, this has probably taken far too much time in the telling, but I hope these two articles have at least been of some help to at least a few of you. If there is anything you need more particulars on, or if there is anything you would like to share with me, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.