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Why Are My Worms Dying

Worms dying in your bin is one of the trickiest problems to identify and deal with  in worm composting.

In many cases it is difficult to see that the worms are dying because when worms die, they dry out very quickly and blend in with dirt and compost in the worm farm.

In other cases, diagnosing issues causing worms to die in your bin can be simple. These are usually related to temperature or moisture issues.

In this post, we review the common reasons worms die and what you can do to get your worm farm and wormies back on track!

Why Are My Worms Dying: Causes

There are 4 common scenarios that cause worms to die:

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Let's dive in to these scenarios and highlight how to address each one.

Worms Dying in Worm Farm: Temperature

Worms are comfortable in the same temperature range that humans enjoy: 60-80 degrees F. 

Red wigglers do their best work composting and breeding in these ranges. For example, worms are most active and do their best work reproducing and composting in spring and fall during moderate temperature periods.

Compost worms can survive outside of this range, but as temps get above 90 degrees or below 35 degrees 1 of 2 things will happen:

  • Worms will escape or leave the worm bin seeking better conditions, or
  • Worms will stay and perish (this happens over time, usually a few weeks of sustained temperatures above 90 F or below 35 F).

The good news is that the solutions to this problem are straightforward and all involve moving the worms to an environment conducive to their survival.

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If you have a standalone bin, move it inside or at a minimum move it to a completely shaded area. Moving it to a garage or shed may help, but if temps get above 90 degrees in the structure the worm issues will likely continue.

If moving the worm bin inside is not an option, you can freeze water bottles and put them in the soil. This will cool the soil and likely allow the worms to survive, but this is a time consuming task and may be difficult to sustain over a long summer.

The last (and sometimes best option) is to put the worms in an outdoor compost pile, in-ground worm compost bin, or even in a garden, flower bed, or small bed area that is on or in the ground.

If you are worried about losing your worms, keep in mind if you continue feeding worms in that area they will usually stay there (and you can harvest them later when temps cool). But there is a risk that they move on over time.

Being on or in the ground allows the worms to crawl into the soil and dig until they find a comfortable temperature.

This approach works because worms can use the #1 survival skill they've developed over the last 500 million years! 

Worms Dying in Worm Farm: Moisture

Worms are 75% water and need a moist, damp environment to survive. 

If conditions are too dry for too long the worms will eventually dry out and die.

The solution here is simple - mist the surface of your worm bin so the bedding is moist like a wrung out sponge.

To make sure the moisture level is correct, pick up a handful of bedding and squeeze it.

You want 1-2 drops of water to come out and at that level the moisture is perfect for your worms!

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Worms like a damp, but not too wet, environment!

Why Are My Worms Dying: Bedding Issues

Worms are prolific eaters.

And in addition to eating the food you place in the bin, they are constantly working on eating the bedding (compost, coco coir, peat moss, leaves, etc) you originally placed in the bin.

This means that over time the bedding is turned in to worm castings.

Unfortunately, worms can't live in their own poop for long. As they do their work during the day and night, they will ingest their castings. 

The castings are toxic to worms and over time the worms will become sick and die.

If your worms are slowly disappearing and most of the bedding looks like worm castings (black or dark material resembling spent coffee grounds), the lack of fresh bedding may be the reason.

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Worm castings are dark brown or black and have an earthy smell.

The good news is that this is also an easy problem to fix!

Simply mix in new bedding with the castings and place a new layer of bedding (3-4 inches) on top of the existing castings/bedding mix the worms are living in. 

The red wigglers and compost worms will move to the surface and begin living in and processing the new, fresh bedding material.

Why Are My Worms Dying: Worm Protein Poisoning

If you notice that worms are dying or your population has decreased by a significant amount, a possible issue is what's known as "sour crop" or protein poisoning.

This condition is common but can be complex to diagnose.

Sour crop most likely stems from a combination of:

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Here's the likely chain of events that leads to sour crop and protein poisoning:

  • Too much food is placed into a too moist worm farm or bin.
  • Worms can not keep up and eat the food fast enough, so it begins to ferment. Ammonia levels rise and become an issue in the bin.
  • Worms begin to consume the fermenting food. Their digestive systems are not sophisticated enough to process the fermented material.
  • Gases begin to form in their digestive tract. Worms can't "pass gas" like humans do.
  • The gas levels build up and eventually rupture the digestive tract, leading to the "string of pearls" effect.

This condition is often called "string of pearls" because the worms' bodies resemble a string of pearls when they have this condition. 

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Worm Protein Poisoning: What to Do

There is good news and bad news with protein poisoning and string of pearls issues in your worm bin.

The bad news is that once this process starts, it can kill all or most of your worms very fast. 

The good news is that there are steps you can take to address it, and even better, prevent it from happening in the 1st place.

If you see signs of worm protein poisoning, it is important to deal with it immediately!

The first step is to remove all of the food from your bin.

Next, collect "a lot" of new, fresh bedding. This can be compost, coco coir, peat moss, top soil, or shredded corrugated cardboard. Mix this new material into the existing bedding at a 50/50 ratio and then place a new 3-4 inch layer of fresh bedding on top.

Moisten the new bedding layer and add a light feeding for the worms (1/2 of a mashed banana or a few berries).

As you move forward, be sure to not overfeed the worms (they should finish each feeding in 2-4 days) and occasionally mix in shredded cardboard and crushed egg shells (these have calcium the worms use during digestion).

The above will address the issues but if all or most of your worms are already sick, they may all die so you'll need to replenish your population of red wigglers.

Worms Dying in Worm Bin: Frequently Asked Questions

What Happens When Worms Die?

When worms die in a worm farm, their bodies dry out, harden, and begin decomposing. The process is facilitated by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi, and the decomposition adds beneficial biology to the surrounding soil. This process contributes to the nutrient cycle within the composting system, ultimately enhancing the quality of the soil and vermicompost produced.

What do Worms Smell Like When They Die?

When worms die and start decomposing, they emit a very strong and unpleasant odor. It is actually surprising how much even a single dead worm can stink. This smell is primarily due to the release of ammonia and other sulfurous compounds as their bodies break down. In a well-maintained worm farm, such smells should be minimal, as dead worms are quickly broken down by microorganisms, but a significant die-off can lead to a noticeable and very unpleasant odor until the issue is addressed.

Why are Worms Dying on the Sidewalk?

Worms die on sidewalks due to dehydration and drying out. This commonly happens after a rain or watering event, as worms are genetically predisposed to move around after rain. Scientists believe rain is a signal for worms to move to a new area to aerate soil. As worms move around, some end up on the sidewalk and they can't maintain the moisture they need to breathe. Exposure to sunlight also has a dual negative effect on worms - it has a paralyzing effect on their movement and accelerates their drying out process. 

If you're still struggling with issues in your bin, try our other posts in this series on troubleshooting issues in your worm bins:

Comments

Brothers Worm Farm

I’ve had a vermicomposter for 20+ years with no problems. All of a sudden I discovered all of my worms died and the compost was black and slimy looking. Any ideas what happened?

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