There are many common names for red wigglers including, redworms, trouters, brandling worms, or manure worms. They are recognizable by their alternating red and flesh coloured pattern. Red wigglers are suited for vermicomposting because they are small, quickly consume large amounts of material, adapt well to captivity, and don’t mind being disturbed.
Red wiggler worms, also know by their Latin name, Eisenia foetida, are a species of earthworm specially adapted to the environment of decomposing organic material.
Red marsh worms, or Lumbricus rubellus, which have a ruddy-brown of red-violet colour, are sometimes grouped with red wiggler worms and are also used in vermicomposting.
Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus terrestris) – the worms that surface in your backyard in the early morning or after a rain shower – are not well suited for vermicomposting, but they are great for your garden soil and backyard compost bin.
A worm’s tiny body is fascinating. Worms breathe and sense light through their moist skin, pump blood though their bodies with five beating hearts, and grind up food using a big muscle called a gizzard. Worms don’t have lungs, they breathe through their moist skin, which is why they require a moist environment.
Worms do amazing work. In addition to decomposing vast amounts of organic waste, their tunneling action allows oxygen, moisture, and nutrients to reach plant roots underground, where it is needed.
Red wiggler worms reproduce quickly. Once your vermicompost bin is established, you may notice brownish-yellow or brownish-red, lemon-shaped objects in the bedding, each about the size of the tip of a match. These are worm cocoons!
After 2-3 months, young worms become sexually mature. Mature worms are recognizable by the swollen band, called the clitellum, located near their front end. Although worms are hermaphrodites (both male and female at the same time) they need a mate to reproduce. Two worms will join together in opposite directions at the clitellum where mucus secretes, hardens and then passes off the front end of the worm in the form of a cocoon. As the cocoon passes over the worm’s body, sperm and eggs are deposited allowing fertilization to happen inside the cocoon.
About three weeks later, 1-5 baby worms will emerge from the cocoon. Baby worms are thin, white and less than an inch long. They look like little threads and will remain white until they produce enough blood pigment to appear red.
To find baby worms in your vermicompost bin, look in folds of paper and softer pieces of partially decomposed food.
Although red wiggler worms reproduce quickly, you will not have an overpopulation problem in your bin. Worms will only reproduce under the proper conditions and populations will adapt to the amount of space and food available. For this reason, you will notice times of increased and decreased cocoon production. You will not likely notice when worms die in your bin, as their bodies are 70-90% percent water and decompose quickly.
Red wiggler worms can live for about one year in nature, but have been known to live up to four years in captivity.
A mini ecosystem
Your vermicompost bin will be home to more than just worms. Over time, your vermicompost system will become its own mini ecosystem, as other living organisms – like bacteria, fungi, springtails and mites – begin to populate the bin. These decomposer organisms are not only helpful – they are required to help turn your organic waste into nutrient-rich compost.
Bacteria start the decomposition process by secreting a substance that softens organic waste, making it ready for worms to eat.