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Worm Wrangling: Or, Why I Love Keeping Worms More Than Keeping Bees

By Gwen Roland

Tags: worms, compost, small livestock, bees, beekeeping, SARE, Gwen Roland,

When it comes to small livestock, I'd rather be a worm wrangler than a beekeeper any day. Especially if it’s a hot Georgia day. I used to gear up in canvas overalls, elbow-length leather gloves, a safari hat and a veil before tending the wooden supers heavy with honey and beeswax. The most effort I’ll expend for worms on any day is to tote a bowl of peach peelings to them in summer or spread leaves for a winter blanket. No heavy lifting. No armor required.

Oh, I know that our farm crops depend on bees. In fact I became a beekeeper because I wanted to do my part for these dwindling pollinators. But after three fretful years, I was relieved to see my hives go down the driveway with a family of homeschoolers.

It was good riddance to the jittery little drug addicts who had to stay on a diet of antibiotics and other chemicals to fend off mites, hive beetles, wax moths and other pests. My red wigglers, on the other hand, not only stay healthy without meds but they also recycle my kitchen garbage and waste paper into sweet black compost for my garden.

Bees are prima donnas. They require expensive houses, all exactly alike. Worms make themselves at home in discarded bureau drawers, old bathtubs or gas barbeque grills with the burners removed. Mine used to live in a plastic storage bin that cost less than $4. Today they just camp out in the garden.

Bees, who enjoy a reputation for community spirit, definitely have limits to their hospitality. If they get too crowded, about half of them will turn a commoner into a queen and swarm off to start a new colony. Worms? They congenially make room for one more ... or a thousand more. They know how to share, whether it's a piece of watermelon rind or their entire home.

Bees are delicate. They die if they get too cold or too hot. Worms, on the other hand, are flexible. I found out just how flexible when I gave them siftings from some homeground cornmeal. Thinking it would be comfy bedding, I poured about five pounds into their plastic condo. A few mornings later I removed the cover to find hundreds of worms clinging to the top four inches of the bin, lifting their tails (or maybe it was their heads) out of the bedding. The ground corn had heated their home into a working compost pile.

Since it was a cold winter morning, I opened the kitchen door and flung the box outside to cool. I hurried off to work and forgot about them until Saturday, another unusually cold morning. I removed their cover and peeked in, not knowing whether to expect dead frozen worms or dead steamed worms. I found the perimeter of the bedding was frozen while the middle still generated enough heat to create steam in the morning air. To my surprise, layered between the two extremes was a solid four-inch band of more or less temperate worms — a fine model for making the best of whatever life hands you.

Now don't get me wrong, I know we need more bees. I just prefer to support them by purchasing honey from one of our local beekeepers. Whatever they charge at our farmers market this year will be worth the price.

While I’m happy to leave beekeeping to the experts and just keep on wrangling worms, both of these smart enterprises have benefited from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE ) grants. In Florida, SARE funded a team from Agricultural Research Services and the University of Florida to work on non-chemical controls for the small hive beetle. Cooperating with half a dozen local beekeepers, they came up with a low-tech, low-cost trap that lures the beetles into conical holes drilled in a board. They go in and can’t get back out.

In Virginia, two recently funded producer projects are working with bees and worms, respectively. A project led by the Prince William Regional Beekeepers Association is evaluating the potential of producing local queens and nucleus colonies as a way to address the colony collapse disorder that is devastating honeybee populations.

Mark Jones of Sharondale Farm in Keswick, Va., is experimenting with growing gourmet mushrooms outdoors in livestock manure and then using worms to convert the spent mushroom bedding into a high value soil amendment that he can use or sell. If his research idea is successful, it will open up a host of low-input possibilities for market gardeners.

You can keep up with SARE research by reading annual reports from these or similar projects at the SARE database.

During my early years of worm wrangling, I followed the
conventional advice of keeping them in a double set of
containers so that I could collect the vermicompost tea
to use in my garden. This was labor-intensive and required
a lot of lifting. My worms multiplied so quickly that I
eventually had a dozen sets of the plastic bins.

worm buckets

worm tea

I cut out much of the lifting by moving the bins directly
to the garden so that the sieved bottoms could drip right
onto the garden row. When I discovered that my worms
could thrive in the soil year-round, I set them free.

winter hens

Now I practice windrow composting, so that my fallow
rows serve as worm hostels. In this photo, the row in
the foreground is not empty; it is teeming with worms
busily composting kitchen scraps, leaves and an
occasional bucket of horse manure.

picking tomatoes

lorraine robison_2
7/6/2010 8:46:37 PM

I started a worm bin in the basement, what to do about the millions of fruit flies???????????? I open the box lid and get bombarded by the buggers. I put tacky fly strips up, they don't help at all, they multiply fast.

monnie sims
4/24/2009 11:23:00 PM

Thoroughly enjoyed your article and added pictures. My husband has retired and we're planning a new "Green Home." Living on 50 acres in a National Forest and 4 horses and other farm animals.....I just don't why we don't already a worm bin started. LOL But it's coming, really soon. ;)

4/14/2009 3:52:31 AM

Had a friend who started raising and selling worms a few years back. His first few shipments of worm came by U.S. Mail. He was surprised to get a phone call one day from the Postmaster, telling him to get up there immediately, to pick up his worms! Seems that the mail worker bringing the mail to the post office dropped the box containing 5000 worms a little too hard and all those worms were crawling all over her Post Office floor! She told him from then on...USE UPS! Which he did! lol

gwen roland
4/13/2009 7:30:26 AM

Beekeeping readers, I sold my bees years ago before the natural, low-tech management techniques for pests and diseases had been widely explored. Thanks to research funded by SARE and independent experiments by determined beekeepers, there are non-chemical options today. However my aging eyes and lower back would rebel if I decided to try keeping bees again. I'm perfectly content to buy my honey from local beekeepers like you. Thanks for reading and sending the urls to sustainable apiculture sites. Gwen

4/11/2009 2:55:41 PM

Bees as "jittery drug addicts" requiring "expensive houses, all exactly alike"? Wow--someone's never heard of top bar hives and natural, sustainable beekeeping! I built 2 top bar hives for less than the cost of one conventional Langstroth hive and have *no* plans to use chemicals--and doubt I'll need to. Go check out to learn more.

p l
4/11/2009 2:12:17 PM

I started a worm bin in the house with red wrigglers (and a stray nightcrawler or two) using those plastic drawers from Walmart. I check it every day, so the water accumulation isn't really an issue at this point. In fact, I have to spray it so it doesn't dry out too much. The worms seem happy, although I wish they would eat more. In about a month and a half, they doubled their population, so I split them up into two drawers now. They live in moist shredded paper and I feed them kitchen scraps once in a while. I stir the stuff up every few days so it doesn't go anaerobic and start to smell. I live with my Dad, so I can't do a whole lot because he's really picky. So until I can move out, I am hoping this will be the start of a bigger vermicomposting process for when I move. Then maybe I can either sell worms, or take in garbage, or sell the worm castings for extra income. There is a large scale composting operation here in Rainier, WA that takes in office paper to compost and they use worms.

karla _1
4/10/2009 1:59:14 PM

For any future beekeepers out there, please know it is now much easier to keep bees without chemicals or even with "soft" chemicals. See Ross Conrad, Natural beekeeping at or Mike Bush- Natural beekeeping And a BIG THANKS to Southern SARE for funding our great learning opportunity. Prince William Regional Beekeepers.

karla _1
4/10/2009 1:54:09 PM

Just a note, for all of you future beekeepers out there,it is now easier to keep bees without chemicals or with using "soft" chemicals. See Ross Conread, natural Beekeeping or Bush Bees as a start. And a BIG Thanks to Southern SARE for funding our great learning opportunity - Prince William Regional Beekeepers.

marisa durfee
4/10/2009 12:02:37 PM

I really enjoyed this article. I've wanted to start beekeeping for a long time, but have been vermicomposting for a couple years now and love it. I have containers under the kitchen sink for the cold season just for ease, but I usually move most of the worms out to the garden in the spring. I accidentally composted my worms once in sun, so I don't keep them in containers outside...

4/10/2009 8:30:42 AM

Good article, Gwen. I'm still using the old-fashioned way (double binning) of vermiposting and it's still the setup -you- gave me! Gee ... just glad you didn't decide I was the appropriate person for your bee-hive!