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.
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.
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.