WORMS! Meet Your Decomposers: Earthworms- Lumbricina

credit: wikimedia commons

For more about earthworms and other creepy decomposers, listen to the latest High Touch High Tech podcast! : https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/LXdEenw2pub

On a Spring evening when the air is moist and the nights are getting warmer, I can go outside with a flashlight, shine it on the grass, and see so many earthworms pulling themselves back into the tunnels they have created in the soil. They love my yard because it is full of composting chicken and duck manure from the escapades the domestic birds had in the days before. If you listen closely, you can even hear them moving in the soil! It’s interesting to think that the composted duck and chicken manure is feeding the worms that the chickens and ducks love to eat. I have created an ecosystem that feeds itself.

credit: wikimedia commons

Earthworms are a terrestrial invertebrate found in the soil with segmented setae (bristled body parts to help the earthworm from slipping backwards) on all the segments of their body. They spend their days eating organic matter including protozoa, rotifers, bacteria, and fungi.  Their digestive system runs the length of their bodies, and they respire through their skin. They are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both sex organs. Though they can reproduce without a mate, they prefer having one. Upon which they exchange sperm and develop eggs.

Earthworm egg sac credit: wikimedia commons

There are about 3000 species of earthworms worldwide. They can be found almost everywhere there is moist soil. Most of today’s earthworms arrived from Europe, most likely from the soil in rootstocks of plants during shipment.

Earthworms appear white, grey, pink, or reddish brown. They can range in size depending on species anywhere from ½” to a whopping 10 feet! The biggest ones can be found in Australia. They are a cold-blooded creature and assume the temperature of their surroundings. They are true worms, meaning they hatch as tiny worms and grow to adulthood without instar stages like that of the beetle or fly.

Hannah G Watson, Andrew T Ashchi, Glenn S Marrs, Cecil J Saunders. Scanning electron micrograph of recently hatched Eisenia hortensis. CC BY 4.0. http://biology.wfu.edu/ credit: wikimedia commons

The lifecycle of the earthworms is as follows: they begin as an egg, emerge as a tiny baby, grow to a juvenile, and then become an adult. They can live up to 8 years. The hatchling is a tiny white and threadlike. As they grow into a juvenile, they began to develop colors of grey or reddish brown. When they become adults the band around the upper part of their body develops. This is called the clitellum, and this is the area in which reproduction organs exist. An adult worm after mating lays up to a dozen eggs at a time. The eggs are laid in the soil and are contained in a tiny egg sac that is the sloughed off part of the clitellum. After a 15-day incubation the hatchling emerges. It takes around 60 days for the earthworm to grow into an adult. Then the reproduction process begins all over again.

What are some uses for earthworms? Well, the most useful thing they do is to decompose organic matter creating frass, worm manure. The frass is an amazing fertilizer that is sold for anywhere from $1 to $5 a pound. It is a viable compost that can be applied directly to plant beds and potted plants as well. Earthworms make good fish bait. That is a whole market all its own. Also, as I said before the chickens and ducks love them! They are an excellent source of protein and minerals. They are eaten by humans in China and the Philippines. In Fujian and Guangdong province they are considered a delicacy.  In Southern Venezuela the Ye Khanna people gather them from mud, gut and boil them to eat in dishes and sometimes smoked. They are also eaten by the Māori people of New Zealand. Its is reported that they have an unsurprising earthy flavor.

As we approach sustainability, other protein and mineral sources come into our view that are much less impactful upon the earth. If you have chickens and ducks, consider creating a worm farm in a plastic or wooden bin. Or if your property is set up like mine the earthworm farm is the whole yard enabling your domestic birds to feast as they desire. Overall, the earthworm is a fascinating decomposer that is accessible for study or for a snack, directly under our feet.

Shana M Ritch

For more information go to : https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/08/10/489302134/should-we-make-room-for-worms-on-our-dinner-plate

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