The Bug Farm
What we typically refer to as a "whiteworm" in our hobbies are segmented round worms that are closely related to the earthworm. Like many of its closer relatives, the worm was scientifically identified (and named) during a period of tremendous scientific discovery in the mid-1800s. "Enchytraeus albidus Henle, 1837 (ref. ID; 1257, 1928) Description; This species found on the shore, in soil, manure, etc. (ref. ID; 1928)" (1)
The worm is question is from the Phyla, Annelida of the Class Oligochaeta. The oligochaetes include other families of worms such as the earthworms. Thousands of species compile the class but all have small hairs, setae, along their sides to help them move through the soils and dirts that they prefer as habitat. There are a few species of annelids which inhabit freshwater, but primarily the class is made up of terrestrial worms. Many of the worms are light colored and can be called white, but others range from red through brown and towards colors we might refer to as black.
Whiteworms are an interesting food source for many critters. Most people who will read this article are probably keeping fish. However, whiteworms are great for many herps (salamanders, newts, some frogs) and several species of birds (Waxbills being one of them). The keeping of newts and newt larvae is in many ways more similar to fish keeping than some other herps. While they may be small, one could think of them as an earthworm. Any critter that might like a worm from the garden will enjoy a whiteworm also.
Interestingly, they will survive under water for several days. We have had them wiggling for days in a beaker of water, however, in a tank they will work into gravel beds and be difficult for many fish to find. Some fish, Corydoras and Loaches in particular, probably have some sort of "fun" working the gravel for the escaping worms. One of our older reference books mentioned that whiteworms live for several hours in a salt environment and that some marine fishes eat them with gusto.(4)
So there are good reasons to use the worm. There are some great applications for the worm with substantial advantages and very little negative downsize to their use. There are some downsizes that we will discuss in this paper that you may want to consider.
While the discussion of what medium to grow whiteworms in and what they prefer to eat can rage at fish conventions, one thing that all agree on is that this worm likes the temperature of its environ to be on the cold side. And while you might see a wide range of temperatures promoted as "ideal" for the species, little doubt can be had that the general consensus is on cooler is better.
While reading about this worm, we found "ideal" temperatures such as, "55 and 65 is best if you expect them to reproduce," "60 F / 16 C is optimum as below 35 F / 2 C they stop breeding and above 75 F / 24 C the worms will die," "12 C (53F)" and "whiteworms do best if they can be kept cool (55-65F)." But the author that seemed to speak with the most authority (and was more-or-less quoted by one above) said, "Enchytraeus likes a temperature between 50 and 60 (at 75 the worms die; at 35 they will not breed).(5)" What ever you find as "ideal" it will be cold. If you familiar with the propagation of Grindal Worms you will find that Whiteworms do enjoy temperatures significantly cooler that the Grindal Worms.
We find that our ambient garage and shop temperatures suit the whiteworms during the late fall, winter and early spring. During the other parts of the year we find that we need to take unique measures to keep the cultures cool enough. Of course we live in Northern California and your experiences will vary with your location, be we find that we need to treat the worms differently during two parts of the year.
During the warmer month we need to cool our cultures. If we had a basement such might not be the case, but basements are nearly unheard of in our region so our approach is to cool the cultures in Styrofoam containers. We use to put the culture box into a large Styrofoam shipping box and then place a bottle of frozen water in the shipping box with the culture box. Then one day in a brief moment of brilliance we decided to dump the culture directly into the Styrofoam box and put the frozen water bottle directly into the box with the culture. Why it took years to figure out the direct method is not known but the newfound simplicity is appreciated.
Depending on the outside temperature we replace the frozen water bottle every or, every other day. How often is determined by noticing the water bottle containing ice or not when we open the box to harvest or feed. During most of the summer we can change the bottle every other day, but there are periods when the temperature rises into the low 100s and we find that changing the water every day is important.
As with all culturing of live foods, you will want to observe the culture and remain flexible in your routine as conditions change.
As with its close earthworm cousins, a whiteworm is a hermaphrodites. This is not to say that each worm is male and female, but each has male and female reproductive organs. When the worms mate, each fertilizes the other at the same time. It takes two worms to complete the act.
Eggs are laid in cocoons, which are transparent, small and pretty hard to see. Each cocoon will contain perhaps 10 to 25 eggs with production depending on the environment, the food and the age of the adult.
An observation we have made is that it seems to be that older cultures will be less productive than "mature" cultures (those cultures which have established themselves yet are not "over the hill"). This may be for a number of reasons, but we have seen similar situations with a number of cultures and suspect that the environment plays a large role as does the average age of the productive population. Older being less productive and over populated (perhaps polluted) environments capable of sustaining less productivity.
Whiteworms have a surprisingly long life span. When you figure that a worm might live to bear 750 to 1000 eggs and the average egg production could be around 20 eggs per day they have a calculated lifespan of a couple of months. However, you will find (as have we) that cultures left to sit for a couple of months and simply fed will probably sustain a catastrophic episode prior to the completion of the worms lifespan. They are capable of "over-running" their environment and need to be harvested and cared for on a regular basis.
The first order of business in cultivating Whiteworms is to prepare a good quality medium for the worms. Not only does the medium have to have the right components and the right consistency, you really need to consider sterilizing it. You might get lucky and do o.K. without sterilizing the medium, however you will be risking a quick infection of mites and/or fungus gnats. And you dont want to get either of these two infestations if you can avoid it.
There are several ways to sterilize the soil and any of them will work. We employee baking more than the other two. In our current situation it is just easy for us. We used to boil the soil with the same results. We find that baking the soil for three hours at 350F does the trick. You might find that for a extra large volume of soil might take a longer time, The batch size we work with is about one and a half gallons of soil and makes the depth in the roasting pan about two inches deep. If the soil cannot be thoroughly heated because of too much soil in the pan you should increase you length of the baking. You can also use a microwave to accomplish the fete, but we have found that because of the volume problem it is just a little easier to do the larger batches in a conventional oven. Way back when we raised food for our fish and didnt operate The Bug Farm we used the microwave. For a quart of material, the microwave works just fine. In either case, whether baking or microwaving you will have to let the mixture cool to room temperature before you can use it. We normally just let the mixture sit in the oven over night to cool.
Between the microwave experience and the baking that we do now, we boiled the soil. Easy enough, boiling is similar to the baking but you have to start with more water in the mix so that the soil can actually boil. You also cannot get the mixture above about 215 F, which is fine because our target pest will be destroyed at about 150 F, giving us room to spare. Again, like the baking, you need to be aware that the entire mixture gets to the desired temperature. With boiling that means that you really need to be standing there in the last 30 minutes or so and stirring the pot of goop. When the mixture has reached temperature you need to let it cool (again, like with the baking) but because you have added a significant amount of water, you will now need to remove that water to get the mixture back to a consistency in which you can use it. It is this last process of water extraction that push us into the baking method. The straining of the water from a gallon of material is not too bad. Its a little messy and takes a little bit of time, but it is not too bad. However, if you are trying to do 3 gallons in a day to yield 1 ½ gallons of medium, that extraction effort becomes time consuming as well as tiring. However, we do find that we like having the ability to make a more moist mix for some other cultures, particularly Grindal Worms and Springtails, so we still keep the boiling pot for some applications.
If you are not in the mood to experiment with different soil mixture on your kitchen counter, you can use a commercial worm mix like Magic Worm Bedding. Magic Worm Bedding is available in Walmart. It is commonly found in sports sections because it is used by fisher-people to keep their bait worms alive and well.
However, it you are just a little more adventuresome you can easily find a suitable potting soil that is ready to use, or nearly so. Just keep a few concepts in mind. First dont but soil that is advertised as being fertilized or ones that will kill weeds or that are weed seed free. Anything that they have added to the soil to kill weeds or help plants grow is not good for the worms. The cheapest dirt in the garden center is usually the best. It apparently costs the soil companies money to make soil bad for our worms.
Worms of nearly all species (and definitely the whiteworms) enjoy, and more-or-less require that the medium they live and breed in is more on the alkaline side of the pH meter than the acidic side. If the medium is too acidic you will find worms crawling the sides of the container as if pleading for help. If you notice the side crawling you must act immediately as the disaster in the works acts quickly and is catastrophic in nature. However, if you work some lime into the soil mixture in advance of adding the starter culture of worms you will be doing yourself and the worms a huge favor. The lime will move the pH towards the alkaline side of the monitor.
Try not to use peat, as it is a naturally acidic medium. While peat is great for causing the pH of an aquarium to be lowered, that is not good for worms. You might be able to use peat if most of the acids have leached out by having boiled the soils for hours, but it is just as easy to avoid the peat-based mixtures and to remember to balance the pH through the addition of lime. We know that the mixture we use needs about 2 tablespoons of lime to create a soil that will test out at about neutral. Neutral is perfect for worms of all types.
Of course, if you live in the country you can always take a more natural approach to the culturing of the worms by heeding the type locale information, "the locality given, viz. old stable manure, is a special favorite of E. albidus. (ref. ID; 1928)." (1) Then again, manure composting would not be wise in some urban environments.
All worms need a somewhat moist environment. They produce a mucus substance to help them "glide" through soils, but if the soils it too dry, the mucus dries and so then will the worm. While one might go down to the organic farming outlet (any good hydroponics store) and purchase a moisture meter to check on the water content of the soil, there is an easy manual method which works and cost you nothing.
If, when you squeeze a handful of soil in your hand water does not drip out and when you open you hand the soil keeps its shape (including the "finger grooves") the soil is in the realm of having the right amount of moisture. As we feed the worms over time (spraying dry foods to keep them moist) the culture gets wet. We have not found that soil one might call wet is bad for the worms. Soggy would not be a term you would want to be able to use. If the soil cannot cling to your hand when you are working with it, it is probably too dry.
You have to keep in mind that the culture will change its moisture content over time depending on the ambient atmosphere in your region (seasons play a big role where we are located), the temperature of the air and the number of times the culture is opened and exposed. You need to keep an eye on the culture.
If one remembers the sterilization and the moisture content, the only other real concern is the pH balancing. Whiteworms are actually pretty tolerant as to the mixture of soil they will call home. A mixture that has too much clay in the mix will not be as effective as one without as the clay tends to compact the soil. Leaf mold and humus are good words to look for on the soil packaging. Both help improve the soil and keep it "fluffy." While we find the whiteworms cousin, the Grindal Worm, will enjoy a more compact and significantly wetter condition, Whiteworms like soil we can call "fluffy." Sometimes we have used soil with vermiculite in it and were very satisfied with the results. Heavy soils, usually continaing a substantial clay content) are not as good as "sandy loam." We have used soils that were designed for seedlings and for sprouting seeds. The seedling soils worked well also.
Any soil that is chemical free, "fluffy" and able to hold moisture without become compacted will work well. While we have found that most inexpensive soils from stores like Home Depot, Walmart and Lowes can work very well, we still add the lime, sterilize the soil and keep the volume of peat moss in the mix to a minimum.
When we start a new culture, we place the soil into the container to a depth of at least two inches. We like to use four to six inches of soil to start, as we have found that the worm bedding does not dry out as quickly when it is deeper but have found that about 2 inches is the minimum depth. The extra depth adds a degree of stability to the culture. We use a container that has a good cover to keep other bugs out and moisture in. While the plastic boxes we used to use were opaque, the boxes we use now are completely light proof. Whiteworms seem to like living in a dark environment.
We used to use plastic sweater boxes as our preferred culture box. We punched a series of small holes around the entire perimeter of the box, just below the edge of the cover for ventilation. We found that air is more important than we used to think. The current set of Styrofoam boxes, while ventilation deficient perhaps work because we open the lids on a regular bases and we keep the cultures significantly cooler than we have in the past.
If you do much reading on whiteworms you are going to find folks using, Pabulum, mashed potatoes, a piece of bread soaked in non fat dry milk, vegetable scraps, stale white bread soaked in a little milk, dog and cat dry foods and malted milk powders, slices of potato, leftover fruit, cereal, oatmeal, and wheat flour. They'll even eat flake and pelletized fish foods, dry dog and cat food, if they're pre-soaked beforehand, breadcrumbs and dozens of other similar foods.
Personally we find that using stale hot dog buns particularly satisfying. Not only are the whiteworms doing very well on them, we have found yet another way to balance the number of buns with the number of hotdogs in their respective packages.
We have found that the worms prefer to eat under ground. If food is left on the surface of the culture and exposed to light, the worms will in all likelihood approach the food from the bottom. If on the other hand one places the food completely under the surface the worms may approach from all sides. The first scenario allows for a little better (easier) collecting of the worms, as they are more concentrated.
One can also place the food in a small depression and cover the food and depression with a sheet of glass. When the box is covered you will achieve a situation where the worms concentrate themselves all around the food and the worm glob is easy to get too.
The worms will eat moist food. If you feed them dry food, they will not eat until the food has absorbed enough moisture from the medium to make it palatable. If one does not moisten the food with each feeding, the culture will become dry over time. However, the reverse of this problem is to use dry food to dry an overly moist culture.
The easiest and most carefree method of harvesting the worms is to feed them in a glass covered pit and then to simply pick up the glob of worms, which accumulates around the food. You then can drop the wad of worms directly into an aquarium or a feeding tray.
We have used heat to drive the worms out of the bottom of a can and into water. This method also seemed to work for mite control, but took a lot of time and dried out the medium (terribly). The technique is simple enough once the device is constructed but it takes more time than we thought we wanted to spend on the process.
The harvesting device for the process is simply a tin can with both ends removed and a plastic lid snapped onto one of the ends. A large hole is cut into the plastic lid and a piece of plastic netting is placed on the inside of the lid.
The worm-bearing medium is place into the can. The can is place lid side down over a glass of water and a heat source (we use a light bulb) is place just over the surface of the soil. As the medium heats and dries out, the worms migrate down through the medium and out the plastic netting, falling into the water.
We have also simply scraped a few worms from the bottom of glass sheets placed over the worm pits. However, we find that the greatest numbers of worm for the effort are collected from the food pit method of feeding.
For most fish, the little amount of soil that comes with the worms and that little extra foodstuff that may cling along for the ride none of that will be unattractive for the fish. You may want to "clean" the worms. But like we said, the fish dont care.
However, cleaning the worms is pretty easy. Take the wad of worm and drop them into a clear glass of cold water. After stirring them up to separate the worms from the debris, let the worms settle to the bottom and then decant the water. You may have to repeat the action a time or two, but it is easy and works very well. The worms are heavier than the water.
We have read that, "It would be quite wrong to feed fish on whiteworms alone; this leads to obesity, particularly in breeding animals. In general, a whieworm (sic) culture should only be regarded as a reserve to be used when other food source fail and as an alternative to dried food." (4)
Were not sure that our personal experiences can validate the previous statement. However, we have noticed that feeding "soft" foods such as worms following a steady diet of fibrous foods (or the other way around), can result in some blockage. A variety of maladies then seem to arise (dropsy being the manifestation of several). We would recommend that you feed whiteworms as a part of a well balanced diet plan rather than as a sole food. We would make the same recommendation for all foods.
There is an on going "old wives tale" regarding the "fattiness" of whiteworms. While we can not possible know where this story first appeared, it continues to be passed down, mostly in the oral history of the hobby as it can not be substantiated through science. The story may be the result of early observation of the worms white or cream color (similar to most peoples mental concept of fat) and the fact that the worm is soft and squishy, like we think of fat. Any fatty food can cause some accumulation of fats within a predator and any gross over-ingestion of fat could result in some negative results, but the cause would not be from the food itself, but rather the over-use of the particular food.
Very little information is available which addresses the nutritional composition of whiteworms. No science is available which supports issues of negative benefits from the worms. The only material supports a rather positive composition.
One author states, "Whiteworms generally contain less than 2.7% body fat in contrast microworms contain 4.8%."(3)
Repeating ourselves, we would recommend that you feed whiteworms as a part of a well balanced diet plan rather than as a sole food.
A Guide to Keeping and Breeding Waxbills in a British Birdroom, Ian Hinze, http://www.birds2grow.com/art-waxbills.html
(3) Adrian R. Tappin, http://members.optushome.com.au/chelmon/Whitewrm.htm
(5) Live Food for Aquarium Fishes, Robert Gannon, TFH Publications, 1960, 36, p 32-35
(4) Live Foods for the aquarium and terrarium, Willy Jocher, TFH Publications, 1975. 126, p 11-13.
Tom Cook, http://www.intellweb.com/gcka/wworms.htm
Triturus in Captivity, The Aquatic Phase, http://www.darkwave.org.uk/~caleb/tricap.html
White Worms, The British Livebearer Association, http://home.clara.net/xenotoca/whiteworm.htm
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© J. Atchison, 2003, 2009