When your worms are trying to escape from your compost bin, you want to identify the underlying reason. Vermicomposting isn’t difficult but there is a delicate balance when it comes to creating an environment that supports those red wigglers. I’ve done a lot of research on this and here is what I’ve learned.
The most common reasons why compost worms try to escape:
- Bedding Material Is Too Wet Or Dry
- Soil pH is out of balance
- Incorrect Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio
- Overfeeding or Underfeeding
- Inappropriate Temperatures
Let’s explore each of these and what you can do to ensure that your worm farm is a welcoming and nurturing environment, one that your worms won’t want to leave!
Note: A theme that you will notice over and over again throughout this article is what I like to call the Goldilocks phenomenon. Compost worms do not like extremes. They prefer their environment to be “just right”. And while there is a little bit of wiggle room with each of these, keeping as close to the ideal as possible will help your worms to thrive and decompose those kitchen scraps more efficiently.
Worm Bin Is Too Wet Or Too Dry
Moisture is important for worms. They need damp soil to survive because they breathe through their skin and moisture is needed to facilitate this (source). But more is not always better. You can go too far when trying to provide water. Excessive moisture will cause your worms to surface and may entice them to seek better conditions elsewhere.
At the same time, you don’t want to allow the soil to get too dry. Remember that moisture is critical to a worm’s survival, it just needs to be in moderate amounts.
You can buy an inexpensive soil moisture meter (link to Amazon) but a cheaper solution is to simply use your finger. Push a few inches into the soil and confirm that it is not excessively wet.
If your worm bin is too wet, add additional carbon sources such as cardboard. Also, make sure that you have established an adequate drainage process to allow excess water to move away from the soil. If you are using a DIY container worm bin, drilling a series of holes in the bottom is usually the preferred approach.
If your worm bin is too dry, add nitrogen-rich greens (don’t overfeed) or wet the bedding manually with water. Slowly adding water over a longer period of time allows more moisture to soak into the soil that adding a large amount at once.
Remember, you are looking for a balance. You want to soil moist but not saturated.
Soil pH Is Out Of Balance
The ideal pH for your worm bin is going to be between 6.0 and 7.0 but it can temporarily change slightly as you add food items. You want to be careful with excessively acidic foods like citrus. A handy guide is the “What Can Red Wigglers Eat?” Infographic Refrigerator Magnet (link to Amazon). It provides a simple, visual guide to what should and should not be fed to your worms.
Composting worms have some level of tolerance with pH levels but extremely acidic or alkaline levels are not suitable and they cannot survive (source). They will try to escape and seek refuge elsewhere when pH levels are too far out of range as it becomes a hostile living environment from excessive acidity or alkalinity.
This video provides some excellent practical tips on maintaining the soil. You’ll notice that as you she is addressing one aspect such as adding carbons, she mentions the benefit to other aspects like moisture level. This is because all of these issues are closely interlinked! Ultimately, she is balancing the pH levels as she adjusts the ingredients.
Above all else, the best approach to maintaining a worm bin soil’s pH levels is to be mindful of what you are putting in it and the amounts added. Avoid excessively alkaline or acidic materials and you will have fewer challenges to overcome later. Also be mindful that mold and rotten food in a worm bin can affect the pH, although worms will consume many of these food items as long as it is not in excess.
Incorrect Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio
We’ve touched on this already as it affects pH and moisture levels, but maintaining a proper carbon-nitrogen ratio is one of the most effective methods that you can use to ensure an environment where your compost worms can thrive.
A study conducted by the University of Mumbai, Santacruz found that between 25 and 40 times more carbon needed to be present compared to nitrogen for ideal decomposition. But the study also noted that over a period of 10 weeks, the percent of total carbon in the bin significantly decreased from 32.5 to 29 while the nitrogen level rose.
This runs contrary to traditional composting since greens tend to turn brown as they decay and transform from nitrogen sources to carbon sources. In the case of vermicomposting, the researches found that worms release nitrogen through their metabolic processes and from dead tissue (source).
What this means for us is that we need to ensure that we are continuously adding additional carbon sources to our worm bedding. This will also help to keep the bedding from being too wet.
Don’t get too bogged down in the ratios. Let your observations guide you.
Overfeeding Or Underfeeding
Maintaining an adequate, but not excessive, amount of food for your worms will reduce the likelihood of them trying to escape. Help with the feeding process by breaking food into smaller pieces. You can even use a blender to accelerate the decomposition process and make the nutrients more accessible.
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The idea of “if a little is good, then a lot must be better” is not the proper approach when it comes to feeding worms. Filling your bin with more food than the worms can consume can result in an increase in acidity. This may cause your worms to seek an alternative environment. Also, since most vegetable kitchen waste is water-rich, the moisture balance of your bin can be negatively affected.
So again, each of these reasons that your worms may be trying to escape are inter-connected! And let’s not forget the issue of odors and pests that come along with putting too much food in a worm bin. For more information on pest issues, be sure to read Do Worm Farms Attract Rats? Rodent issues in Vermicomposting.
Just as having too much of a good thing can be bad, so can not having enough. If you are not providing an adequate amount of food for your worms, they will try to escape their bin and seek food elsewhere.
Use a reasonable amount of food and cover it with an inch or so of bedding. Give them what they need and your worms will be happy and not have a reason to leave. Click here to learn about how long compost worms can go without food.
Red wiggler composting worms can survive in temperatures as low as 40 degrees and as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit. But just like every other aspect of the conditions we’ve discussed, there is a sweet spot. These worms thrive in a temperature range between the mid-50s and the mid-70s (source). If the bedding in your bin is outside of this range, it may drive your worms to escape in search of a better climate.
If your worm bin is outside, keep it out of direct sunlight. This will help prevent excessive heat during the summer months. In the winter, you can wrap a blanket around the outside of the bin (or over the top – just don’t inhibit airflow). Your worms will still slow down during the cold months but it can prevent them from seeking refuge elsewhere.
For indoor bins, make sure you don’t have an incandescent light directly over or near the bin. These can give off a surprising amount of heat. More than likely, if your bin is indoors, the temperature is not the reason your worms are attempting to get out.
Bonus Tip: Use a Light To Temporarily Reduce Escape
Composting worms prefer dark places. By placing a light directly over the worm bin, you can temporarily reduce their likeliness of seeking refuge outside of the container while you correct the issues.
This video gives some insight into this. But remember, if your worms are trying to escape, there is a reason. You need to identify and correct the underlying issue so that they can have an environment that supports their needs. Once you do that, they won’t want to leave because they will have everything they need.
If you provide an environment that suits their needs, compost worms should not try to escape. Identify the underlying reason for the worms’ behavior and address it. As you bring the areas that we’ve discussed into balance, your red wiggler worms will be content in their bedding. This will free them to focus on the more pressing issue of turning your kitchen waste into nutrient-rich soil for your lawn, garden, or flowerbed!
New To Vermicomposting? Be sure to read our detailed information guide on How Many Worms Are Needed For Vermicomposting?