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How to identify red wiggler composting worms

How to Identify Red Wigglers at All Stages: An Interactive Guide

Vermicomposting is a form of composting that involves the natural process of decomposition using various species.  Organic Matter is broken down by Red Wiggler worms, Canadian nightcrawlers, and European Nightcrawlers. You have to have the right amount of each species of worms for the optimal output to occur. How to Identify Red Wigglers at all stages, is a crucial step in this process.

How can you identify Red Wigglers?  You can identify wigglers by their physical attributes, such as color and size, as well as their behavior.

Here are the key things to look for in identifying red wigglers:

  • Red Wigglers are two to five inches in length
  • They are Reddish Brown In color
  • Red Wigglers have Stripes or rings of different shades
  • They have a bulging area on their body called the clitellum
  • Red Wigglers can secrete a yellowish liquid with a foul smell to word off preditors
  • They often have a yellowish Tipped Tail
  • The Red Wiggler stays close to the surface of the topsoil

Now that we know precisely how to identify the red wiggler, what does the red Wiggler do and why is it so special? We will get to that later, but first, there are a few more things to consider with the Red Wiggler. The Red Wiggler is one of the few earthworms that produces the exact chemical makeup that the soil needs. The Worm Castings contain abundant amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The Red worm also lives topside and eats rotting vegetable scraps that we don’t eat.

Since people often confuse traditional nightcrawler earthworms with red wigglers, we needed a better way to identify these compost worms at all stages, which is why we created this interactive guide.

How to Identify Red Wigglers

Identify red wiggler worms by their color, shaded rings around their bodies, and the Clitellum that is found on adults.

Red wigglers are about two to five inches in length and about ¼ inches in diameter. They look similar to other earthworms but they do have a few distinct characteristics.

The Red wiggler is a topsoil worm, with a deep reddish-brown color. They often have a yellowish looking tint at their tail.

Red wigglers will have several stripes or rings down the entire length of the worm’s body.  The red wiggler has a clitellum that bulges. This is where it’s reproductive organs are located (source).

Red wigglers are not one solid color red–each band on the body of the worm is going to be a lighter or darker red than the previous band. Some bands will group together, making a solid piece.  This characteristic is primarily due to what they consume.

This short video from self-reliance enthusiast Tim Rosanelli walks through identifying a red wiggler and is very useful:

What do Red Wiggler Babies Look Like?

Red Wigglers are clear when they are hatching from the cocoon. They are sensitive to light, and sometimes they have a reddish tint to some of the sections on the worm.  The worms can sometimes appear to be transparent in color. This coloring is a standard shade for the red wiggler hatchlings.

The color starts to change as they mature, and by 45 days, they should be a full red color, with shades of transparent yellowish/reddish tint.  The average survival rate of the worm is one year; however, they can live up to four years.

Baby red wigglers.

The worm is fully mature when the clitellum swells around their bodies. These worms have both male and female reproductive organs, but still require another worm to reproduce. During the reproductive phase, the two of them will bind together and secrete albumin, which will form into a cocoon.

Both worms exchange sperm, which is then placed into the albumin sac, with the eggs and amniotic fluid. The sack then hardens on the body of the worm, and they squirm out of the reproductive sack, leaving it to mature. 

What do Red Wiggler Cocoons Look Like?

The red wiggler cocoon is tiny, about the size of a grape seed. Although the cocoon measures 3mm in diameter, these little cocoons pack a surprising 20 eggs per cocoon. After hatching, these cocoons will return to the earth and dissolve into the soil.

The cocoons start as clear, then turn white, yellow, and finally reddish-brown when ready to hatch. After the pupa matures, the worm is ready to come into the soil as a hatchling. This process is about 23 days.  As long as all of the conditions are correctly met, the earthworm should start to peek its head out.

Here are some things that need to be met:

  1. Temperature between 65-85 Degrees Farhenhieght
  2. 80-90% moisture content
  3. Proper air circulation
  4. Ph Neutral, or 7.0 (they can survive between 4.2-8.0 or higher alkalinity).
  5. Food in a 2:1 ratio

After the Red wiggler cocoon has hatched, it will take the red wiggler about 45 days to reach maturity. The entire life cycle from inception to death is up to four years.  However, most red wigglers do not make it past their first year.

And this is really cool. This short video shows red wigglers hatching:

What do Compost Worm Eggs Look Like?

Red wiggler compost worm eggs are often confused with the Red Wiggler cocoons. Compost worm eggs are located inside the cocoon of the worm who laid the egg. When the Red Wiggler reproduces, the worm leaves about twenty eggs in the egg sack.  From these twenty eggs, only around three eggs will make it to hatchlings.

Bloomscape, Send Them a Gift That Grows

The eggs themselves are microscopic–about as small as the sperm that fertilizes them. After the eggs are fertilized inside the cocoon, they start turning into Zygotes.  This next stage of development is the start of the worm’s new life.

After this gestation period starts, then the compost cocoons will hatch after a period of 23 days. The Cocoon is surprisingly adaptive to most weather conditions; in fact, the pupae can even remain frozen for years with all the life intact when it reaches ideal temperatures.

When the temperature reaches the ideal point, then the babies will be born. The recommended temperature is between 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit with a moisture level of 80-90 percent.  Many people recommend using a moisture meter (link to Amazon) and a Thermometer to keep your worm farm nursery at the ideal sweet spot for your new worms.  

Can I Raise My Own Red Wigglers?

You can grow your red wigglers. Red wigglers will reproduce every 90 days and double their occupancy. You need to have adequate space and food for them to reproduce, and there are no dominant traits to take into consideration.

You can find an excellent worm farm or 5-tray worm compost bin for a reasonable price. Click here for our guide to the top vermicomposting bins.

You would then need to add bedding, the correct amount of food, and worms. Be careful not to overcrowd your worms in the beginning. For guidance, read Vermicomposting: How Many Worms Are Needed?

What is a Red Wiggler?

Red Wiggler worms are probably the most popular worm for vermicomposting. The larvae are not as ideal for composting as the fully developed Red Wiggler (Eisenia Foetida). 

Red wigglers live above the soil or in the top layers of the earth at the very least. They thrive in decomposing vegetation and manure. The Red Wiggler is a species in the earthworm family. Looking similar to their cousin, they are often confused with other earthworms such as the European Nightcrawler, or Eisenia Hortensis.

The Common Garden Worm (Eisenia Hortensis), or European nightcrawler, can easily be confused with the red wiggler.  The blueish tint is what will give away its true identity. The Red Wiggler looks closer to the Eisenia Andrei, which looks identical except for having a slightly darker reddish tint, and less pronounced stripes on the worm.

As a rule, it’s best not to combine traditional earthworms and red wigglers.

A unique characteristic of the Red Wiggler is that it will secrete a foul-smelling liquid to rid itself of possible predators. Other worms do not possess this same characteristic.

What do I Feed My Red Wigglers?

What to feed red wiggler worms.

The Red Wiggler will consume up to half of its weight in nitrogen (food waste) and paper or leaves (carbon) daily. The feeding ratio for food scraps is 2:1 per worm. If you have one pound of red worms, then you need ½ of a pound of food per day. Don’t over-science it though. Start with smaller amounts of food and increase servings until you find the right balance.

You can feed your red wigglers organic materials almost daily; there are some starchy materials that you can also supply to your Red Wigglers in moderation.  It would be best if you never fed your worms things like Citrus Fruit, Meats, bones, spices, grease, dairy, or non-biodegradable materials. 

Although it can be tempting to throw all of your food waste into the composting bin, it will undoubtedly lead to a disaster. You want to feed your worm’s organic material. This concept means that you supply the worms uncooked things that grew naturally, or you feed them things that are cooked, but with no additives or preservatives.

If you decide to give your worms beans from time to time, they need to be cooked and soft beans. The worm has a palate that is absent of teeth. Their muscles are the only thing that helps them grind food into a smooth pulp to digest. They also use the soil to aid in grinding up any leafy material that is too much for them.

If you have trouble remembering all of this an infographic refrigerator magnet may help (link to Amazon).

Here is a new chart to give you an idea.

Okay In Moderation Never
Corn X
Cardboard X
Pears X
Rice X
Oranges X
Steak X
Eggs X
Foods with additives X
Cabbage X
Celery X
Beans X
Burgers X
French Fries X
Raw Potatoes X

Do Red Worms Need Oxygen?

Red Wigglers need oxygen to survive; they produce carbon dioxide like most other land animals. They digest the oxygen molecules through their skin, so they can also survive underwater for a time as long as the water is well oxygenated. Otherwise, they can drown. But having moist bedding can help the worms breathe a little better.

The oxygen passes through their skin, and carbon dioxide returns to the environment. It does not take much, but that slimy mucous membrane over the body of the worm is what is helping filter the oxygen into its bloodstream.

Every worm will process a different amount of oxygen to carbon dioxide ratio. The simple rule of thumb for a worm bin is moist but not saturated. Make sure you have adequate drainage holes in the bottom to drain excess liquid.

Compost worms typically do not surface often unless something is out of balance in the bedding.  If you see your worms surfacing a lot, then something in the soil may be causing this drastic change. The bin could be too alkaline or acidic or have too high moisture content.

Population Control

For the most part, you don’t have to worry if your worm population outgrows your farm. In many cases, the older, weaker worms will die off and make room for the younger worms.  The more immature worms will eat their weight, as juvenile worms require more nutrients than the older worms will.

The population in your worm farm will self-regulate based on the size of the bin and available food supply. Worms bodies are made up of 80% water so that they will decompose relatively quickly. A second option is to take the younger worms and place them in their own worm bin. If you are noticing that you have a large number of small worms, read this troubleshooting guide.

The Red Wiggler will also produce castings that can be used to add nutrients to the soil. These castings are available as soon as the worm processes the organic material.

Red Wigglers are not fond of bright lights or dry climates, so choosing a functional storage space for your worms is ideal for keeping them alive. As long as they have food, moisture, and soil, your worms will generally do fine. Click here to learn about the best locations to keep a worm bin.

Harvesting Vermicompost

There is a step by step process to follow to get your casting out of the worm bin. Although there is no right or wrong way to harvest your worm castings, there are a few things that you want to do to make sure that you are getting the most out of your worm population.

If possible, you want to try and keep your worms away from the filter that you are going to be using to get the worm castings out of the soil. You can filter as much out as you want to filter out.  Pour out your soil onto your screen, sift it side to side, the bigger chunks will stay on top of the screen, while the worm castings will fall through to the bottom. This method is known as the side-to-side method; you could also use the tap method to clear out the worm castings as well.

The following steps will help you harvest your Vermicompost using the Tap Method:

  1. You will need to gather a screen that will allow the worm castings to go through
  2. A catch plate
  3. You will also need to separate the worms from filtering them
  4. You will place the large screen on something stable
  5. Put a handful of soil on the screen
  6. The tap the pile from underneath, and the worm castings will fall through the 1/8 inch mesh.

Here is a very helpful video that clearly walks you through the steps of harvesting castings:

Final Thoughts

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”

Thomas Jefferson

Vermicomposting is a simple and rewarding way to make use of kitchen scraps while providing your plants with an ongoing supply of truly nutrient-rich amendments. That perfect batch of tomatoes or fruit that you are striving for starts with the nutrients that go into the soil. Seeing those plants thrive with no added pesticides is one of the best joys you can experience.

Ready to start vermicomposting? Be sure to read our review of the best worm bins on the market!

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