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One of the issues that I’ve run into with my vermicomposting adventures has been episodes where my worms are not eating. It’s as if they go on a fast for a few days. As a result, food piles up and begins molding and rotting. Although the worms can eat moldy, rotting food to some degree, it’s important that this not get out of hand. It can cause smelly, nasty conditions in your worm bin. If you are noticing your red wigglers are not consuming the food that you are giving them, this article will outline the possible reasons why and what you can do to correct it.
Why are my worms not eating? If your compost worms are not eating, it is likely because one of these elements is out of balance:
- Feeding Practices
- Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio
Each of these is an essential element to successful vermicomposting and, when out of balance, can result in worms not efficiently consuming and composting food.
Let’s explore each of these briefly and see if we can determine which ones may be causing your worms not to eat. But first, let’s make sure you have a basic understanding of why these elements of vermicomposting matter.
How Environment Affects Eating Habits of Compost Worms
The work of a compost worm involves consuming organic material and depositing nutrient-rich castings. That’s it’s purpose. To do it’s best work, it needs to have an environment that is supportive of its basic needs.
Think about it this way. Do you do your best work when it is freezing cold or extremely hot? Are you as productive eating high-sugar, low-nutrient meals as you are on a balanced diet? If you are dehydrated, do you perform at your best? Of course not. And it is no different for worms are virtually any other living species. We thrive in environments that support our bodies’ needs.
We do our best work when we are happy and our needs are being met. Your compost worms are no different.
A worm’s needs may be different from our own, but the principle is the same and the importance of balance is critical if your worms are going to be productive little workers.
One of the most common causes of compost worms not eating is due to improper moisture levels in a worm bin. If the bedding is too dry, your worms will shrivel from dehydration. If the bin is too wet, the worms will often move to the surface. Improper moisture levels create a hostile environment where your worms cannot thrive. As a result, you may see them trying to escape their bin.
Feel around in the bedding and make sure that the material is nice and damp but not overly saturated. Spritz a little water in if it’s too dry. If you notice pooling of water in the bin, you likely have another issue. Excess moisture levels are often the result of not having sufficient drainage in the bottom of the bin. Water begins to pool and problems ensue. If you are noticing that your bin is not producing liquid but the bedding is nice and moist, check the drainage at the bottom and make sure it isn’t clogged.
pH And It’s Impact On Worms Not Eating
It’s easy to forget about the impact that pH has on your worm farm since it’s not something that you can see. I recommend getting an inexpensive pH meter designed for worm composting like this one (link to Amazon). It’s the most precise way to make sure that you keep your pH levels in balance.
It’s important to remember that a chemical change is taking place in a worm bin during the decomposition process (source). As this chemical change occurs, the acid-alkaline balance of the material can be altered to a point that it is no longer hospitable to your worms. The food you place in the bin plays a significant role in this as well and is the most important aspect of controlling the pH levels.
Citrus should generally be avoided in particular as it has an acidic effect on the bedding. In addition, meat and dairy products also create inviting odors for pests and rodents and so are not advised. Below is a super-simple feeding guide. If you’d like a more detailed, permanent list, Amazon has a “What Can Red Wigglers Eat?” Infographic Refrigerator Magnet.
Your worms may not be eating because of this imbalance of pH in the bin. Check this and make sure that the pH is around 6-7. Red wigglers can tolerate slight variances outside of this range but this is the sweet spot you should be striving for.
The food you put in your worm bin will not only affect the pH, but it will also affect how much your red wigglers consume. Putting too much food in at a time or putting the wrong food items in your bin can cause your worms to not compost the food waste efficiently.
Let’s start with the issue of putting in too much food. Your worms should be able to eat about half their weight in food each day. If you are overloading the bin with food, it will begin to rot and mold (which will again change the pH in the bedding). But it will also create these nasty, slimy areas that don’t get eaten. Worms can eat moldy, rotten food to some degree but when it is too much, it just gets disgusting. It will smell and you will know you have a problem. In fact this is one of those times when you’ll wish your worm bin didn’t need air holes so that it could just lock that odor in.
I’ve read about worm farmers recommending that you weigh your worms and then use a weight scale to ensure you add around half their weight each day. That sounds ridiculous and is just not practical. Here’s what I recommend.
If the worms are not eating the food as fast as you are adding it, begin by removing any nasty rotting food that is slimy and may be affecting the pH of the bedding. Just get rid of it.
Next, start over with your feeding by only giving them a small amount the first day. See if they eat it all. If they don’t, give them another day and see if they consume the remaining scraps. Let them tell you how much food to add.
For more information on proper feeding practices, be sure to read How Long Can Red Wigglers Go Without Food?
When I first became interested in vermicomposting, I thought I’d be leaving the carbon-nitrogen ratio behind. I knew it was important for traditional composting but I never considered its impacts on worm composting. But because carbon and nitrogen each play a critical role in cell synthesis of living organisms, these levels need to be considered for an optimum vermicomposting environment (source).
The good news is that you don’t have to “science” this. No lab coats required. Just apply some good ole’ common sense.
Vegetable scraps are going to introduce nitrogen. Shredded cardboard and paper products are going to be carbon sources (and yes, your red wigglers do eat the cardboard). Now, it’s true that a vegetable has both carbon and nitrogen, but it is nitrogen-rich and should be considered a nitrogen-source.
Don’t overthink this. It’ll drive you crazy. The bedding is mostly carbon so when adding foods make sure you are offering plenty of nitrogen sources.
The final reason that your worms may not be eating is the temperature of the bin itself. Red wigglers do not thrive in excessively cold or hot environments. They’ll do their best in the same temperature ranges that are comfortable for us which is why indoor worm bins are so effective.
There’s somewhat of a misconception about worm bin temperatures as it relates to composting. People often expect their worm bin to heat up like an active compost pile. But worm farming is not the same chemical process as active composting. Your worm bin should not “heat up” like a compost pile. It is true that a very small amount of heat is generated from the vermicomposting process but this is the result of having a large number of living organisms in a confined space (source) and it should not be enough that you would even notice except that the bedding may be comfortably warm. It should not be hot.
During the winter, indoor vermicomposting is recommended. In the summer months, if your worm farm is outside, make sure to keep it in a shaded area and to keep an eye on the moisture levels. The bedding can dry up quickly due to evaporation.
In this case, you end up with the opposite issue of worms not eating. The nitrogen-rich foods that you add (which also usually have a high water content) will be consumed quickly by the larger worms. This is where you see the survival of the fittest come into play. The larger, faster worms will move quickly to the wet area where the food has been added and will consume the food. The smaller, weaker worms will go without and face further dehydration. For more information, read Why Are My Red Wigglers So Small?
If your worms are not eating, check that each of these elements is in balance. You don’t have to be exact with everything. You have a little “wiggle” room 🙂 but you want to make sure that none of them are too far out of whack or your worms will begin dying.
I know it can be concerning when your worms are not eating but the problem is usually resolved very easily by addressing these areas.
Learn lots more about composting with worms with our Vermicomposting Articles.