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Bait Production: Earthworms

 

 

By Kenneth Williams

 Earthworms are a popular fishing bait.  Worms are attractive to just about any species of fish, they are hardy, and are available at most bait shops. Earthworms can be raised at any scale of production from a small box or plastic container in a closet to barns filled with large worm beds.  Earthworms are easy to raise and have few requirements.  For those who fish less frequently, worm production may seem an unnecessary enterprise. However, earthworms have many uses around the home. Worms can be raised primarily to compost garbage and used only occasionally as bait. Information on raising earthworms to compost garbage can be found in the book titled “Worms Eat My Garbage” by Appelhof. Also, released into the garden, excess worms from the worm bed can aerate, fertilize and improve soil texture.

 

Earthworm biology

In nature the earthworm eats decaying organic material found in leaf litter and the soil. Worms are inhabitants of the upper layers of soil but can be found in damp surface litter.  They are more likely to be found above ground on cool damp nights.  Earthworms are ecologically important because they recycle nutrients by consuming and breaking down decaying plant matter. Earthworms also aerate the soil, allowing atmospheric gases to penetrate to roots and soil organisms.

 

Most mating occurs during cool, wet weather in fall through early spring.  Most worms are mature by late spring or early summer.  As the soil heats and begins to dry earthworm activity slows.  Mature worms may die from the heat by late summer leaving only young, or newly hatched worms and egg capsules. Feeding and reproductive activity increase with the onset of cool weather in the fall.

 Earthworms sexually mature in 60-90 days and reach mature size in 6-12 months depending on food supply and temperature. Worms contain both sets of sexual organs in their bodies but require other worms for mating.  They mate and produce egg capsules about every 10 days depending on environmental conditions.  Young worms emerge from egg capsules in 14-20 days. Each capsule contains 2- 20 worms.        Worms emerging from the egg capsule are white to gray in color and about 1/4 inch long. Within a few days they look like small reddish earthworms.  Cool temperatures slow the rate of egg and worm development.

 

Bed Construction

An earthworm bed can be about any convenient size.  Important considerations are to allow for adequate bed drainage and use materials that are both non-toxic and resistant to decay when exposed to moisture. Treated lumber can be toxic to earthworms. Drains in beds can be made by cutting 1-2 inch holes along the bottom edge of the container.  The holes must be covered with a fine wire or plastic screen mesh to prevent worms from escaping their enclosure. The mesh should be attached from the

inside of the container. Beds can be placed at an angle to aid drainage.

 

Wood or metal containers should be painted with an oil based house paint.  Plastic containers do not need this treatment.  Beds can be constructed from concrete blocks. Larger beds are about 12-36 inches deep, 3 feet wide and 6 feet long.  A 3 ft. deep bed can be buried into the ground to a depth of 24-30 inches to provide insulation from heat and cold.  It can be difficult to provide adequate drainage for buried worm boxes.  Drainage can be improved by placing a 6 inch layer of gravel underneath the box before filling soil in around the bed.

 

Discarded refrigerators and freezers have been used as satisfactory worm boxes.  The appliances are insulated and lined with a rust resistant enamel or plastic coating. The lid can be closed to help prevent freezing during cold weather.

 

Plastic tubs with lids are ideal small-scale worm beds. A tub approximately 18 in. deep x 22 in. wide x 24 in. long works very well. Drill several drainage holes about 1/2 in. in diameter in the bottom of the tub. Cover the bottom with a layer of metal window screen to prevent loss of worms. The screen can be tacked in place with silicone sealer, glue or other similar material. Drill about 12, 1/2 in. air hole in the lid for ventilation.

 

Bedding

Fill worm boxes with peat moss or loam soil.  Avoid heavy clay soils because they drain and ventilate poorly.  Sandy soil also should not be used in the bed because sharp sand grains can injure worms.  An equal mixture of loam, peat and composted manure makes a very good worm bed that is loose and easily turned. The mixture holds water well and provides some of the nutrients worms need.

 

Temperature

Temperature is important to successful worm production.  Place a thermometer into the bedding soil and monitor soil temperature on a regular basis.

 

Place worm beds in a cool, shaded area protected from sun and heavy rain.  Ideally, temperature in the bed should not rise above 800F.  Although worms can survive 1000F, earthworms are most reproductively active at temperatures between 60-700F. Worms will die at temperatures below freezing.  A basement, barn or garage are good areas to place worm beds.  Outdoor locations, if shaded will also work well.  It may be necessary to bring the worm beds indoors during cold months of the year if continued worm production is desired at this time.

Beds usually can be adequately heated with a covering of old carpet, burlap or cardboard.  If more heat is required, a box cover can be constructed that contains a 60-100 watt light bulb as a heat source. An old electric blanket or heating pad can also work as a worm bed heater. Do not cover beds with rubber or plastic materials that can block air and water circulation.

 

Stocking worms

Initial worm stocks can be obtained from bait shops, garden supply catalogs or pet stores.  Bait shops usually carry red worms (Lumbricus rubellus ) because these worms are the easiest to raise commercially. Garden supply catalogs currently sell red worms for about $20.00 /2000 bed-run (mixed size) worms. Garden worms (Helodrilus caliginosus ) can be collected from the ground in cool shaded areas manure worms (Helodrilus foetidus ) are found under manure piles and compost heaps.  Many worms can be found on the surface of the ground after a heavy rain or lawn watering in the evening.  Search for the worms with a flash light fitted with a red filter. Bright light will drive the worms back into their burrows.

 

Night crawlers (Lumbricus terrestris ), the largest of the earthworms are found in locations similar to the garden worm.  Night crawlers have a lower reproductive rate than red worms and grow smaller in captivity than wild caught worms but are favored by some angles.

 

Stock 300-500 worms per bed or about 10 worms per cubic foot of bedding.  Higher densities are OK. If plastic tubs as previously described are used; stock about 2 dozen worms per tub. The bed can be harvested lightly after about 6 weeks. It should be in full production within 6 months.  After 6 months beds require thinning about every 30 days or worms will be numerous but very small.  Place excess worms in the yard or garden.

 

Feeding

Worm food can be mixed from a number of different ingredients.  Much depends on the goals of the producer and the type of worms that are raised.  Garden worms and manure worms do well on a diet of compost or

animal manures. Add kitchen compost to the bed daily. Cattle or horse manure can be added to the bed about every 2 weeks. 1-2 pounds of corn meal can be sprinkled over the beds every 2 weeks as a substitute for these foods.

 

 If large worms are desired, such as night crawlers or red worms, a feed containing poultry or hog mash mixed with lard or shortening is a good choice.  Corn meal can be substituted for the livestock feeds. A mixture of 1/2 pound of lard and 1 pound of livestock mash or corn meal will feed the bed for 2 weeks.  Mix the feed into the 3 inches of bedding material.  Do not over feed. Excessive amounts of food will cause odor problems and may kill the worm bed. Remove uneaten feed before adding more. Livestock manures also can be used as feed for these worm species.  In cold weather, feed no more than once every 6-8 weeks.

 

Watering

Keep worm beds moist by watering about every two weeks.  Worms will die if the bed is allowed to become too dry or too wet.  Watch worm behavior to determine the correct moisture level.  If beds become too dry, the worms will go to the bottom of the bed. If the bed is too wet, worms will come to the surface.  Moisture content is about right when worms are found in the upper 6-8 inches of bedding material.  Beds should be moist but not soggy.

 

Harvest

Worms can be harvested in several different ways depending on the quantity needed.  A few worms for fishing can be sifted from the bedding by hand or with the use of a hand garden fork.  Larger quantities can be collected by placing bedding material in a 5 gallon plastic bucket.  Allow the bucket to rest undisturbed for 30-45 minutes. The worms will migrate to the bottom of the bucket. Pour the bedding material back into the bed and collect the worms. Keep worms out of sunlight and do allow them to dry out or they will die.  Harvested worms can be placed in sphagnum moss for 3-4 days to purge. The worms will become more active and hardy after this treatment.  Always transport worms in containers of moist sphagnum moss and keep them cool.

 

 

 

 

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