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The Truth About Bugs in the Worm Bin: How to Tackle Your Problems and Avoid Wanting to Quit

Dreaming of rainbows and butterfies

Okay lets face it, anyone who follows my YouTube channel The Crazy Worm Lady, knows how freaked out I get over bugs.  I still laugh at myself knowing how naive I was when started out.  I pictured a gorgeous bin with nothing but tons of worms and castings.  I swore up and down, “over my dead body will I allow bugs to invade my bins”!  The judgmental side of me laughed at other YouTubers who shared their bug plights.  The uneducated me thought that they MUST be doing something wrong.

However, it was me who was wrong.

In a well-established bin, bugs should not only be expected, but respected as well.  You heard me right, I respect the bugs in my bins.  The complexity of soil structure and the ecosystem that exists with decomposing matter was a foreign concept to me.

When I started seeing mites, grain beetles and drain flies in my bin those first few months, I was distraught.  I remember in particular pulling a squash from my garden that a groundhog got to.  I froze it and laid out two slices in my Worm Factory 360.  I opened the lid a few days later and it was CRAWLING with grain beetles and red mites.

I frantically scoured the internet and had dreams about bugs in my bed.  I was literally jumping to an unrealistic scenario.  I waited with bated breath for replies to my requests for help on a worm forum.  I was days away from dumping it all in the yard and calling it quits.

Shortly after this, I started seeing drain/sewer flies.  They were hanging out on the walls next to my bin.  It was an all out war that I waged against my bin.  I stopped feeding, I draped mosquito netting over my bin and worried incessantly about whether or not I could do this.

Could I come to accept this as reality?  Could I continue to remain calm and not think about the bugs 24/7?  Was I doing something wrong?  Was I too hasty in starting with the hobby?

Well the long and short of it is… I was doing just fine.  There’s a learning curve with vermicomposting just like with anything else.  I have come to appreciate my problems as they have all taught me how to manage my bins more effectively and efficiently.  Am I perfect?  Heck no, but I continue to learn and grow every day.

What Bugs Can You Expect in Your Bins?

I have seen quite a number of bugs over the course of my worm composting experience.  I have seen fruit flies, drain flies, mites, springtails, grain beetles, pot worms, one lone earwig and one large beetle (stubborn bugger won’t leave) who should be named “The Joker” as he freaks me out and makes an appearance on the regular.  He likes to poke fun at my bug-phobic ego.

In outdoor bins there are other bugs that could make an appearance such as ants, slugs, snails, cockroaches, black soldier fly larvae, millipedes, centipedes and isopods of various sorts.

Black soldier fly larvae. Photo courtesy of Michele Palmer.

Which Bugs Are Good?

The short answer is that most of these bugs are good!  Most bugs are active decomposers and pose no threat to the worms.  An exception may be slugs, snails, and high numbers of black soldier fly larvae.  These are only typically seen in outdoor compost ventures.  I say this without too much concern because unless they are in high numbers you probably have little to worry about.

I don’t have any experience in outdoor bins just yet (more to come on that as I start an outdoor bin this summer) so I will not claim to be an expert on the topic of outdoor worm bin pests, but read on for information regarding how to combat and/or eliminate complete and total outbreaks of these worm bin pests indoors.  A balance is good, an overabundance is probably indicating you need to address a problem with your worm bin situation.

What Methods Can I Use to Help Minimize Bugs in the Worm Bin?

Usually an outbreak of any one particular bug is indicating either a problem or a lack of proper worm bin care.  I can attest to the fact that 99% of my worm bin pests have most likely been because of poor care and/or laziness on my part.

1. Bedding and Covering Scraps Adequately:

Okay, if you are anything like me, you like to poke around in the bins frequently and can get lazy on occasion.  Usually most of your pest problems can be greatly reduced by using bedding effectively and burying your scraps.  This is where I am guilty of poor care.  I admit it, I don’t always feel like soaking bedding, laying it on thick and burying or re-burying my scraps after poking around.

I find that fruit flies are the biggest problem with this worm-care mistake.  Like it or not, many of our fruits and veggies have fruit fly eggs laid on or in their skins when we purchase them.  To eliminate an outbreak, simple steps such as adding 1-2 inches of thick (and dry) bedding on top of your bin will make it almost impossible for the hatchlings to make it out or the adults to get back in and lay more eggs.  I would always suggest a thick (but breathable of course) cover over your scraps/bins.  I prefer cardboard or newspaper.  Coconut coir, peat moss and many other bedding sources will probably work just as well though.

2. Managing Your pH:

Yep, sounds a bit complicated, but the worms and the bin conditions usually give you some tell-tale ques regarding whether or not your bin is getting acidic.  You want a relatively neutral pH in your bin.

That being said, there is NO NEED to purchase a pH meter.  In order to get an accurate pH, you need to spend $100 or more on a meter and that just isn’t a realistic or smart purchase for most of us.

I have researched and done my own mini-experiments with pH in my bins.  I find that many worm bin bugs prefer a slightly more acidic environment.  Pot worms, mites and springtails to name a few.

Red mites. Photo courtesy of Pam Beers.

What do you do if you are seeing these bugs in abundance?  Add a “buffer”.  A buffer is simply an additive to your bin which helps raise the pH to a more suitable environment to the worms and less suitable to the pests.

Some really good buffers include crushed egg shells, ground oyster shells such as this one and dolomite lime (organic garden lime) try this one.  The calcium content in these additives is not only good for our soil and castings, but great at raising the pH just enough to regulate the balance in the system.  I have used all of these with success in my bins.  Remember though that it is a waiting game, and one that demands the practice of patience to allow things to normalize again.

3. Use Organic Pest Control Products:

I never endorse buying things for your worm bin unless completely necessary.  I live by the adage that buying products for the worm bin somewhat goes against the idea of a cheap/free hobby that focuses on sustainability and doing good for the environment.  That being said, I like to try things out so that I not only learn myself, but gain knowledge that I can share with you as well.  Let me be your guinea pig!

The first product that I tried and continue to use is Diametacious Earth (DE).  DE is not only organic, but also has calcium and other trace minerals that benefits the soil and pH.  DE works best when dry.  This can be a challenge in a moist worm bin, but I have found that laying a dry piece of cardboard on top of my bin, sprinkling it with DE and laying some sort of bait (whatever food you are seeing the bugs go after the most) on top… it can be rather effective.  DE works by drying out the exoskeleton of many “crawly” worm bin pests.  When the exoskeleton is dried/rubbed off, the bugs dry out and die.  DE works great on mites, springtails and ants. This is what I use

Neem cake and Neem Oil are something else I have utilized with success.  Neem is an organic component that comes from the Neem evergreen tree.  It is touted for many positive attributes not only in the garden as a pest repellent but also in health for its antifungal and antimicrobial properties.  It is harvested primarily in India.  Neem works as a fertilizer to the soil (containing NPK: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and also inhibits the proliferation of negative microbes in the soil.

I have found in practice that neem reduces the number of mites in my bins.  If the neem oil I use this, is rubbed around the rims of my bins I see 100% elimination of any noticeable mites running around the lids/rims of my bins.  For me, reducing that “ick factor” is well worth the investment and knowing that the neem cake (feed that can be fed to the worms in the bin) is also good for my soil is a win:win I have tried this.

https://www.whygoodnature.com/neem-cake-for-gardening

4. Stop Feeding:

Some worm bin pests boom when we overfeed.  Acidity and pH imbalances go hand in hand with overfeeding.  Not a good combination of factors.

Several times when I have had outbreaks of mites I have stopped feeding my bins for several weeks while adding some dry bedding.  I allow the bin to self-regulate.  The worms won’t starve.  I promise.  Remember from my previous posts, bedding also acts as food for the worms, so waiting two, three, even four weeks won’t kill of a bin of worms… in fact it is likely to help them!

It seems to go against what we think we need to do.  Just like with our dogs and cats.  We act impulsively, knowing that we need to feed our pets.  The difference with worms is that they can re-process the castings they have created and their bedding is an additional food source making it damn near impossible to starve them.  So, relax, take a deep breath and stop adding food.  It’s almost guaranteed to lower the population of pests.  Fret not.  I have been there and my worms are still thriving despite my “neglect”.

5.  Make a Physical Barrier:

My final suggestion is to create “physical barriers”.  In certain circumstances, placing a barrier over or surrounding your bin will make a world of difference.  I find that physical barriers are super-effective at reducing or eliminating fruit flies.  If you take away their access to your bins, you eliminate them.  The one specific way I did this was with mosquito netting.  Others have used window-screens, weed cloth, and plastic bags (I don’t recommend this due to the possibility of limiting oxygenation in the bin).

This works by restricting the access into your bins.  We all know that aeration is critical to the aerobic process of worm composting.  Worms need air to live.

When I had an outbreak of fungas gnats/drain flies, I draped my Worm Factory in mosquito netting like this and rubber-banded it around the legs.  This made it nearly impossible for the fruit flies and gnats to enter the bin and lay more eggs thus perpetuating the crappy cycle of fighting them in my living room.  I consider this a last-ditch effort because it is annoying to deal with and seems a bit extreme to me after learning of all the alternatives.

That being said, if you are ready to throw-in the towel, buy a mosquito net or some window screen.  Cover any entrances to your bin and see what happens.  I bet you will see a reduction and maybe even an elimination of the problem.

The Takeaway:

Don’t be discouraged!  Don’t become overwhelmed and overthink whether or not this hobby is for you!  With some simple steps, you can reduce the number of worm-bin pests in your home.  I promise you won’t regret sticking it out.  It is a process, it takes time to learn exactly how to do everything, but that isn’t a reason to quit!  Think of why you started.  Sustainability?  Organic fertilizer?  A way to process an excess of food?

I am the first to admit that to this day I continue to struggle to get over the mental gross-out I get thinking of bugs in my worm bins.  I will say however that I have yet to see a single pest outside of the bin.  Maybe a fruit fly, but I don’t have mites or springtails in my bed.  I don’t have pot worms in the houseplants or kitchen.  No mites running about my counter-tops.  I have come to realize that these pests are not interested in leaving the haven they have in the moist, decaying matter within the worm bin.  My house is free of pests short of the occasional ant… don’t overthink it.

If you are seriously bugged out (see what I did there?)… I have fallen in love with the Urban Worm Bag (still new to me) I am looking forward to my first harvest soon!  This system is a continuous flow through bag that is breathable but zips completely shut!  This minimizes the bug problem substantially.  Buy One Here.

Try some of my suggestions.  Let me know how it goes and reap the benefits of the incredible “black gold” your worms make for you.  If we want to heal our planet, a springtail or mite isn’t worth a single moment of concern.

 

** Disclosure: The links within this post are ‘affiliate links’.  This simply means if you click the link and purchase one of these items, I will receive an affiliate commission.  **

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How to Make Your Own Worm Bin

There are many commercial worm bin/systems to buy, however many of these systems are pricey and often you may not want to spend that type of money.  If you are new to worm composting, making your own DIY bin can be a great option and is relatively cheap to do.  In this post I will share the steps to creating your very own tote-style worm bin on a budget, step by step.

  • Choosing the Type and Size of Tote
  • Preparing the Tote
  • Choosing a Bedding
  • Preparing the Bedding
  • Prepping the Bin for the Worms
  • Adding the Worms

Let’s get started.

1. Considering the Type and Size Bin to Use:

When it comes to DIY worm bins, you can use a variety of things that you may already have laying around the house.  Many people use Rubbermaid (or similar tote-style bins) to make their worm bin.  You can also use things such as mortar trays, plastic barrels, crates, or even something as simple as a grow bag.  For sake of this particular post, I am going to talk about Rubbermaid totes.

When purchasing or using a Rubbermaid tote, size definitely matters!  You want to take into account how many worms you will have in the bin and what your end-goal is.  Do you want the most possible castings, do you want to grow the biggest and fattest worms, or do you want to start small to experiment with the hobby on your own?

I made a tote for my African Night Crawlers.  African Night Crawlers reproduce quickly and are voracious eaters.  Because of this, I chose a larger 18 gallon tote.  I also plan to use these worms for bait as well, so a large bin will give the worms plenty of space to grow large and reproduce.  Keep in mind that a tote of this size will get very heavy as it fills with compost.  If you think you will be moving your tote around frequently or have limitations to how much you want to carry, you may decide that a smaller tote is more suited to your needs.

Your tote should be opaque as the worms like a dark environment.  Worms shy away from light and thus clear bins (although cool for kids to see through the bin) are not best suited for worm composting.  Keep in mind that roughly a pound of worms need at least 1 square foot of surface area living environment.  If you want them to reproduce, they will need even more.

2. Preparing the Tote:

Regardless of the type of bin you decide to make, you need to keep in mind that worms need an environment with plenty of aeration.  Some people choose to leave the lid off of their tote completely but others (as myself) chose to drill many holes in the sides and lid to provide the air-flow needed.

To drill the holes, I recommend using nothing smaller that 1/4 inch.  I used a drill bit and drilled approximately 18 holes on each side of my bin (in 2 rows along the upper portion of the bin below the lip.  I also drilled holes on either end in the same fashion.

I drilled holes covering the entire lid of my system as well.  This will ensure that the bin doesn’t get overly wet and that the worms have an environment suitable to their needs.  As worms breathe through their skin, they need moisture but also lots of air!

If you create a bin and find that your worms are crawling up the sides, oftentimes this is a sign that they need more oxygen.  There are other possible reasons as well, but start with adding more holes if this problem arises.

3. Bedding:

The next thing to consider after drilling holes in your tote is to decide what type of bedding (carbon material) you want to use in your bin.  If you want to use things you already have, this is a great way to recycle and turn your trash into beautiful worm castings for your plants and garden.

Bedding can consist of shredded newspaper or junk mail (avoid the glossy ads), egg crates, toilet paper/paper towel rolls, and cardboard.  These are all 100% free options that I use frequently in my own bins.

Other options for bedding include leaf litter, manure (aged), peat moss, dried grass clippings, garden waste or coconut coir.  Keep in mind that things such as manure, leaves and grass clippings have the potential to introduce bugs to your bin.  This may not be a problem if you are composting outdoors, but for indoor bins these may not be ideal.

4. Preparing the Bedding:


Once you have made your bin, providing adequate aeration and once you have decided on your bedding, you are ready to prepare the bedding and place it in the bin.

An ideal worm bedding should be moist like a wrung-out sponge.  I used egg crates, shredded cardboard, and coconut coir for my bin.  I soaked the bedding in water for about 20 minutes.  I then picked up a handful of bedding and squeezed it.  I added water until when I squeezed the bedding mixture I got 3-5 drops of water from it but no more.  If you over-moisten your bedding you can wring it out before adding it to your bin or you can add additional dry bedding to soak up the excess moisture.

Once you have the bedding moistened, add several inches to the bottom of your bin.  I try to fill my bin approximately halfway to provide lots of living space before adding my worms.

5. Prepping the Bin for the Worms:

Ideally, you will set up your worm bin prior to the arrival of your worms.  Allow the bedding to sit in the bin for several days with a small amount of food mixed in.  This will allow the bacteria and microbes to get to work before the worms arrive.  This creates an environment that allows the worms to get to work right away after being introduced to the bin.  If you order a pound of worms, simply start with a small amount of food (no more than 1/4 cup).  Make sure that all food in your bin is adequately covered with bedding material so that fruit flies or other pests don’t enter the bin.

If you didn’t prepare your bin in advance, don’t worry.  Simply introduce your worms and wait a few days before adding any food.

6. Adding the Worms:

Once you have finished preparing your bedding and allowed the bin to rest for a few days, it is time to add your worms.  If you ordered worms, keep in mind that the travel through the mail can have them quite stressed.  As mentioned earlier, worms shy away from light.  Simply dump your worms (gently) onto the surface of the bedding and allow them burrow down on their own.  Keeping the lid off and light on for a few days above the bin should minimize the risk of any adventurous worms trying to leave the bin.  After a few days if the worms seem to be doing well, you can place the lid on the bin if you desire.

Get Started:

You can easily set up a worm bin in an hour or less.  A simple Rubbermaid or Sterlite bin should run you no more than $15 to $20, often even cheaper.  Use a free source of bedding around the house and the only further expense may be the purchase of your worms.  An even better option is to reach out to local gardening clubs or farmers markets to see if you can get worms locally.  Many worm farmers are more than happy to share worms with newcomers, as mentioned before, worms multiply quickly!

Enjoy the fruits of your labor and feed your worms weekly.  Make sure that all of the previous feeding is (mostly) gone before adding more food.  Adjust to the worms needs according to how much they are eating.  Remember that bedding is also a food source for your worms.  Under-feeding is much better than overfeeding.  Worms are pretty forgiving and before long you will be cranking out compost like an old pro!