Written by Carolina Parra – Marketing Lead Eco-Rep
When someone mentions worms, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? That they’re grossly wiggly, perhaps even slimy and disease-ridden?
While their wiggle may make some people queasy, neither they nor their minuscule amounts of slime cause nor carry disease. In fact, their slime is how they breathe: excreted by the ring-like gland called the clitellum (kly-TELL-um), the mucus covers their entire body and acts as a dissolvent for oxygen to easily permeate into the worm’s body1. It also helps them glide through the soil when burrowing and forms their embryos’ cocoons– a truly versatile substance for this one worm band.
So why do we think they cause disease? This may be due to the misassociation with maggots and parasitic worms, as well as the thought that dirt is…well, dirty. Let’s clear those misconceptions, shall we?
- Maggots: also known as fly larvae, they’re in an entirely different class than our favorite worm invertebrates. These squirmy bugs flourish in rotting animal carcasses (and our old trash), are actual carriers of diseases such as salmonella and E. coli, and may cause allergic reactions for those that come into contact with one2. Garden worms, on the other hand, eat decaying plant matter and soil teeming with micro-organisms, producing nutritious and delicious excrement for the plants around it. As with anything in the outdoors, still wash your hands after handling these babies1.
- Parasitic Worms: as their name implies, these worm look-alikes use another organism’s living body for nutrients, shelter, and reproduction/incubation. Infamous species on this list include tapeworms, hookworms, and heartworms for unlucky dogs (remember to give your pups heartworm preventative!). They can cause serious illnesses in humans such as blindness, dysentery, and severe weight loss, and their eggs can be picked up through feces-contaminated water and soil3. Garden worms stay put in their home soil, and cannot survive outside of it long enough to do any harm, not that they could– their toothless mouths utilize strong muscles to suck decaying plant matter and soil in1.
- Dirty Dirt: Soil is a natural part of life. It’s what your food is grown in, what forests thrive on, and what all land organisms depend on some way or another in the food chain. Worms are the cultivators of soil, breaking down the old to welcome the new.
People are starting to catch on to these cultivators, in a composting practice called vermiculture. They utilize garden worms, especially the prized Red Wiggler species, to decompose household food waste such as banana peels, egg shells, and leftover leafy greens. The worms, usually housed in simple tubs of moist soil and bedding, eat and digest half their body weight daily4! This means that a pound of worms (~1,000 worms) can eat half a pound of scraps daily, totaling 15 lbs a month, and ~180 lbs a year!
That’s 180 lbs of food waste diverted from overcrowded landfills, where it would otherwise sit, rot, and create methane. This gas is 28 times more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat over a 100-year timescale and was responsible for 23% of climate change in the 20th century5. This may be scary, but it’s a real problem the modern world faces. But hey– no need to despair!
While vermiculture may not be the solution to stopping climate change, it definitely reduces your contribution to it, as well as creates nutrient-rich worm poop (aka castings) that, when spread evenly or brewed into a “tea” and watered, your garden will surely thank you for. It’s an easy, cost-efficient, and simple way to do good for your plants and planet.