Friday, September 30, 2005

More Bugs

If you're into worms, you've got to be into bugs too, right? It's all about slowing down and taking an up-close look at the crazy natural world. This just in from Blue Ridge Blog, where you will see some extraordinary photographs. Because we are still a long way from winter, I can enjoy going through the archives and admiring her crisp, chilly images of snow. Ahhhhhh....

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Existential Worm Questions

Students turn to worms - Elm Leaves [09-28-05]

I love the way the teacher in this story frames the big life questions facing earthworms:

"Like if it's raining today, what do you do if you're a worm? Do you stay in your burrow? You may drown. Do you go outside? You may be eaten by a robin. You make your own adventure"

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Whose Poo Are You?

After yesterday's topic, this seems downright socially acceptable. Thanks to Swamp Things and Swamp Things Two for this and many other fascinating images of creepy, crawly, swamp-dwelling critters.

It's a big world, filled with tiny little fascinating things. A few billion of them probably live in this pile of dung.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Compost Blooms

Last year at the Seattle Garden Show, I met the people at the Kings County Wastewater Division. They were handing out samples of GroCo, which is a composted biosolids product.

Yes, that means sewer sludge. But stick with me here. They compost this stuff with sawdust and produce a product that is much, much lower in metals than the mandatory minimums that are imposed on any compost product. And of course they are pathogen-free.

The potential for using worms to digest biosolids and create an even more nutrient-rich product is enormous. Sewage treatment plants all around the country are upgrading to new, clean technology that uses nothing but heat, beneficial microbes, and ultraviolet light to clean the stuff. Already the water is safe to use in irrigation. Feeding the solids to worms and selling or giving away the finished product is the next step. Right now, many sewer treatment plants pay to haul the stuff away, even if it's got the EPA's highest rating for cleanliness and safety.

Now, of course, we need to monitor what's in this stuff and do a better job of preventing people (and industry) from depositing materials in the waste stream that they shouldn't. (Paint and solvents, for instance, should be properly disposed of, not poured down the drain, so they don't end up at the sewer treatment plant to begin with.)

Kings County has been very responsible about this stuff, responding to concerns that locally-produced compost may contain the herbicide Clopyralid by testing GroCo and finding it completely free of the chemical.

Check it out.

Kings County GroCo

Monday, September 26, 2005

Cool Earthworm Diagrams

...and more. This site offers a good overview of earthworm anatomy, down to every last seta and clitellum. Did you know that they have light-sensitive cells along their bodies to help them stay out of the light (and safely underground)? That their brains are so simple that if you remove the brain entirely, there's not much change in their behavior?


Sunday, September 25, 2005

Worms: A Love Story

For the last several years, I have kept five or ten thousand earthworms in a kitchen composter outside my back door. I feed them coffee grounds and banana skins, and every few months I scoop out the rich black castings, or earthworm manure, that they leave behind. In addition to producing fertilizer, earthworms are great pets—they are loyal, hardworking, and undemanding. I’ve become so interested in their habits and lifestyles that I decided to write a book about them. It was a fascinating year, researching earthworms.

“What’s your next book about?” a friend asked one night at dinner.

“Worms,” I said. It’s such a conversation-stopper.

“Worms,” she said. That’s all most people say at first.

“Yes,” I said. “Worms. Charles Darwin wrote a very interesting book on worms. It outsold Origin of Species during his lifetime. He was fascinated by worms. He took them up to his studio and played the piano for them to see how they reacted to different notes on the scale.”

She started to smile. It’s such a charming picture, old white-haired Darwin with his flower pots of dirt and worms.

“Then there’s this French scientist from the sixties,” I told her. “Andre Voisin. He believed that worms were responsible for the creation of all the major civilizations in the world. He had this map that showed where all the great civilizations started—the Nile, places like that—and overlaid on top of it was a map that showed the areas of the world with the highest concentrations of worms. Of course, they were the exact same areas. His theory was that because the worms were plowing the soil, the people were freed up to do things like invent math and build the Pyramids.”

This theory of Voisin’s makes innate sense. People nod knowingly at the notion that worms are responsible for the creation of all great societies. No one, when I have explained Voisin’s ideas, has ever argued with them. Music? Astronomy? Written language? Of course. We owe it all to the worms. The more I talk about worms, the more people warm to the subject.

“Now that I think about it,” she said, “my dad was interested in worms. He bought this piece of property on the coast, and I remember going out there when we were kids and helping him dig up one cubic foot of soil, then counting all the worms in that cubic foot. He said that we had so many worms because the earth had not been disturbed in so long.”

“That’s right!” I said. “Untilled soil has the highest earthworm population. That’s the newest thinking about organic gardening, that you should till the soil as little as possible and let the earthworms do it for you.”

“So you’ve got time to invent more math,” she said.

“Exactly,” I said.

I have always introduced my worms to visitors. At first I thought that everyone would want to meet them. Often I would greet guests at the door and lead them right to the kitchen porch, where I’d lift the lid off the composter and turn over the layer of shredded newspaper and coffee grounds. I would scoop out a handful of flailing red worms, their yellow bellies exposed to the light for one brief second before they dropped back to their bedding below. I wanted to show my guests how brilliant and accomplished my worms were. I wanted them to murmur their approval the way they might if they were listening to a piece of music I’d just learned on the piano, or inspecting an oil painting I’d recently completed.

Sometimes people are not as impressed with my worms as I would like them to be. Once when I lived in Santa Cruz, my parents brought some friends from England to visit. They were eager to see a coastal California garden in full bloom. I marched them without comment past the bougainvillea, Mexican sage, California poppy, and the orange and lemon trees. I led them directly to the worm composter and lifted the lid with a flourish. A hundred or so fruit flies drifted out of the mess of rotting peaches and dryer lint.

“These,” I said, already realizing how badly I’d miscalculated the event, “are my worms.”

My parents and their friends glanced down from as great a distance as they could manage. The fruit flies continued to swarm; the worms made an odd squishing sound as they dove away from the light into their mass of decaying food. One strip of newspaper, half eaten by the worms, announced the beginning of the Microsoft antitrust case. It looked like the end of the world inside my compost bin. I was so proud, but looking back, I realize that everyone else was appalled. I resolved to never show my worms to anyone unless they specifically asked to see them.

Now, I should say that fruit fly infestations are rare and easily prevented; I’d just gotten careless and forgotten to keep a really thick layer of newspaper on top. A worm bin is generally a neat, tidy, and not at all smelly operation, and plenty of people have been more than happy to meet the worms over the years. My uncle Jim came to visit recently and when I slipped outside to dump the vegetable scraps into the worm bin, he followed me and spent a few minutes out there, looking over the worms, discussing their feeding habits and birth rates. If you come to dinner at my house, this is how you ingratiate yourself to the hostess: you step out to the side porch to talk banana skins and carrot tops and smile down at the worms.

Researching the lives of earthworms has put me in touch with some of the leading earthworm scientists in the world (believe it or not, there are only a few). There is plenty of promising new research about the role of earthworms and their castings in improving plant growth, reducing plant diseases, and even preventing some pest infestations. Stay tuned for more news, and check my Events page for upcoming talks around the country.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The new improved Worm Digest!

Great news--it looks like Worm Digest, the world's only earthworm magazine (did you know there was one?) has found a new home. They had a very active and useful worm forum that was gradually getting harder to use, so I'm thrilled to see that working, as well. Stop by and check them out.

Worm Digest - Home

Worms or chickens?

What you see here is our four chickens scratching around in the compost pile for worms. I spent an entire day chipping yard waste, and the result was this modest pile of mulch, maybe four feet tall. I was amazed at how quickly the red wigglers colonized the pile. It's just thick with them now, and when we let the chickens out to forage, they rush to the compost heap as if it's happy hour and they're running to the bar. I do feel sorry for the little worms, but this is the food chain, after all. The hens leave their droppings, which in turn will become food for future generations of worms. (You can meet the chickens here.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Minnesota Worms

A great story here about researchers and the kinds of education they do--includes Cindy Hale, who I featured in The Earth Moved. Cindy did some fascinating research about the invasion of non-native worms into forests in Minnesota.

Duluth News Tribune | 09/20/2005 | Institute puts students on front lines of science

Monday, September 19, 2005

Am I Bugging You Yet?

Check out this brilliant, fabulous, and altogether wonderful bug blog:

Am I Bugging You Yet?

Get to Know Your Earthworms

UC Davis has a useful page of species profiles and other worm-related information. Check it out here:

Earthworm Information

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ridding the Lawn of Angleworms

A distressing Question of the Day from the Old Farmer's Almanac about how to rid the lawn of angleworms. ("Angleworms" is another word for terrestrial earthworms.)

The Almanac suggests pouring soapy water into the grass. What???

Folks, earthworms are good for the lawn. Set the blade higher and let the grass grow a little taller. That will conserve water, let roots grow deeper, and make it easier to mow even if there are some worm castings in the grass.

The Old Farmer's Almanac - Should any attempt be made to rid a lawn of angleworms? We have so many of them that our yard is difficult to mow.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Earthworm Emporium

So I had this bright idea to make an earthworm T-shirt for a friend, and CafePress made the whole thing so easy that I'm going to leave the design on their site and you can order one anytime you want. Be the first on your block to own a "Worm Hugger" t-shirt or coffee mug. Just follow the link.

Earthworm Emporium :

Earthworm Birth

If you ever wanted to watch an earthworm give birth, now's your chance. What this actually means is that you can watch a baby worm emerge from a cocoon. Worms don't go through a larval stage; they just emerge, fully formed, as tiny versions of their parents.

Worm World: About Earthworms

Monday, September 12, 2005

Earthworm Genome Mapping

It's a little technical, but worth checking out. Everything you ever wanted to know about the gene sequences of earthworms is here. - Environmental Genomics of Earthworms