Red Wiggler Worms - Keeping and Breeding (Vermicomposting)
Keeping Red Wigglers - Eisenia foetida (aka red worms, manure worms, brandling worms, tiger worms) has been a pet project of mine for a few months now. Red Wigglers are the most popular worms used for worm composting. You cannot use earth worms from your garden.
I started my "worm bin" as a vermicomposting bin and it is highly effective. The worms eat their weight or so in fruit / veggie scraps every day, they are a great food source for many lizards and produce compost that you can safely use to fertilize vivarium plants (or your houseplants/garden).
Starting out, you will need:
An opaque plastic bin, at least 2' x 1' x 1', with two lids (more on that later)
*Surface area is more important than depth. Worms will not use more than 12 inches of bedding depth anyway, so keep this in mind when selecting your bin. Essentially, a Rubbermaid is better than a bucket or garbage bin.
A brick of coconut coir (you can use less than a brick, and you can also use clean dirt or peat moss, but coconut coir is cheap, renewable and easily obtained)
Shredded newspaper (you may add: torn up egg crate, corrugated cardboard, leaves)
Worms (1/2 lbs is fine to start for a 1-2 person household, or 1 lbs for a family)
A light (temporary)
Bricks or some 2x4 wood pieces
Drill to make holes
Preparing the bin
Drill holes all around the top of the sides of the bin, on the bottom of the bin, and on one of the lids. The worms can crawls up the sides of the bin and will do so until they are comfortable in their new bedding, so make the holes small (I used my smallest drill bit and made lots of holes). The holes on the bottom are for drainage. If you end up making the holes a big on the large side, you can line the bottom with plastic window screen.
The second lid (although you could use any kind of tray that is big enough) is to collect any liquid that drains from your bin. I have very little drainage from my own bin and many people do not bother with making drainage holes in their bins, but I suggest it because if too much water collects in the bottom, the worms will leave or drown. Use the bricks or whatever you have to elevate the bin off the bottom lid slightly. The liquid that collects makes great fertilizer for indoors plants or gardens.
Preparing the bedding
Your bedding should be made up of a lot of the shredded paper (either regular paper or newspaper - avoid using shiny paper or paper with colored inks), and some dried leaves, corrugated cardboard, etc, if you wish. Fill the bin about halfway with this. Add the expanded coconut coir. The bedding should be moist enough that if you squeeze a handful of it, no more than a drop falls. If your bedding is too moist, add more shredded newspaper.
Adding the worms
When you receive your worms (which can be purchased online and from bait shops, and the occasional local supplier), they will likely come with a bit of the dirt they came from. Add it all to your bin. FYI, a 1/2 lbs of worms will cost you about $20-$25.
The first few days
Until the worms have settled into their new home, they may attempt to leave the bin. If you have a secure lid, then just close the bin. If you do not want to use a lid or if your lid is not secure or has large holes in it, leave the lid off for a while and install a light over the bin. Red Wigglers do not like being exposed to light and will stay in the bedding. You will have to spray the bin daily with water (let it sit for a few hours so the chlorine evaporates) if/while you do not use a lid. After a week or two, the worms will settle and you can remove the light and use your lid, or no lid at all if you prefer.
Your worms will eat about their own weight in food per day, but you need off slowly, giving the worms about 1/4 of their weight every couple days. It is best to chop the food you are going to give them; the smaller the food pieces, the more quickly the worms will process them. You can give them large pieces of food, but I don't advise this with new bins.
When you feed them, dig a small hole in one area of the bin and bury the food. The next time you feed them, make a hole in a different location in the bin. This will encourage the worms to move around the entire bin.
Your worms can eat
Fruits (avoid citrus fruits except in very small amounts)
Vegetables (avoid onions [including chives, green onions and leaks] and garlic)
Fruit and vegetable scraps (e.g., apple cores, grape vines, banana skins, peanut shells, etc.)
Rotten or dried fruits and vegetables
Used tea leaves / tea bags (green, black, red, white, floral, herbal, etc.)
Crushed egg shells (occasionally)
Bread, pasta, rice, potatoes (occasionally or not at all)
Yard scraps (plant cuttings, lawn trimmings - avoid this if you use pesticides or chemical fertilizers on or near your yard)
Used paper towel (obviously not if you have just wiped up a bleach spill)
Your worms cannot eat:
Meat (poultry, fish, etc)
Oils or grease
Citrus in any significant amounts
Feces (although you can use a very small amount of aged manure, if you have access to it)
Paper with colour ink or shiny paper
Some people actually use a food processor or blender to make a "smoothie" of sorts. The worms will certainly eat this more quickly, but generally I do not bother. Vermicomposting is great for the environment so using electricity and more water to wash the blender seems counterproductive. Just chop up their food and let the worms do the work.
Also, it is handy to keep a container on or under your counter for extra food. If your worms are well fed, throw your kitchen scraps in the bucket for a few days and then feed them on a day when you have not produced enough food for the worms. The food will not stink in a couple days unless it is really warm, and the pre-decomp will help the worms process the food more quickly, since the worms can't really start feeding on food until it starts to decompose, anyway. The red wigglers' diet is actually made up primarily of the microbial slime that is found on decomposing matter.
A few weeks after set-up, you should be feeding your worms "green" food more or less daily. I tend to feed mine every 2-3 days. I give my worms "brown" food (e.g., shredded newspaper) every week, and mix a handful or two into the bedding and add another handful or two on top. Turn over the contents of the bin (i.e., mix it, carefully) as often as daily, and no more seldom than weekly.
Cultivating your compost
After a few months, the worms will have eaten all of their original bedding and food, and will have filled their bin with castings, which is essentially worm poop. This is what is so great for your gardens and plants.
When you are ready to cultivate the castings, don't feed the bin for a couple days so that most of the food has been eaten. Push all of the bin contents to one side of the bin and fill the other half with new bedding (shredded paper, some dirt / coconut mulch) and some food. Leave the bin for a couple weeks and the worms will move from the casting side of the bin to the new bedding, at which point you can remove the castings and use them as you want (offer them around if you have no use for them; if I had to split up my compost between everyone who asked, everyone would get a teaspoon!) and add some more shredded paper to fill the bin.
The main issue that people encounter is that their worm bin stinks. Sure, if you open the lid and stick your head in an hour after having fed them, you will definitely smell it, but the smell should not persist and should certainly not be detectable if the bin is closed or you are a few feet away from it.
Are you mixing the contents of the bin often enough? Try mixing it at least every other day.
Are you feeding too much? If the amount of food in your bin is piling up, cease feeding for a few days and then resume more slowly.
Have you added "brown" food recently? Your bin may be too acidic, add lots of shredded newspaper and mix it in.
Have your worms died? I haven't heard of this happening to anyone, but dig through and make sure your worms are alive.
Is your bedding too deep? The worms will not use any more than about a foot of height of bedding. If your bedding is deeper than that, they are not getting all the way through it. Remove some bedding (careful not to chuck any worms), and either start a new bin or put it in your garden or in the woods.
You may also find various invertebrates in your bin. Most of them are harmless and even helpful, including springtails. The most common, though, are little while or brown mites. They do not move very quickly and may be mistaken for eggs covering the sides of the bin and the surface of the bedding. These mites are usually indicative of too much "green" food in the bin, so cut back feeding and keep on top of turning the bedding over and adding "brown" food to the bin. To remove the mites that are already there, put in several large pieces of melon rind and close the bin. In a few hours, the melon rinds should be covered in mites (do not forget the melon rinds in the bin). Remove, rinse and put the rind back in your bin to catch more mites.
Alternatively, you can open the bin. The worms require high humidity to thrive and will die off if the bin walls are dry (except for daily spraying, of course)
Breeding the worms / Feeding the worms to your animal(s)
You do not have to do anything in particular to get your worms to breed, except maybe adding some crushed eggshells on occasion. When they are happy, they will breed. Don't feed any worms off for a while and then start slowly; you don't want to decimate your worm population before it can expand. Keep in mind that the capacity of a given bin is around 1 lbs of worms for each square foot of surface, and that 1 lbs of worms represents about 1000 worms.
Red Wiggler egg "cocoons" look like small, yellowish brownish lemons or balloons, and are a few millimeters long.
Because you control what they eat, the worms are always gut-loaded and healthy. Sprinkle some calcium powder on them and they are good to go!
Note that there are full systems out there that you can purchase, pre-made, for your worms. These often include tiered bins, the idea being that when the bottom bin is fully processed into castings, new bedding and food is added to the next bin above it and the worms move into there. These are handy, but expensive. The above guide is a cheap, easy way to cultivate your own worms with a very low initial set-up cost.