Live fishing bait, including earthworms, wax worms and mealworms, are easy to raise because they thrive naturally in conditions found in most people's lawns. Once you have your containers set up, raising them at home requires little space or equipment, and only periodic maintenance. The worms reproduce at such a fast rate that the initial investment in a starter population will quickly pay for itself. They also produce by-products such as vermicompost and worm tea that you can use in your garden or even sell to local farmers as a fertiliser. Set up your own home wormery for earthworms, including nightcrawlers and red wriggler worms; wax worms, which are the larvae of a certain species of moths; and mealworms. Also called grubs, mealworms are beetle larvae.
Obtain a permit if required by your local government. According to the North Carolina State University cooperative extension, many city, county and state governments classify earthworm farming as agriculture for zoning purposes. Your local government may restrict the size of your worming operation or require you to obtain a business license, permit or resale license. Check with your locality, your state solid waste management agency and the state Department of Agriculture to determine the requirements in your area.
Prepare the location you have chosen for your growing bins. Earthworms do best at temperatures between 12.8 and 29.4 degrees Celsius and are most active 15.6 and 21.1 degrees Celsius. To keep your worm containers at an optimum temperature, build an additional shelter or provide insulation if necessary to keep your worms cool in summer and warm in winter. Outside worm beds should be in a shaded spot or under a roof, and indoor beds must have adequate drainage and ventilation.
Provide water and electricity for your site. You will need water to keep the worm beds moist, and you will need electricity for lights and temperature control. According to the North Carolina State University, fans and auxiliary heating systems are useful ways of maintaining the right temperatures in your worm beds, and lights are the most efficient way of keeping worms from leaving their beds.
Build your beds. You can use lumber, concrete or breeze blocks, brick, concrete or hollow tile. Avoid aromatic lumbers such as cedar and redwood, which contain tannins that can be harmful to your worms, and pine, which absorbs too much water. Popular containers include half barrels of steel or wood, discarded refrigerators, old livestock water tanks, washing machine tubs and children's swimming pools. Whichever material you chose, your bed should be at least three feet long and 12 to 24 inches deep. If you are in an area with excessively hot or cold temperatures, bury the bottom of your bed at least 12 to 24 inches in the ground, where the temperatures are more constant than at ground level.
Install a system to keep your worms from wandering away. Some growers put lights above their beds and turn them on at night and on rainy or foggy days. The worms will not crawl out when the lights are on. You can also install fine screens over the beds, build a ledge the extends about 1.5 inches over the rim of your beds or pile manure, compost, worm casings or carpet next to your bins to trap worms before they crawl away.
Fill your bins with bedding material. Any organic byproduct, such as compost or dried manure, will work. Some worm farmers combine their bedding material with sandy loam topsoil or use a mixture of potting soil and inorganic material, such as leaves, grass clippings or straw--some growers even use shredded newspaper or cardboard.
Buy your worms. You can find nightcrawlers and red wrigglers at local fishing supply stores. Active Angler recommends buying an initial stock of 100 worms, which will produce 3,000 to 5,000 worms in a year. If you plan to use your worms for composting, Mary Appelhof, author of "Worms Can Eat My Garbage," recommends buying two pounds of worms for every pound of garbage your household produces daily.
Moisten your bedding material about two days before introducing the worms. Then spread the worms over the top of the bedding material. Cover the container with boards or damp burlap, but avoid using tarps or other plastic material that will cut off the oxygen supply to your bed.
Feed your worms. Active Angler recommends adding one pound of cornmeal and half a pound of vegetable shortening to your fresh bedding, then replenishing it every couple of weeks. Earthworm species will also eat animal manures, compost, food scraps, shredded or chopped cardboard or paper--almost any decaying organic matter or waste product, according to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension. If you are using these organic or waste products as bedding, you do not need to add supplemental food at first, but you should replenish the bedding material once or twice a week. Add grains, mashes or cottonseed meal to supplement feeds that are low in nutrients.
Maintain your beds by turning the soil once every two to three weeks. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. If you are farming large populations, harvest your worms every 30 days or so by removing the top four inches of soil, placing it on a plastic tarp, and exposing it to either bright sunlight or artificial light. The worms will burrow into the soil to avoid the light, and you can remove the soil one inch at a time until you are left with a mostly solid mass of worms. For smaller populations, use this harvesting method to remove worms from the top four inches of bedding every six months and replace it with new bedding. Use the old bedding, which is mostly worm casings, as fertiliser.
Sterilise your containers by boiling them to prevent mould and diseases, which can kill your wax worm colony. You will need one container for developing larvae and another where the adults can mate and lay eggs. Wide-mouth glass jars--about pint size for larvae and gallon size for adults--or metal containers work well. Avoid wood, which the worms can chew through. Cover your containers with wire mesh.
Put your containers in a dark, poorly ventilated area that is kept at around 29.4 degrees C.
Obtain your starter worms from a bait company or biological supply house, or harvest them yourself from infested bee hives, where they feed on honeycombs. Put the adult worms in the larger jar with a strip of dark paper or waxed paper folded like a fan and attached with a paper clip. The females will deposit as many as 1,600 eggs on this paper after they mate, and you can transfer the papers containing the eggs to the larvae container, according to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
Make a feed for your worms. You will need about 0.68 Kilogram of food to produce every 500 larvae. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture recommends one of two recipes: For Diet 1, mix seven parts dry dog food with one part water and two parts honey and let the mixture sit for one day before using it. For Diet 2, mix one box of Gerber's mixed cereal, 7 tbsp of honey, 7 tbsp of glycerine and 3 tbsp of water. Moisten the cereal with the liquid ingredients until you can form a ball that crumbles easily.
Place rolls of corrugated cardboard or folded paper towels in the container with the larvae. The eggs will hatch in about four days, after which the larvae will feed for about a month, according to the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. They will then crawl into the cardboard and paper towels to form cocoons.
Harvest mature larvae when they begin to spin cocoons, about every three days. Agitate some of the cocoons in diluted commercial bleach for about 20 minutes, and the mature larvae will emerge. Rinse the larvae in tap water and dry them on a paper towel before storing them for sale. They will keep at 15.6 degrees Cor two to three months.
Place the remaining cocoons in your larger jar to hatch. Mature worms will emerge from the cocoons and mate, beginning the cycle again.
Make a container for your worms out of a shallow bin, such as a plastic sweater box. Cut a hole in the top for ventilation and use a hot glue gun to adhere wire netting to the opening so the worms don't escape.
Fill your container with two to three inches of material that will act as bedding and food. You can make your food and bedding using wheat brain, a 3:1 ratio of wheat bran to dried skimmed milk, four layers of 1/4 inch of chicken mash separated by burlap or newspaper, or 10 parts oat or wheat kernels, 10 parts whole wheat flour, one part wheat germ or powdered milk and one part brewer's yeast.
Put a small wedge of cabbage or a cut potato on a paper towel on top of the bedding for moisture. Replace this once a week or as it gets mouldy.
Add worms from a bait shop, pet store or mail order supplier. Don't use "giant" mealworms because they may have been treated with a growth hormone that discourages them from turning into beetles.
Keep your worms at about 26.7 degrees Celsius and 70 per cent relative humidity. Put a moistened sponge in an open plastic sandwich bag in the container for added moisture if necessary.
Sift out the beetles and eggs from the bedding every one or two weeks. Use a stainless steel sieve to sift, or withhold moisture for a few days then place a lettuce leaf, piece of moistened bread or moistened paper towel on top of the colony. The worms will cover the item, and you can shake them off into another container. Dispose of the waste and used bedding in your garden, sterilise the container, add new bedding and put the beetles and eggs back in to start again.
Separate the adult beetles into their own container to start a new colony at least two or three times a year. Do this by putting an apple slice on top of the bedding. The apple attracts the grown beetles and you can shake them into another container. This will manage adult beetle populations in your colonies, an important step because if you have too many grown beetles they will eat your pupae and eggs, which will eventually reduce your production. You can also separate the adults and start a new colony every two to three weeks, which is long enough to ensure you have all the life stages in each colony.
Test your earthworm feed to make sure your worms will eat it before adding it to your beds. Just put some of the feed in a container along with about 12 worms and watch them periodically over the next 12 hours. If the worms crawl away or die, find a different feed material.
Mealworm colonies sometimes become infested with grain mites. These tiny, whitish-tan insects will kill your colony. If you notice a mite infestation, which looks like sawdust, destroy the colony by freezing it and start over.
Tips and warnings
- Test your earthworm feed to make sure your worms will eat it before adding it to your beds. Just put some of the feed in a container along with about 12 worms and watch them periodically over the next 12 hours. If the worms crawl away or die, find a different feed material.
- Mealworm colonies sometimes become infested with grain mites. These tiny, whitish-tan insects will kill your colony. If you notice a mite infestation, which looks like sawdust, destroy the colony by freezing it and start over.
- Sialis: Raising Mealworms: Everything You Always Wanted to Know (and More)
- The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture: Rearing Waxworms
- Active Angler: How to Raise Your Own Worms
- "How to Raise Earthworms Successfully"; Rhonda Sherman; North Carolina State University; August 2003
- "Home Worm Production"; Mary Appelhof; Texas A & M University