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Bob Henke column: Worms of different types and sizes

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I have been getting some correspondence lately from folks gravely concerned about organic garbage. Apparently, one is now prohibited from throwing away food waste if you live within 25 miles of some commercial composting facility. Instead, one should store everything in a sealed container for ultimate delivery to said facility whenever you felt you could afford the fuel to make a 50-mile round trip.

I listened to this but finally had enough when I was told that the average person wastes 20 gallons of potable water a day pre-rinsing dishes and that instead one should use plastic scrapers to remove food residue before putting things in the dishwasher. That is the most absurd instruction I have ever heard. I do not think we have thrown away a pound of organic garbage in our entire married life and pre-rinsing has never been a thing. Then it occurred to me.

Perhaps there are strange people without dogs and chickens.

Any material left from our food processing or preparation is offered to dogs. Depending on the dog, there are different culinary sensibilities. Some carefully select items — the last setter would reject anything that had been touched by garlic, even meat scraps. The current dog, a young retriever, is the most food-obsessed creature I have ever seen. I actually have to sort for him because anything from steak scraps to orange peels, pizza crust to coffee grounds, he consumes with gusto.

Pre-washing is his specialty. This shortchanges Phase Two of the Henke organic garbage disposal — the chickens. Things dogs reject or should not have is tossed over the fence into the chicken yard. Anything they cannot physical consume gets scratched about until it is dirt.

The forests have a similar cleaning system but the increasing biodiversity that accompanies human activities has been messing with it. One of the most dramatic changes involves earthworms. The potential here is huge because worldwide there is a lot more biomass of earthworms than there is of humans.

Earthworms are annelids, that is, segmented worms, but they come in three types. The first type are epigeic worms. They live near the surface of the soil and generally feed on plant litter. When the earthy types wax eloquent about the great transformation of soils through creating drainage, incorporating vegetable material and generally stirring things up, they are thinking of the second type — Anecic worms, which also feed on plant litter but form nearly vertical burrows extending as much as 3 or 4 feet into the ground. Our common nightcrawler is an anecic. The final category is the Endogeic worms, those that virtually never come to the surface. They live down in some of the mineral horizons deep in the ground and feed entirely on soil.

There are more than 7,000 species of earthworms, ranging from the 3-foot long Gippsland nightcrawler found in Australia to some tiny endogeics that never approach a full inch. Interestingly, the lowest abundance and biodiversity occurs in tropical areas. The area with the greatest number and variety of earthworms anywhere in the world is southern England. The northeastern US is, perhaps even more surprisingly, also an earthworm paradise in terms of both number of worms and number of species.

This was not always so. When global warming began and the glaciers were pushed back from the Northeast, the area was pretty much devoid of any but the endogeic living deep in the ground. As trees finally began to get a foothold, the ground was very quickly blanketed with leaf litter sometimes as much as 6 feet thick. This was an effective mulch causing the forests to go to closed canopy climax environments very rapidly and only when huge catastrophic fires occurred, could the underbrush needed by everything from deer to neotropicals songbirds develop, and then only for a couple decades in any given area.

Then the Europeans arrived, with their potted plants and soil-filled ship ballast areas. In these soil sources, the rich diversity of English earthworms reached new ground and they experienced explosive growth, totally transforming the ground by creating the deep fertile topsoil we have today. The nightcrawler outcompeted many of the native earthworms, leaving them with fairly low populations.

However, in the past several years, there is another change taking place. Horticultural interest in southeast Asian cultivars has brought us something much different — the Asian jumping worm. These look superficially like very large night crawlers (adults average over 6 inches in length) but all of the three species infesting the Northeast share two characteristics that distinguish them from nightcrawlers.

The first is their clitellum. The clitellum is the sexual organ, where every worm dispenses male gametes to their partner and receives male gametes back to fertilize their female gametes — it takes two to tango but everyone is batting for both teams. Asian jumping worms can also produce fertilized eggs without benefit of a mate as well. The clitellum on nightcrawlers is reddish brown, is raised like a saddle and does not completely encircle the body. On an Asian jumping worm it is white or light gray, flush with the body, and completely encircles the body.

The other characteristic of the Asian jumping worm is its namesake. When disturbed, the worms thrash with extreme antics flipping themselves across the ground. This extreme athleticism extends to their foraging as well which is enabling them to essentially outcompete the nightcrawlers. Unlike nightcrawlers that make deep vertical holes increasing drainage and incorporating organic material throughout the soil layers, jumping worms remain in the upper three or four inches of soil and voraciously consume every bit of plant litter. They do not confine themselves to dead materials either, destroying root systems of young plants both by consumption and simple mechanical disturbance.

Asian jumping worms are an annual species; the adults die after the first freeze. But the eggs, about the size of a mustard seed, survive the cold. Worms can produce viable eggs from mating or without the benefit of a partner. Because they are more aggressive and their populations can grow faster than the common European species, they may out-compete existing worm populations. Cocoons can be spread easily in potted plants, on landscaping equipment, mulch, tire treads, and even hiking boots.

My son’s backyard is full of jumping worms. We have none. I am betting on the chickens to turn invasives into a Phase Two organic recycling system.

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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