(Draft 1) Gooey Garbage Engulfers: Soil preference of the composting red worm, Eise

This topic submitted by Sadie Ferguson and Amy Aerni ( aaaerni@msn.com ) on 10/7/04 .
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Natural Systems 1 Syllabus---Western Program---Miami University

Research Question

How will the masses of the composting red worm, Eisenia fetida, vary when they are placed in different soil mixtures over a period of six weeks?


The red worm Eisenia fetida will gain the most mass in the soil mixture consisting of potting soil, and fruit matter because fruit contains a greater amount of calories than the rest of the mixtures.

What do we plan to accomplish?

We plan to form a greater understanding of the earthworm, Eisenia fetida, and its soil preference. By reading and understanding correlating research journals we hope to gain much knowledge and inform our class of what we have learned. We also plan to involve the class once a week in keeping the habitat of our worms moisturized.


The purpose of this experiment is to study the growth of the red worm, Eisenia fetida, in a variety of different compost types (fruit matter, vegetable matter, newspaper shreds, and leaf litter). They will all be mixed with potting soil in an equal ratio. We will look to see which compost/soil mixture yields the most massive worms over a period of time inferring that increased mass equals a preference of the worm's soil type.

General Information

Eisenia fetida, commonly referred to as red worms, are earth worms that usually reside in the top ten inches of decomposing soil. They thrive in areas where they have access to leaf litter and organic matter. They turn this organic matter into fertile soil and are thus great composting worms.

How do worms work? Well, Eisenia fetida ingest the food particles through their mouth, digest it in their gizzard and absorb nutrients through their intestines for themselves and then excrete 'casts' or droppings that are rich in nutrients. These casts contain helpful bacteria that increase the cycling of nutrients into a form that plants can take up through their roots. Therefore as soon as the worms excrete the nutrients they are ready to be used immediately by the plants. Worms also help to speed along the process of humification, in which the organic portion of soil is created from the partial decomposition of plant or animal matter.


As the population of humans increase, the volume of waste increases as well. The
corresponding landfills that the waste is deposited poison the surrounding area including ground water and soil (Weitkamp, 1997). This threatens not only the ecosystems around the landfills but also the living space that humans use.

Environmentalists are constantly devising plans to solve the landfill problem, but it persists and is growing out of control. Recycling is one way to cut down on landfill space but simply is not effective enough because of its high cost (Recycling, 2000). A cost-cutting solution that is not commonly utilized is composting. Recycling of wastes through vermitechnology(decomposition by worms) utilizes 'agro-waste' (Bhardwaj, Tripathi p. 275). By utilizing this organic waste, garbage sent to landfills is dramatically reduced and land space is saved. Landfills were created as a place to collect this trash until the space is filled and a new trash area is needed. By separating organic waste from man-made waste a large percentage of the garbage put in landfills can be eradicated.

The red worm Einsenia fetida is an ideal tool in breaking down organic matter. Here is an illustration of the digestive system of an Earthworm (Wormpost Northeast). They are often added to compost piles to increase the rate of decomposition (Farrell p. 76). Worms improve the condition of the soil as they search for food. They excrete castings, which contain five times the available nitrogen, seven times the available phosphorus and three times the exchangeable magnesium (Acosta, 2004). According to Bhardwaj and Triputni, 'earthworms should be considered keystone organisms in regulating the nutrient cycling processes in many ecosystems' (p. 275). The quality of the food that earthworms eat reflects their ability to create vermicasts, returning nutrients to the soil.

Worms are useful for their vermicomposting abilities on farms as well. They are added to treat 'livestock organic waste' which has become a problem because of the large amounts of cattle in one area. (Loh, Lee, Liang, Tan p.11) Not only are the worms used on livestock farms to improve the soil, but they also are used as waste management.

Another place composting occurs is in well-populated cities. Urban composting takes place in many different areas ranging from a bin in an apartment to large cities in New York and California. Composting is an ideal solution to garbage disposal costs. Some cities in California must reduce their landfill waste by fifty percent from 1994 to 2004 or face a 10,000 dollar fine. Many of these people turn to our little friends the Einsenia fetida to make their fruit peels and vegetable trimmings into nutrient rich soil. (Why Worms?)

Research Design/ Materials and Methods

We will need a scale, boxes, black garbage bags, spray bottle, worms, potting soil, organic fruit and vegetable waste, newspapers, and leaf litter. Our class will monitor the worms as well as keep them moist.

The location that we chose to use is the room inside of Boyd right in front of the green house. This location was chosen because it maintains a constant temperature that is favorable to the worms. It also does not receive excessive amounts of sunlight which would hinder the worms' vermicasting abilities. The twenty boxes will be placed on the ground in the room off to the side so they are not in the way.

We will be purchasing half a pound of worms. Since they exist at the surface of soil we will not need large volumes of soil and small cardboard boxes will do. We will line them with plastic to keep the worms from ingesting our containers, but poke small holes in the bags so there will not be any standing water. We will number the soil types 1 through 5. Their corresponding boxes will be lettered 1a, 1b, 1c and so on. There will be four boxes for each soil type. Four boxes will contain only potting soil as a control. The rest of the mixtures will be sectioned in four boxes; every four boxes will have half vegetable matter, fruit matter, leaf litter, or newspaper shreds along with half of a potting soil mixture. Once we have received the worms and set up our boxes filled with soil we will let the contents settle for a few days.

Once we have everything set up, ten worms will be placed in each box. We will try to distribute the sizes of the worms equally so the masses will be as similar as possible in the beginning of the experiment. The red worms will be washed off and massed every week as a group. We will record our data for six weeks. Our class will be involved in making sure the moisture levels of the boxes are maintained. The boxes will be covered in order to keep in moisture and the worms. It is important to keep the soil moisture at 75% or more and the temperature between sixty to eighty degrees so the worms will be the most productive (Red worm (Eisenia fetida), 2004). A spray bottle will be supplied. The worms should be monitored and watered weekly reporting any dead worms to Sadie or Amy. Greater moisture is proven to keep the worms the most active and healthy.

By massing the worms over time, we hope to see a greater mass in the worms that had access to the best nutrients. We presume the best nutrients to be in the fruit compost. The worms will digest the potting soil control as the additive and grow becoming larger and heavier. The red worms that gained the most weight should be contained in the soil that they prefer. After five weeks have passed, our data will be analyzed to see if our hypothesis was correct. Hopefully fruit matter and potting soil will be the Eisenia fetida's soil of choice and these worms will have gained the most mass over the six week period.

Timeline/ Calendar

Week of 10/3- Prepare soil mixtures and take photographs on Saturday 10/9. Week of 10/10- Rinse and mass new worms, add them to prepared soil mixtures and take photographs on Wednesday 10/13. Week of 10/17- Check moisture on Monday 10/18. Rinse, dry and take first mass of worms on Wednesday 10/20. Week of 10/24- Check moisture on Monday 10/25. Rinse, dry and take second mass of worms on Wednesday 10/27. Week of 10/31- Check moisture on Monday 11/1. Rinse, dry and take third mass of worms on Wednesday 11/3. Week of 11/7- Check moisture on Monday 11/8. Rinse, dry and take fourth mass of worms on Wednesday 11/10. Week of 11/14- Check moisture on Monday 11/15. Rinse, dry and take the fifth mass of worms on Wednesday 11/17. Week of 11/21- Check moisture on Monday 11/22. Rinse, dry, take final mass of worms and take photographs on Wednesday 11/24. Weeks of 11/28 and 12/5- Finish up project and write final report.

Why does this interest us?

Worm growth and soil preference are interesting to us because worms are underappreciated. They are the natural equivalent of fertilizers without the harmful side effects toward the environment. They not only benefit the soil but they provide a food source for many secondary consumers and the fish that we like to catch and eat.

We find this project interesting for several reasons. Sadie and I are taking some small slimy creatures that we call worms and transporting them into a foreign area. Then we just let them create nutrient rich soil and grow without any other help from us other than to keep the soil moist. It's amazing. By weighing the worms every week we hope that we can see which soil best suits them and hopefully in the process get to know how the Eisenia fetida really works.

Amy has recently taken up fishing with her dad out in Lake Erie. They used worms similar to the Eisenia fetida to catch their delicious perch. Worms are remarkable creatures and now we can be truly aware of all their special capabilities.

All of Sadie's life her parents have been gardening enthusiasts. They decided to start composting to use left over fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen and to create nutritious fertilizer for the plants. Ever since the compost bin was constructed the whole family has been involved in adding leftovers and even the dogs like to check it out every once in a while.

Literature Review

Campbell, N., & Reece, J. (2002). Biology. 6th ed. New York: Benjamin Cummings.

It is important to understand the anatomy of the worms that we are studying. This is why we have chosen a descriptive illustration of the anatomy of a common earthworm. The Eisenia fetida is a species of earthworm and since we are measuring their composting abilities it is vital that we know how its digestive system functions.

Farrell, Molly. (1998). An urban adventure: Vermicomposting food residuals in two steps. BioCycle 39, 11.

This article is relevant because it looks at the bigger picture of composting to help a large community in New York control its organic waste disposal. The resulting nutrient rich soil is then sold to the corresponding community. The article also talks about ideal conditions for the Eisenia fetida including temperature and light preferences.

Feeny, C. (1999). The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out. Environment, 41(3), 22.

Composting saved the school in this article six thousand dollars per year in waste disposal cost. This information is useful because it highlights the benefits of composting, not only producing nutrient rich soil but saving a significant amount of dough in the process.

Gonzalez-Prieto, S. J, & Carballas, T. (1995). N biochemical diversity as a factor of soil diversity. Soil Biology Biochemistry, 27(2), 205-210.

This article infers that worms and other soil-dwelling animals increase the chemical variation of soil. This makes the soil usable by a variety of nutrient dependant organisms. Worms are an important factor in producing this nutrient rich soil and are therefore vital to quality compost.

Grobe, K. (1999). Worming the way to finished compost. BioCycle, 34-35.

Because large cities have little room for garbage disposal, composting is a useful tool to cut down on land fill space and it produces fertile soil in the process. The Eisenia fetida is the main factor that makes the organic matter into the fertile soil instead of useless landfill sludge.

Gunadi, B., Edards, C. A, & Blount C. (2002). The influence of different moisture levels on the growth, fecundity and survival of Eisenia fetida in cattle and pig manure solids. Soil Biology, 39, 19-24.

Our red worms will be contained in an area that must keep them healthy and alive so we can measure their mass over time. Moisture levels must be kept at a specific percentage so the worms will be productive. This article pertains to how we will provide the worms with a suitable and moisturized habitat.

Jager, T., Fleuren R., Roelofs W., and de Groot, A. (2002). Feeding activity of the earthworm Eisenis andrei in artificial soil. Soil Biology Biochemistry, 35, 313-322.

Although earthworms prefer being in nutrient rich areas like leaf litter or manure, they still need to consume the less rich mineral soil as a part of their daily diet. The soil we will place our worms in will not only contain the nutrient rich ingredients, but it will also be mixed with potting soil because the article claims regular soil is also an important part of the worm diet.

Kaushik, Priya and Garg, V.K. (2003). Dynamics of biological and chemical parameters during vermicomposting of solid textile mill sludge mixed with cow dung and agricultural residues. Bioresource Technology, 94, 203-209.

This article shows how farmers who work with solid textile mill sludge can use vermicomposting as an alternate technology for the management of the sludge mixed with cow dung. It provides inside that we will be able to use as to the benefits of using worms for controlling pollutants.

Loh, T.C., Lee, Y.C., Liang, J.B., and Tan, D. (2003). Vermicomposting of cattle and goat manures by Eisenia foetida and their growth and reproduction performance. Bioresource Technology, 96, 111-114.

This article is important for our experiment because of the descriptions of vermacast and its relation to compost and also because of the detail it provides in how to go about massing and taking care of the worms used in the study. Because we are not worm experts, any sort of information on worm care is beneficial to us.

Manna, M.C., Jha, S., Ghosh, P.K., and Acharya, C.L. (2002). Comparative efficacy of three epigeic earthworms under different deciduous forest litters decomposition. Bioresource Technology, 88, 197-206.

This article talks about the benefits of earthworms in preventing forest fires. When earth worms are present in forests they will decompose the leaf litter making the forest floor less fire friendly. This adds another important reason as to why studying our Eisenia fetida is extremely important on multiple levels.

Paradise, Christopher J., (2001). A Standardized Soil Ecotoxicological Test Using Red Worms (Eisenia fetida). The American Biology Teacher, 63,662-668.

Vermicasting is an extremely helpful tool in breaking down detritus, increasing the rate of soil formation and nutrient cycling, improving water infiltration rates, neutralizing soil pH, and stimulating microbial population. This article points out the ways in which worms are able to
do all of these tasks as well as why our chosen specimen, Eisenia fetida, is an ideal test species for the job.

Rigney, Heather. (2001). Looking for Mr. Goodworm. Organic Gardening,48,48.

Heather Rigney, a composting enthusiast, offers to us the point of view of a "regular" person using composting for her own benefit. Her article offers insight into how easy it is to cut down on
one's personal waste out put while creating a nutrient rich fertilizer for the garden.

Tripathi, G. and Bhardwaj, P. (2003). Comparative studies on biomass production, life cycles and composting efficiency of Eisenia fetida Savigny) and Lampito muritii (Kinberg). Bioresource Technology, 92, 275-283.

This article was extremely informative! The study is close to our own test and it offers a large amount of background information on our worm of choice (Eisenia fetida) such as optimal living conditions (temperature, moisture levels, etc.) and the benefits of using earthworms to balance ecosystem problems.

Website References

Acosta, E. Biconet, (2004). Earthworms: Eisenia fetida. retrieved Oct 06, 2004, from Earthworms, Red worms, red wigglers etc. Web site: http://www.biconet.com/compost/earthwowrms.html.

It is important to know how our Red worms will improve the condition of the soil. This website has a paragraph dedicated to exactly what Earthworms excrete that makes the soil so fertile.

Weikamp, M. (1997). Background on landfills and use of this exploration. retrieved Oct 06, 2004, from www.lalc.kiz.ca.us/uclasp/ISSUES/landfills/quick.html.

Landfills are the reason that many people are turning to worms to lessen their waste output. This site points out the downfalls of landfills and what can be done to improve them.

Recycling: can local authorities afford it? (2000). Retrieved Oct 06, 2004, from http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/factsheets/recycling_local_authority.pdf.

Recycling is expensive. The link to this site gives a clear-cut fact sheet on why Recycling is so expensive along with other pros and cons that come along with it.

Happy D Ranch, (2004). Red worm (Eisenia fetida). retrieved Oct 07, 2004, from Happy D Ranch Web site: http://www.happydranch.com/10.html.

Happy Ranch is an expert red worm user and supplier. The site gives tips on how
to manage our own composting area and what to expect over time. If we are wondering what is going on with our worms we can probably find an explanation in the Happy D Ranch website.

VermiCo, (n.d.). Why worms?. retrieved Oct 06, 2004, from Why Is the Worm Industry Expanding? Web site: http://vermico.com/whyworms.htm.

The 'Why worms?' website is posted by an environmentally friendly group called VermiCo. They support using compost to reduce wastes and are highly into utilizing worms for this reason. They also point out that red worms are wonderful fish bait.

Wormpost Northeast, (n.d.). Vermicomposting. retrieved Oct 06, 2004, from Worm Biology Web site: http://www.wormpost.com/worms/biology.html.

Wormpost Northeast has excellent diagrams of the digestive system of a common earthworm. It gives the difference of the Nightcrawler compared to the red worm that Sadie and I will be using. It is an overall informational guide to the Eisenia fetida.

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