Protein poisoning and the importance of grit

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Why are my worms all lumpy?

Did you open your compost container and find some of your worms that look lumpy and weird? Something like this:

protein poisoning in worms

This disfiguration is often caused by a lack of grit, excess moisture, and sometimes overfeeding.

What are the suspected causes of protein poisoning?

Many people believe that worms turn into this “string of pearls” because there is a lack of grit in the soil. Worms do not have teeth; instead, they have a gizzard. You may remember gizzards more fondly from our friends, the turkey or chicken. Birds often eat pebbles to store in their gizzard to help grind up their food.

Worms don’t have a big gizzard like birds, so they need tiny grit. You can buy pulverized oyster shells or Azomite. Many people grind their eggshells in their coffee or spice grinder. It is advised for an in-home system to first wash, dry, and bake the eggshells before pulverizing them.

It was baking the eggshells drys out the shells, and in any potential risk of salmonella. It isn’t as necessary to go through this many steps in an outdoor compost bin. However, the small indoor system is a complete and tiny ecosystem.

You should add eggshells, azomite, pulverized eggshells, or other grit items at every other feeding. You could up it to every feeding, but most vermicomposters find every other feeding a good schedule.

Other benefits of eggshells

Another benefit of adding most of these gritty items is that it balances the pH of the worm bin. Ideally, worms like to live at the pH level of tap water. When the container becomes too acidic, you may encounter the dreaded string of pearls, lumpy worms.

Excess Food and Moisture

Excess food often leads to excess moisture. Many people add too many food scraps that the worms can reasonably consume. As the scraps decompose, they release water into the bedding. Often watering goes hand in hand with out-of-control pH levels.

How to prevent protein poisoning

If only part of your bin has been affected, you may still have time to save some worms. First, you want to remove any uncomposted food. This will prevent any new moisture from entering your bin.

Next, you will want to add some grit to the moist bedding. When this happened, I just put the pulverized eggshells in an old Parmesan cheese shaker and made it rain down like winter snow on the sticky top layer.

Then, you will want to add some new dry bedding. How much will depend on how bad the moisture problem is in your vermicomposting bin. The ideal wetness level is around a well-wrung-out sponge and a spun-out load of laundry.

Finally, if you feel comfortable, fluff up the bin a little. This will help some dry bedding and grit get to the lower layers. You don’t need to do too much because you don’t want to damage the worm ecosystem too much. Just enough to let some of that grit and bedding be distributed.

Summary Protein Poisoning in Compost Worms

Protein Poisoning is a common issue. It can sadly kill a whole apartment composting bin. The good news is that it is easy to fix once you know what to do and why. Be sure to feed only when necessary, and add grit for your worms every other feeding. Add dry bedding to keep the moisture levels correct.

Keep that thing in mind, and you will have a successful vermicomposting journey.