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 a bunch of your worms that look all lumpy and weird. Something like this:

protein poisoning in worms

This 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, but 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 a bird, so they need tiny grit. You can buy pulverized oyster shells or Azomite. Many people simply grind their own 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

Baking the eggshells drys out the shells along with killing any potential risk of salmonella. In an outdoor compost bin, it isn’t as necessary to go through this many steps. However, the small indoor system is a complete and very small ecosystem.

It is advised that you add eggshells, azomite, pulverized eggshells, or other grit items at every other feeding. You could up it to every single feeding, but most vermicomposters find every other feeding to be a good schedule.

Other benefits of egg shells

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 bin becomes too acidic, you may encounter the dreaded string of pearls, aka lumpy worms.

Excess Food and Moisture

Excess food often leads to excess moisture. Many people add food too many food scraps than the worms can reasonably consume. As the scraps decompose, they release water into the bedding. Often over 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 to me I just put the pulverized eggshells in an old parmesan cheese shaker and just made it rain down like winter snow on the top moist 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 a spun-out load of laundry.

Finally, if you feel comfortable, fluff up the bin a little. This will help some of that dry bedding and grit get to 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 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.

Keem those thing in mind and you will have a successful vermicomposting journey.