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 rinse, dry, and bake the eggshells before pulverizing them in the coffee grinder.

Washing and baking the eggshells reduces 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. Therefore it is important to think of ratios and preventing bad bacterias from accessing the bin.

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 feeding of worms can often lead to an excess of moisture. This excess moisture that can accumulate in your worm bin is called leachate. This liquid isn’t what many people think is “compost tea” Instead it is a toxin that hasn’t been composted and in excess, it can kill your worms or plants.

Ideally, you only feed your worms enough food that can be fully consumed within 2 or 3 days. Excess food can lead to attracting pests, and increase the presence of leachate. So be sure to feed in moderation and check that your worms fully consume their food before adding more.

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.