Let the worm wars begin

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nightcrawler signs
Worms right off the farm are likely healthier than the bait shop, as they are not pumped full of chemical feed. The prices for these worms fluctuate almost daily. (Tami Gingrich photo)

Every spring, there is a fierce battle that rages throughout a corner of my county. As soon as the soil begins to warm and the spring rains fall, the signage begins to appear. Sporadically at first, then more consistently — the worm wars have begun!

One thing that isn’t consistent is the price for a dozen “crawlers.” I remember when they used to be 25 cents a dozen, then 50 cents. Over the years the prices for twelve worms have fluctuated, ranging all the way up to a whopping $2.

Of course, this far undercuts the price of a dozen worms from, say, some superstore or bait shop. Worms right off the farm are likely healthier, as they are not pumped full of chemical feed. The prices for these worms fluctuate in an almost daily skirmish, as neighbors strive to offer better deals than the guy next door.

I have a couple turtles I care for and I like to patronize the young Amish kids that are waging these wars by regularly purchasing their worms. I get a kick out of taking a survey to find out just how they obtain their stock.

Some follow along behind the plow, plucking worms from the freshly turned soil, while others don a headlamp and comb their grassy yards after dark, deftly nabbing the worms before they have a chance to retreat into their holes. Others venture forth on stormy nights to scoop up worms up as they escape from the rain-soaked soil.

It’s no wonder that southeastern Geauga County is a worm destination sought out by many an avid fisherman, as it lies smack dab between three major reservoirs all within 20 miles of its reach (LaDue to the west, East Branch to the north and Mosquito Creek Lake to the east).

Not from here

Here in the glaciated Great Lakes region, at least 16 different species of earthworms can be found and not a single one is native to the United States. After the glaciers retreated around 10,000 years ago, the landscape was devoid of worms. As colonists began to settle this country, they inadvertently and sometimes purposely brought with them earthworms from Europe.

There is much to be said about the invasion of non-native earthworms and the devastating effects they are currently having on the environment, but this article will spotlight the largest, most obvious type, the nightcrawler.

Nightcrawlers

nightcrawler
Nightcrawlers are invertebrates and belong to the phylum Annelida, a group of segmented worms. If you examine a nightcrawler at close range, you will notice their many segments, each covered by tiny bristles called setae. (Tami Gingrich photo)

When I see one of these behemoths making its way across the ground, I am swept back in time to my high school science classroom, where I, along with several other students. hover over a tray, dissecting a huge nightcrawler. After being dazzled by their intricate circulatory, reproductive, nervous and digestive systems, no one ever thought of the animal as “just a worm” ever again.

Nightcrawlers are invertebrates, lacking a backbone, and belong to the phylum Annelida, a group of segmented worms. If you examine a nightcrawler at close range, you will notice their many segments, each covered by tiny bristles called setae. These tiny hairs dig into the soil, aiding in the worm’s movements. As the worm travels along, it uses its mouth, located on the first segment, to scoop up rich soil, extracting nourishment from the decomposing plant material and consuming up to a third of its body weight every day.

As the soil travels through a worm’s body, it is eventually expelled, forming little mounds around its hole called castings. These piles of processed earth quickly melt back into the soil with the next rain event, providing valuable nutrients which aid in fertilizing the ground and benefiting the growth of crops.

nightcrawler castings
As the soil travels through a worm’s body, it is eventually expelled, forming little mounds around its hole called castings. These piles of processed earth quickly melt back into the soil with the next rain event, providing valuable nutrients which aid in fertilizing the ground. (Tami Gingrich photos)

The tunnels that nightcrawlers create as they move along, aid in the aeration of the soil, allowing for these nutrients, along with water and oxygen, to penetrate more efficiently. Avid gardeners also use worms to aid in composting. Worms break down organic materials and produce a rich soil, black gold, which can be spread on their garden beds.

Nightcrawlers come in two sizes: the European earthworms which reach lengths up to 4 inches and the Canadian worms, which easily span up to 14 inches in length.

Food for others

These worms are an incredibly important food source for so many animals. The larger the animal, the larger the worm it can ingest. An American robin, with a plump worm coiled and twisting from its beak in readiness to be offered to its hungry nestlings, might be the first image that comes to mind. Yet there are many other species of birds that savor the taste of earthworms.

It is amusing to watch my flock of chickens, a free-range lot, run around frantically on mornings after a rainy night. As if in a cartoon, one will grab up the front end of a nightcrawler while a second grabs the back end, both pulling in opposite directions until the worm breaks in two.

One morning I glanced out the kitchen window to see a red-shouldered hawk hopping around on the ground in our pasture. At first, I thought it might be chasing rodents around, but after having a look through my binoculars, it appeared to be nabbing nightcrawlers. I questioned myself long after this observation until I witnessed the same behavior two more times, one at close range.

Reptiles and amphibians include a healthy quota of earthworms in their diets too, as do moles and shrews that exist in a subterranean world where worms abound.

In his new book, “Coyotes Among Us: Secrets of the City’s Top Predator”, Dr. Stanley D. Gehrt, professor of wildlife ecology at Ohio State University and principal investigator of one of the largest studies of coyotes in the Chicago area to date, mentions earthworms. He states “We even have footage of a coyote slurping earthworms for twenty minutes as if they were strands of linguine — a previously unreported part of their diet”

I stopped for worms just yesterday and motioned the young Amish boys in close for a secretive word before departing. Quickly glancing over my shoulder and speaking in a hushed tone I proclaimed, “I just wanted to let you know that I had planned on stopping for my worms a couple of doors down, but your worms were 50 cents cheaper today.” Gotta keep those worm wars raging!

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

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