DO YOU DIG WORMS?
Bring in a large container full of dirt. Carefully scoop the dirt
onto a sheet of newsprint. Separate and smooth the dirt so that
the students will notice the worms. Brainstorm what students know
about worms. Discuss where they live and what they eat. Use descriptive
words to describe the worms (i.e. wiggly, long, slimy, cold, etc.).
Give students time to observe and handle the worms gently. Ask students
what questions they have about worms and list these on the chalkboard.
Use them to guide the unit or for enrichment activities for the
WHO WANTS A WORM?
If you wish to use a humorous, edible introduction for this area
of study, distribute gummy worms to the students. Use them to launch
a list-making activity about the similarities and differences between
real and candy worms. Share with your students Charles Darwin's
statement about earthworms: "It may be doubted whether there
are many other creatures which have played so important a part in
the history of the world." Ask students to brainstorm and list
their ideas about why Darwin might have thought worms were so important.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD!
Introduce students to the concept of NIMBY -- Not in My Backyard.
In the context of this unit, NIMBY indicates the idea that some
people do not want to live near landfills and incinerators, or deal
with the issue of waste disposal, even though they are responsible
for creating waste products. Work with students to come up with
some examples that illustrate the NIMBY attitude. Ask students to
imagine how using worms as composters might impact the NIMBY attitude.
Begin a worm composting project at your school. Work with the principal,
teachers, cafeteria and custodial employees to plan and implement
this project. Invite representatives from other schools that have
worm bins to visit your school to answer questions and offer advice.
Also see http://www.cfe.cornell.edu/compost/worms/basics.html
for more information. Design a way to measure your project's effectiveness
on your school's waste costs and on the environmental awareness
of other students. Teach your classmates about how earthworm castings,
which contain nitrate, phosphorous, exchangeable magnesium, potassium
and calcium, contribute to plant growth. The same is true of earthworm
urea, which is very high in nitrogen. And don't forget to keep the
community updated on your project as you go along!
PUBLIC RELATIONS NEEDED!
Ask students to survey 10 people each (and record their various
ages) in your school and community to find out which tiny creatures
make them feel most uncomfortable. Graph the results of this survey
and develop generalizations about the effect of a person's age on
their feelings about these creatures. (Usually, worms, bees and
spiders come out high on these lists.) Divide the students into
teams to launch campaigns to inform students and the community about
the positive aspects of worms, bees, spiders and any other creatures
that their survey showed have "poor public relations."
Include information fairs, posters, brochures, demonstrations and
other novel ways to convince people these tiny creatures deserve
DO WORMS HAVE A LIFE?
Of course they do! Ask the students to write the "life story"
of one of their favorite worms -- a red wiggler, an earthworm or
one of the other worm species they choose. Conclude by discussing
what students think are the advantages and disadvantages of the
Encourage students to explore the school grounds -- with magnifying
glasses in hand -- to find as many "creepy crawlies" or
"tiny creatures" as they can. Record the names and approximate
numbers of creatures they find and make a bar graph to show their
approximate distribution in your community. Later, use the computer
and Internet to develop a "virtual scrapbook" of all your
"creepy" neighbors. Write a concluding paragraph about
the role they play in your community.
VIDEO OVERVIEW AND SUGGESTIONS
As you view the video "Worms" with your students, use
the timecodes and video transcript as needed to stop and start the
tape, discuss the information and visuals, and guide your students
as they explore this topic. Ask them to write down any terms that
are unfamiliar to them and use the glossary after the program to
define the terms.
Have you ever wondered what happens to all that reject produce
at supermarkets? It's picked up each morning by this fellow,
Dan Holcombe. Dan collects about 5,000 pounds a day of wilted
vegetables, bruised fruit and unsold bakery goods. That's
a lot to dispose of, but he will be getting plenty of help.
In North Portland, near a yard-debris collection site, Dan
houses his workers -- all six or seven million of them. "There's
a good wad right over there."
They're worms, a kind known as red wigglers, compost worms,
or scientifically, eisenia foetida. "Eisenia is a surface
dweller; it's not a burrowing worm. The main population stays
in the top foot. Because its natural place in the world is
in decomposing organics, it's not really an earthworm. If
you took this worm and put it out in your garden, it wouldn't
survive. But they'll survive in your compost pile, you know,
in the cow pie and in decomposing vegetation."
He mixes the food wastes with composted yard debris. And
spreads it across the surface of the bin. The worms go to
work, eating their own weight in garbage every day. As the
worms digest this stuff, it passes through them to become
worm castings, one of the best plant fertilizers there is.
While the worms stay and eat near the top, their castings
accumulate below, eventually falling through the bottom. Dan,
with occasional help from the rest of the Holcombe family,
gathers the castings to sell.
"I guess worms, they kind of grow on ya. Ya know, you
get bit, you're addicted for life."
Unlike regular composting, in which the decomposing material
gets quite hot, this is a cool process. "Temperatures
in here never get above 60 degrees. And the worms are doing
all the turning and churning continually."
Yet research shows that even without the heat, the worms
destroy many harmful bacteria and may neutralize some undesirable
chemicals. And overall, there's remarkably little odor. "The
worms themselves actually control the odor. They go through
the food waste and they live on the bacteria."
Jess Kenagy, a Hubbard farmer, also makes a little money
from worms. "I'm not getting rich from it, but I am taking
care of a waste problem."
For him, they are mainly a good solution to an ongoing dilemma.
A dairy operation houses 350 milk cows in Jess's barn. And
cows, of course, produce more than just milk. "Manure
is not an asset, it's a liability. And the cheapest thing
we can do to get rid of it is the best thing to do, as far
as the dairyman's concerned."
After partially composting the manure with straw, he spreads
it out -- on what must be one of the biggest worm beds around:
a strip next to the road 1,800 feet long! The worms convert
the manure. "Taking Mother Nature's technology ... and
putting it to use."
And every once in a while Jess collects the castings for
sale. "I don't use any castings on my field crops, 'cause
I can sell 'em."
Both Dan and Jess sell their worm castings to this company.
"There's a great market for it in the nursery and horticulture
industry, and then you've got the homeowners and landscapers
that want organics in their yard. It's really pretty amazing
But, though the market for this product is growing, most
worm composting these days is not commercial at all and happens
on a much smaller scale than all this. For example, several
Portland schools -- this is Fernwood -- use eisenia to dispose
of cafeteria food wastes. "It cuts down our garbage,
and it's just kind of a science thing that the kids help with.
There's our worms. The worm castings we put it on our plants,
and our plants are very, very healthy ... "
But most people who compost with worms are just recycling
at home. And since eisenia is not a typical backyard species,
many have to buy their starter worms. Enter Elmer and Violet
Overgaard. "Usually people come and they want a pound
to start a small bin for taking care of their household garbage."
For the Overgaards, who live in Camas, Washington, the worms
themselves are the product. "There's a big one."
"There's some big ones." "Oh that was your
finger! Ha ha ..."
Much of their business comes from people new to composting,
referred here by the county extension service. "Yeah,
we pretty well cover our expenses." "Besides, we
get rid of our garbage." "And we get a lot of people
to come out." "We get to meet a lot of people."
"A lot of interesting people." "This here bedding
is a mixture of shavings and cow manure. We put about an inch
and a half on top about every two weeks."
Decades of experiences have made them worm experts. "This
is a breeder. You find another one and get them together and
after a while they'll do that thing. "They just lap over
one another and ..." "Each worm can lay an egg."
"I don't know how they make 'em, but they know how."
Because worms hate light, a small bulb burns under each lid
to curb their tendency to "wander." "That's
to keep the worms in. They will crawl if they're unhappy in
the bin. They'll come out of there and we have seen 'em come
right up like a river and over the top." "And here
the worms were, coming right up over the side and down --
I mean, they were moving!"
Elmer and Violet once had 80 active bins of worms.
"That was back in the late '70s ..."
And they still have some of the high-tech equipment. "It's
a worm harvester." "If you have a lot of it to be
done -- it sifts the dirt out." "Here they come.
They get kinda dizzy coming down there ... Here they come
They quit the business for awhile, but they started back
up a few years ago. "This time it's more or less a hobby."
This time they began with just one pound of worms and a bin.
"We got a pound ... about five years ago ... And as they
multiplied, we got a whole bin full. Before we knew it
"We had worms ..." "We had three bins. I don't
know why all of a sudden we've got six!" "If somebody
wants a pound of worms, we take some of this in and lay it
out on a table in there ... and keep scraping the bedding
off, keep scraping it back and they keep going down away from
the light." "We'll get the pure worm that way."
"They don't like this much. I gotta let them get down
there. You guys -- lazy! Get down there!" "Yours
aren't cleaned off as well as mine are!" "I haven't
got around to it yet. There's your pound of worm ... ten dollars,
with the bedding there. And then we give about another bag
full of fresh bedding, too, to help."
Just about anyone can recycle with worms -- starting with
just a handful of red wigglers, a small plastic bin and some
kitchen garbage. But if you prefer to remain wormless, you
can still buy the worms' prized product at your local garden
supply. And speaking of recycling, it turns out that the biggest
sellers of this brand of castings are the very stores that
supplied the worm feed in the first place! And just inside
the store, over in the produce section, a new batch is just