What do earthworms eat? Most of us learn in school that earthworms are good for the soil and help maintain a healthy ecosystem. They are also food for a wide range of animals, from birds to raccoons. But have you ever wondered what earthworms eat?
Earthworms eat manure, algae, and decaying plant and animal matter in the soil or on the ground’s surface. They are fungivores, eating fungi that grow on the roots of plants, and some eat soil that contains organic matter. They process soil and organic matter into beneficial plant nutrients.
If you are a garden lover, you’ve come across earthworms, even if you didn’t realize it. We often do not pay much attention to worms in our garden. In an acre of land, there can be up to one million worms! Can you believe it? That is quite a population living beneath our feet.
Learn how to compost with worms.
An Earthworm’s Diet
An earthworm’s diet can consist of:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Leaves, grass, and other plant matter
- Dead animals
These are all things that an earthworm can feed off of in its natural habitat. Captive earthworms, like those used for compost, will most often have a diet of:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Hair and nail clippings
- Moldy bread
- Some grains (in moderation)
- Coffee grounds
- Tea bags/ old tea leaves
- Shredded newspaper (but not the colored ink)
- Cow and horse manure
Let’s take a deeper look into what they are. For example, did you know there are different kinds of earthworms?
Are There Different Kinds of Earthworms?
All earthworms are not created equally. There are many different types of earthworms, each with its own unique qualities and characteristics. Some earthworms are native to specific regions, while others can be found all over the world.
Most earthworms live in the soil or under rocks, helping to mix and aerate the earth with their tunneling behavior. They also play an important role in breaking down organic matter, such as fallen leaves and dead plants, which helps to release vital nutrients into the soil.
In addition, earthworms act as hosts for many forms of beneficial microorganisms that help crops and other plants thrive. This is why it’s actually great to have them around! Whether you are a gardener or a farmer, earthworms are an essential part of maintaining healthy soil and growing healthy plants.
Very few people know that there are different kinds of earthworms. They are differentiated into three groups based on where they live, and this influences what they eat. They are:
- Epigeic worms
- Endogeic worms
- Anecic worms
What are epigeic earthworms?
Epigeic earthworms live above the surface of the soil. They must keep their skin moist to breathe, so they live under large piles of leaf litter, rocks, and wood debris. These worms are efficient composters and eat voraciously. Some people call them compost earthworms.
Epigeic earthworms do not tunnel into the soil, and they must find food to eat on the soil surface, and there is plenty of it! They eat fallen leaves, wood, decaying plants, algae, and manure.
These tiny composters vary from one inch to seven inches. They can reproduce quickly when there is plenty of food available. They are darker than other earthworms and can move faster than the other types of earthworms.
If you find these earthworms, do not ‘dig’ them into the soil, thinking you are doing them a favor. They function as nature intended when they are free to move around on the soil surface.
What are endogeic worms?
Endogeic comes from a Greek term meaning “within the earth,” which is precisely where these wigglers prefer to live. They occupy the top layers of soil and topsoil, moving around in burrows that they dig. They seldom come up to the surface unless the ground becomes waterlogged.
Endogeic worms are pale white or translucent worms that move slowly as they have a weak muscle structure. They are one to twelve inches in length. You may find them if you lift rocks or fallen tree trunks, but generally, they are found when you dig in the top layers of the soil.
These earthworms eat the soil and obtain nutrients from it. Soil contains bacteria, fungi, and sometimes small pieces of organic matter, which these worms use for nutrients. Fungus, known as mycorrhizae, grow on the roots of plants, and this forms food for endogeic worms.
What are anecic worms?
Anecic worms are the travelers in the earthworm world. They live primarily under the soil but sometimes come up to the surface to find food. They create extensive permanent burrows beneath the soil surface with diameters of one inch.
Some burrows have been found to extend up to six feet under the surface. This is quite a feat when you consider that they are worms. These worms can grow to quite a substantial size.
Most anecic worms are around one to ten inches, but there are records of them growing up to sixty inches (that’s five feet or 1.52 meters) in length. That is a sizeable worm!
Anecic worms eat soil and any organic matter (plant or animal) found in the earth. These worms also come up to the surface and eat fallen leaves, bark pieces, and decaying animal matter. They drag their food item down into the burrow, where they eat at their leisure.
They are slow-moving worms that vary in color from a pasty white to light brown. These worms are the ones most used as fishing bait. Now, let’s look at what earthworms eat and how it impacts your garden.
Do Earthworms Eat Living Plants?
Many people are afraid that earthworms may damage their plants by eating leaves, stems, and roots. The good news is you don’t have to worry about that happening in your garden. In fact, it’s a good thing to have them there in your soil. Earthworms never eat any part of a living plant.
Earthworms are an essential part of the ecosystem. They form a crucial element in nature’s disposal system as they decomposers. They process dead and decaying material, fragmenting it into tiny organic pieces which can be used for nutrients by plants. Gardens with earthworms are generally healthier gardens because of this.
Their defecation is known as worm casts, and they contain processed organic material. Earthworms’ casts change the structure of the soil, making it more friable, which allows water to soak into the ground more easily.
Worm casts have a rich supply of nitrogen and phosphorous, two elements that plants need to grow. The worm casts are deposited in worm tunnels under the soil surface, where the plant’s roots can access the nutrients.
Earthworms tunnel into the soil, which aerates the soil and allows gases to escape and enter the ground. Plants grow better in the soil where there is space for the roots to penetrate easily. Now that you know it’s good to have earthworms around your garden, should you feed them?
Should I feed earthworms in my garden?
Now you know more about what earthworms eat and that they are a positive addition to your garden. So, maybe you’re wondering if you should feed them to keep them around.
The best way to feed earthworms is to leave fallen leaves, twigs, and branches in your flower beds. Bigger branches can be shredded and used as mulch around plants, and this serves multiple purposes:
- It feeds the earthworms
- Provides nutrients to the plants
- Prevents water from evaporating from the soil, so the plants do not dry out
This is organic plant material you will have in and around your garden already, so it just makes sense to leave some for the worms.
What do I feed earthworms for vermicomposting?
If you are keeping earthworms for their beneficial worm tea and casts, you can feed them the following:
- Any vegetable or fruit peelings, or vegetables or fruit that is going off, except citrus fruit
- Food waste such as moldy bread, unwanted leftovers, coffee grounds, and tea leaves
- Eggshells are useful as a source of calcium
- Shredded paper
- Animal manure, preferably from herbivores
It is best to break the food down into smaller pieces as the worms can use this quickly, preventing the worm bin from developing a nasty smell.
The Best Soil for Earthworms
In addition to providing food for the worms to eat, you can also check to be sure you have soil that is inviting to them. Earthworms don’t really chase food as other living things do. Instead, more of their focus is on whether or not they can survive in the soil.
This means they need soil that they can breathe in and stay moist in. Most species of earthworms like soil that is neutral or acidic. This can vary from pH of 4.3 to 6.4, for example. They have very small nervous systems but are still capable of searching for their food with a type of mental tracking system. If they don’t find food in the immediate area within a few minutes, they will move on to another area.
How do earthworms eat?
We’ve talked a lot about what they eat, but let’s take a look at how they eat. The digestive system of an earthworm is actually very complex and interesting. While it is an invertebrate, it does have some organs similar to birds, some fish, and gastropods – the crop and gizzard. An earthworm’s crop is used to store food and the gizzard is used to grind up food (with the help of grit).
But that’s where the similarities will end because the digestive system of the worm is just one long tube from its mouth to its anus. It contains the mouth, buccal cavity, esophagus, crop, gizzard, and intestine, and then ends with the anus.
Because they don’t have any teeth, they swallow their food whole using a flap that pushes the food in. Their throat muscles then grab on as it’s lubricated with saliva and then pushed through the esophagus.
What Do Earthworms Eat? – Conclusion
Earthworms are beneficial to soil and plants as they eat decaying organic matter, processing it into forms that plants can use. Some earthworms ingest soil, using fungi and bacteria present in the soil as food.
They need moist soil with good soil structure in order to take their rightful place in the food chain. Organic soils are very healthy when they contain earthworms. Whether you keep composting earthworms or just want to make your garden more hospitable to any that might crawl your way, these tips will help you.
Did you learn something new about earthworms today?
Adriana Copaceanu is a passionate nature lover living in the country on her dream property where she grows vegetables, lavender, and wildflowers that she shares with the wildlife they attract. When she's not in the garden, she loves spending time with her chickens and planning her next nature project. Check your her books below: