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Why are My Composting Worms Trying to Escape?

worms escapeWorms in a vermicomposting bin sometimes try to escape. If it’s just one or two adventurous worms, you don’t have much to worry about. However, if you see worms clumping near the top of the bin, at the air ducts, or climbing out, something may be amiss. Let’s find out why composting worms try to escape, and what you can do about it.

Note: Worms are sensitive to the weather. If a low pressure system or thunderstorm is moving in, the worms might start clumping and climbing. Watch for a while and see if this is the pattern. If so, do not worry.

Need..Gasp..Oxygen

Worms breathe through their skins. If they don’t have enough air, they will try to leave the bin. Lack of oxygen could be caused by:

  • Too wet
  • Overfeeding
  • Poor bin design
  • Insufficient ventilation
  • Material dumped on top them

To check for overfeeding, dig around. Is there a lot of undigested food in the bin? You can take some out. Wait until they have worked through most of the food in the bin before adding more. If you have excess scraps, you can freeze them until later.

Your worm bin should have a lid. Keeping the lid on discourages escapees.

A poorly designed bin might not have good drainage. Maybe it doesn’t have enough air holes, or the holes are blocked. We’ve even seen shallow home-made worm bins set right out in the open with no lid and of course, the worms made a break for it! Build a solid bin yourself, or try one of our tray-based composters.

Any compost bin can get its air holes clogged with debris or objects surrounding it. Check for this and open up the air passages.

When introducing worms to the bin, place them on top of the bedding. Let them dig their own way in. They build little tunnels that provide oxygen. Dumping lots of bedding directly on worms can smother them.

Excess Moisture

If the bin is too wet, your worms will start to drown. They may try to crawl away from the danger. This is also bad for composting and can stink up the bin. Excess mold and even mildew can grow. Yuck!

The worm bedding should have the consistency of a wrung-out sponge. Squeeze some bedding in your hand to check. If water comes out, your bin is too wet.

The cure for a wet bin is to add dry bedding. Shredded newspaper is perfect; so is peat moss, coconut coir and shredded cardboard. Add and stir gently.

To help prevent moisture problems, keep the lid on, especially when it rains. Don’t add too much wet, sloppy foods like melon or left-over fruit smoothies.

If the bin is wet beyond repair, you might need to harvest your worm castings (fertilizer), isolate your worms from most of their bedding, and start over with fresh bedding. (See an article about isolating the worms)

Recent Change

If you like detective work, look at any recent change you’ve made that might be causing the problem. New environment? New bedding? New foods? If possible, reverse the recent change and see if the worms go back to normal.

If the worms are in escape mode, avoid nitrogen-rich foods, which includes grass clippings. Also avoid acidic foods (tomatoes, onions, pineapples, excessive coffee grounds, tea bags citrus). Also, don’t add too much white paper, which contains bleach.

Sometimes people forget to feed their worms. Starvation will drive the worms to greener pastures. When you go on vacation, save up scraps in the fridge or freezer. Ask a friend to feed the worms twice a week or so. Maybe you’re eating out a lot and aren’t generating any kitchen scraps. Enlist a neighbor to save their kitchen scraps for you, and save left-over salads (wash off the dressing). Keep the worms fed until you’re back in the kitchen.

Adjust the pH of the Worm Bin

Most compost owners don’t need to go to the trouble of actually measuring the pH of their worm bin. If you have a pH probe handy, measure it and aim for neutral pH of 7. Adding some crushed eggshells helps lower the pH and adds grit that helps the worm digest the food. Acidic, oily or salty foods like potato chips and large amounts of tomatoes can throw off the pH.

New Baby Worms

When the worms reproduce, hundreds or even thousands of baby worms hatch. The adults might feel crowded and try to leave. You can just ignore the problem and the population will balance itself. Or, scoop up the “volunteers” who are hanging around the sides and top of the bin, and start a new bin. Maybe a friend would like to start composting and would LOVE a bucketful of worms for her birthday. Red composting worms are also great to use as fishing bait.

Quick Fix: Turn On a Light

Maybe your worms charge at the lid every time you try to feed them. If you’re trying some of the ideas above, you can keep the worms under your thumb by simply turning on a light. This video demonstrates that light starts working immediately. The 3-minute video also has some reasons why your worms might be escaping.

Video – How to Stop Worms from Escaping the Compost Bin

You can also put a little dry bedding on the top. This will discourage them from climbing up. Take care not to suffocate them.

Your worms might be sick. Here is a more detailed article about worm health.

If worms escaping is really a problem, making adjustments to your worm bin should help. At Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm, we have been cultivating worms for more than 40 years, and we grow our own Red Worm Composting Mix. We also carry a line of tray-based composters, perfect indoors or out. And we grow Super Reds for releasing into the garden, plus mealworms for bird food, pet food and fishing.

22 comments on “Why are My Composting Worms Trying to Escape?

  • Occasionally my worms try to escape. Sometimes from too much food, sometimes the weather, I think. I paint a solution of salt water around the top of the bin with a cheap chip brush to contain them.

    Reply
    • Hi Patty! These rolly polly worms are actually a sign of a healthy compost bin! If you want to get rid of a certain pest, cutting back on moisture might be a good idea. Or covering your bin with a lid helps as well.

      Reply
  • I know what happened to mine: I gave them peanut shells–SALTED–and it slowly killed all of my worms. It took a few months, as I had a really vigorous group of worms turning out gold for me, but it didn’t dawn on me until it was too late that salt was the last thing my worms wanted. Oh, well. I got a good deal of gold out of it, and I’ve cleaned everything up and am ready to start over.

    Reply
  • My bin has been working quite well since June when I got it. Now all of a sudden the babies are leaving and dying on the floor. What have I done wrong?

    Reply
    • Hello Stacy! Are the worms crawling out of the bin? If so, I would recommend adding a light source over the bin. Worms naturally avoid light and this will keep them burrowed into the soil. It is quite common for worms to try to escape a new environment, but it could be different variables as you have had your bin running for some time. Other things to think about are moistness, temperature, and pH. The soil should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge and between 40 and 80 degrees. The pH should be neutral. Hope this helps!

      Uncle Jim

      Reply
  • I sat up a worm bin earlier this week (about four days ago) and haven’t had much luck yet. We used shredded newspaper and leaves as the bedding. We then put on the layer of dirt and the worms. In the past day, I have noticed a lot of my worms are escaping — it’s not good! I made sure the soil was moist, and I think they have enough oxygen. Is this normal? I know it’s a new bin, but I think there may be some issue. They are clumping around the corners of the bin. Any suggestions?

    Reply
    • Hello Amanda! Are the worms crawling out of the bin? If so, I would recommend adding a light source over the bin. Worms naturally avoid light and this will keep them burrowed into the soil. It is quite common for worms to try to escape a new environment. Other things to think about are moistness, temperature, and pH. The soil should be about as moist as a wrung out sponge and between 40 and 80 degrees. The pH should be neutral. Hope this helps!

      Uncle Jim

      Reply
  • I just received my 1000 worms yesterday and I just finished moving them into the compost bin.
    They seem lively and full of energy which is a good thing, but a lot of them 10-20 worms are constantly trying to escape. I do shine a light when I feed them, but I just dont want them to escape in general.
    Here is what my bin has:
    1/2 from the bottom is shredded paper and shredded egg carton.
    Then on top is peat moss, the one they arrived in. Small layer.
    On top is a compost and mulch mixture which is maybe 2-4 inches in height.
    For the Bin itself, I am using a nice sized flower pot, which I had laying around and it seems the holes on the bottom are perfect for letting loose water out.

    I think the reason they are escaping is because they just moved into a new home, but I don’t want them climbing out, at all.

    Reply
  • Bren DiCarlo says:

    I just received my worms and I am very excited to have them in the family. However, they are trying to escape, I guess they are not as happy as I am. I have done all of your suggestions, but can you tell me how strong of a light do I need on them?
    Is natural light enough?, do I use a 40w, 60w or stronger bulb or what light source is best for them?

    Reply
  • My worms are inside my house. They would climb up and hang out in the top of the bin. I put a screen over the bin and they stayed at home.

    Reply
  • Alexis Thompson says:

    I got my worms 3 days ago. They were placed in moist bedding in a Rubbermaid tote. I had drilled of small holes in the lid, bottom and along the side of the bin ( before adding the worms of course). I let them get settled for two days keeping the lid on the bin but a bright light overhead. Last night I moved the bin to a slightly warmer spot in the basement and added some food scraps- celery and lettuce, put the lid back on and turned off the light. I checked on them this evening only to find that a large number of them had crawled to the rim of the bin. I don’t know why they’re trying to escape. Help!

    Reply
  • Hi. I made my own compost bin out of a trash can with a lid. I’ve drilled 1/2 inch holes on the side of the bin and in the bottom of the bin, and have the bin elevated from the ground on bricks, so air can enter and water can exit from the bottom holes. Will worms just crawl out of these holes? Or as long as I’m feeding them correctly, will they stay put? Thanks!

    Reply
  • My worms only climb to the top of the bin at night. So weird. I check on them throughout the day, but it is only around 8 or 9 at night that I find a dozen or so crawling around the top of the bin. The bin has no odor. It s moist, but not soaking. There is food, but not that much. The bin is peat moss, newspaper and cardboard. I added egg shells. I put the stragglers back in the bin, they burrow back underneath and in the morning there is no sign of them. Mwhatmis going on?

    Reply
  • Brock Ryan says:

    Mine went all S.O.S. because I had allowed a potato (maybe an apple or onion) to ferment to a level that smelled like vinegar. THEN I put that in the bin and did not bury it. The bin reeked of vinegar until I buried the new stuff. Now we are cool again. I did get to see how many baby worms were in there though! NEAT.

    Reply
  • First, the MORAL of the story:
    GET YOUR TOWER/BINS READY BEFORE ORDERING THE WORMS!!

    I think i killed all my worms …
    They arrived super fast, and I’m not the best at being prepared, shall we say. I left them in the pouch they came in, checking on them daily. I put some expired spinach, a big tomato top, and some lettuce bits in, not a lot. Saw activity soon after, and they were all fighting over the tomato! Then i decided they’d probably like some more room, and put them in a home-despot (LoL) contractor’s bucket, for a couple days, with some damp coir. First thing they did was start crawling up the inside of the bucket. I dutifully –and gently– scooped them back in, and kissed them all goodnight. I had left the lid ajar so they’d be sure to have enough oxygen, but not off completely because they don’t like light. I couldnt put them outside with this arrangement because raccoons woild have feasted on them. Anyway, by morning they were again crawling up the inside of the bucket, and a few had escaped onto the kitchen floor. (NOT good, with a couple forgetful “ol’ folks” likely to slip on them in the middle of the night– i have a memory of a storyline from my favorite Soap, where a kid worm farmer had the dreaded “WORM CRAWL” all over the kitchen, and the mom made them quit their hobby. At the time, i thought, “Worm crawl? Yeah, right. They totally made that up.” This was before Al Gore invented the internet, so there was no instantaneous verification available, we just accepted everything we were told!)

    So i put the lid on tight for a couple nights, thinking there would be plenty of oxygen available. They still crawled up, but stayed inside with lid on tight.

    Reply
  • Continued…

    So THEN I read this article (how did i not see this beforehand???), saying, “Whatever you do, don’t do this.”

    I realized i had done most of them:
    •As discussed above, oxygen may have been compromised due to tight lid for around 18 hrs, maybe(?).

    •may have overfed them? There was still bits of scraps throughout, but it didn’t seem excessive. I added stuff, maybe 1-2 cups, every day or two.

    •I had read a lady’s comment about skipping the resting/break down period for fresh scraps to start sliming up a bit, making them more accessible to worms; she mixed them in a blender, which they then devoured immediately (she said). I blendered a couple rotten bananas, some banana peels, and a handful of lettuce. And DUMPED IN RIGHT ON TOP!!! …*THEN* I read here, “don’t dump your leftover smoothie in there”.

    •Solution to above, add more coir, right? I dampened a double handful and dumped that RIGHT ON TOP!!! Another no-no from this article.

    •”Poor Bin Design”… a bucket is not a design. So, yup.

    Sorry such a lengthy post, hopefully somebody somewhere learned something from it. Happy worming☺

    Reply
  • I don’t find any of my worms. I try to leave them alone and not bother them but got curious and I started looking for them and don’t find them. I see a lot of scraps around. The bin does not smell bad and everything looks ok except no worms! could I have missed them? I don’t think they go to the bottom right? any ideas? I live in Sacramento and we have had some very hot days. THey are in the shade with a black plastic bag over them and then a towel plus the cover. I’m confused. Any clues that I should look for in case they are there and I just missed them? is that possible? Oh, I’m really confused and concerned.

    Help!

    Reply
  • How can I really tell if my worms are dead? I don’t see them but I don’t see them dead either? Do they go to the bottom of the bin? I also see a lot of scraps that nothing seems to have happened to them. Some guidance please…. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Annabelle says:

    Hi Jim ! I am from the land down under and have tried on many occasions to get a “box “to actually work I have gone to the expense of buying readymade tubs and boxes and even had a very good Oregon box made for me but after a few months mainly summer time they all disappear I feed them well but they still migrate to the lawn area I was wondering would a smear of Vaseline around the rim stop the little critters from debarking I am not going to let these little blighters beat me any suggestions would be greatly appreciated Little Ausie Battler

    Reply

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