Some People Actually Keep Worms In Their Kitchens For This Bizarre Reason

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It might not surprise you to learn that you can now actually buy mealworms to keep in your home kitchen. After all, there is very little you could think of that you can’t get on the world wide web. But what could come as a shock is the fact that people across the globe have been maintaining the wriggly little fellas in their kitchens for years. And the reason why people do this? Well, that’s the most eye-opening thing of all.

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We’re not just talking about any old worms, mind you. Here, we’re specifically interested in red worms. These small animals also go by a number of different monikers. So you might know them as tiger, brandling or manure worms, for example. But whatever you like to call them, there seems to be no denying that they could be extremely useful kitchen allies.

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The wider world is seemingly only just coming to appreciate these hard-working animals. But, it seems, some people have known about them for quite some time. In fact, one commenter on an article in The Guardian claimed to have been using red worms in their home for a decade. Elsewhere, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm reckons they’ve been rearing the worms for four times as long.

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So it seems that red worms are about due their time in the spotlight. And with global leaders and international experts all issuing warnings about the dangers currently facing the environment, now appears to be the perfect time to encourage everybody to take a closer look at these wriggly guys. You never know, you just might be convinced to keep them yourself…

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First things first, it’s probably worth debunking a few myths around worms. The species of worm we’re most interested in here has the scientific name Eisenia fetida. And yes, if you pick these worms up, you will most likely find that they are slimy. But there is actually a very good reason for this.

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Red worms don’t have the luxury of lungs, you see, so they have to breathe using their skin. In fact, this form of respiration promotes the movement of oxygen from its environment into its bloodstream. And in order to make this exchange of essential gases successful, the critters’ skin must always be moist.

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It seems that there are a couple of ways in which red worms – and earthworms in general – keep their skin at optimum sliminess. The first, of course, is by living permanently in moist environments. So while Eisenia fetida might not take up residence deep within soil, it does thrive on top of, say, dung, farm land or some forest floors.

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The second method the worms employ to stay moist is through the release of something called coelom fluid. According to a paper from the Wiley Online Library, this liquid is found inside earthworms and helps their internal organs move more easily. But their skin gets dry – for instance, if one gets picked up – it also releases coelom to rehydrate its skin.

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Coelom is useful in another regard as well. The fluid is yellow in color and apparently smells pretty rancid. So while it might not be pleasant to feel the liquid on your fingers, it would serve to puzzle or even banish a worm’s potential predator in the wild. The critters might be slimy, then, but it’s for a logical reason.

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What other myths exist about red worms? Well, one question that seems to frequently crop up is whether or not they can regenerate when cut in half. And perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no… And also yes. To understand further, though, we’ll need to take a closer look at this ostensibly bizarre feature.

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Let’s leave aside why anyone would want to purposefully chop a worm into two pieces. And instead, we’ll concentrate on where the question came from in the first place. It likely came about because a number of the critters naturally shed their tails when they are pulled. In the wild, though, this would not usually involve a curious human yanking at their hindquarters.

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Rather, a worm’s ability to get rid of its tail acts as a defense mechanism against predators. So, if, for instance, a bird attempts to guzzle one for its breakfast, the critter might reflexively shed its tail to escape with its life intact. Afterwards, some species will, in fact, grow back the missing appendage.

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Yet this survival instinct would not work in all situations. That’s because people trying to cut worms into two are not the same as birds trying to grab a meal. And the real problem arises if a person snips the critter in the wrong location. That is, if the cut comes too close to it’s head, the likelihood of tail regeneration is very slim.

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In fact, the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Cornell University gives its students some sage advice. Their website states that if they were to chop the animals they would “most likely end up with two dead pieces of worms.” And even if the critter does somehow manage to re-grow its tail, the prognosis is only 50 percent better. The department states that the best outcome is having “one alive worm and one piece of dead worm.”

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All things considered, then, it’s probably best just to leave the worms as they are. And besides, instead of wasting time dissecting the wriggly little guys, you could get on with the job of maintaining them. But contrary to what you might think, this is not as much work as it perhaps sounds.

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You’ll need a bit of space in which to keep your critters, of course. But this could be anywhere from a corner of the garden to – yes – a spot on the kitchen windowsill. And there are a couple of different routes to choose from. For the more adventurous worm-raiser, then, there’s the DIY option.

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Journalist Sarah LaBrecque spoke to The Guardian on the subject in 2015. And, according to her, DIY worm composting involves little more than grabbing a large container with holes in. Then, you add “layers of wood chips and newspapers.” You’ll need some critters, too, of course, and you’ll also need to give the mix a stir every now and then.

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But if this sounds like a little too much effort, there is the option of going down the ready-made route. Yes, companies such as WormUp or Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm will now sell you all the kit you need to get going raising the critters. And with the WormUp package at least, you won’t even have to stir the bedding.

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But you’re perhaps still wondering why anyone would voluntarily want to raise worms in their kitchens, regardless of how straightforward that might be. Well, the answer lies not in how simple they are to maintain. Rather, it is all to do with what the worms eat – and how they break it down.

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It’s probably not escaped your notice that the planet is currently suffering from a serious plastic problem. In fact, National Geographic magazine has called plastic pollution “one of the most pressing environmental issues” of the day. And when you consider the sheer numbers involved, it’s hard to argue with that statement.

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For instance, a 2015 press release from Stanford University claimed that citizens of the U.S. get through 2.5 billion Styrofoam cups every single year. And that doesn’t even make a dent in the staggering amount of plastic trash that the U.S. creates annually, totaling over 30 million tons. But what’s more alarming, according to the college, is that only a tenth of this waste is actually recycled.

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Of course, it’s not just the Americans who use and discard plastic. A study, published in the Science Advances journal in 2018 stated that an astonishing 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been created worldwide in the past 60 years alone. And of that, only 21 percent has been recycled or incinerated.

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That means, to put it mildly, that there is still an awful lot of plastic lingering in landfills or simply polluting the planet’s oceans and streets. In fact, National Geographic magazine claimed that nearly ten million tons of the stuff finds its way into the seas each and every year. And this is causing major problems for our fish and wildlife.

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Simply put, National Geographic magazine has stated that “millions of animals are killed by plastics every year.” The majority of these deaths occur when wildlife becomes entwined in plastic waste. Eventually, they succumb to hunger or asphyxiation. Additionally, the stuff can clog the throats of any creature that swallows it, which can also kill them.

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But why is this dangerous plastic so ubiquitous? Well, it comes down to the fact that stuff is incredibly durable. And that’s partly due to the additives included in its makeup. These elements, by some estimates, mean that it can take as long as 400 years for waste to degrade. So all that trash is simply going nowhere fast.

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People, businesses and governments across the world are, therefore, seriously reconsidering their use of single-use plastic. This could take the form of offering discounts for buying coffee in a reusable cup. Or perhaps ensuring that Christmas wrapping paper is plastic-free. But one aspect of recycling that has yet to be cracked is how to break-down the stuff quickly and efficiently.

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And that’s where our red worms come in. In 2015, Wei-Min Wu, a senior research engineer at Stanford co-authored a pair of studies published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. The papers claimed that mealworms – and, more specifically, their digestive systems – could help in the battle against plastic waste.

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How so? Well, the studies concluded that 100 laboratory-based mealworms are able to eat Styrofoam. Unbelievably, they can consume around 39 milligrams of the stuff every 24 hours. And as these animals do with anything else they eat, they then converted roughly 50 percent of the soft plastic to carbon dioxide. They had an ingenious way of disposing of the rest of the plastic, too.

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About a day after consuming the plastic, you see, the worms pooped out – and this is the important part – “biodegraded fragments that look similar to tiny rabbit droppings.” Wu further believed that this dung could then be safely used in farming. And this entire process also seemed to cause the critters no harm whatsoever.

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And to say Wu was excited about this discovery is perhaps an understatement. “The findings are revolutionary. This is one of the biggest breakthroughs in environmental science in the past ten years,” the scientist told CNN. Craig Griddle, the scientist’s supervisor at Stanford, agreed, stating that this could be “really important research.”

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So what’s the big deal? After all, the 39 milligrams of plastic that the worms digested weighs about the same as a pill. Clearly, then, you’d need an awful lot of the critters to tackle the global pollution problem. But of course, Wu isn’t suggesting that we unleash a few billion of them on the planet’s waste and wait to see what happens.

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Rather, Wu and his co-authors are interested in how the critter’ insides go about converting the plastic into biodegradable waste. “The most important part is understanding that the mealworm’s gut is so efficient in degrading plastic,” the scientist told CNN. “The bacteria is essential.” He further noted that the creatures’ “gut environment” was of particular fascination.

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There is, of course, good reason for this. Because if scientists can get to grips with what’s going on inside these worms, then they can potentially recreate the process on a larger scale. “Our findings have opened a new door to solve the global plastic pollution problem,” Wu told the Stanford website.

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Yet scientists are not the kind of fellows who run before they can walk. Wu and his team acknowledged that this is just the first step on the ladder that will hopefully lead to improving the world’s plastic waste problems. Ultimately, though, the studies are aimed at helping researchers and manufacturers create polymers that aren’t harmful to the environment.

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There have, as of yet, been no further announcements from Wu or Stanford regarding any additional worm research. So it remains to be seen whether those groundbreaking original studies will lead to a global revolution. But that doesn’t mean that people haven’t taken the humble red worm to their hearts.

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As we’ve seen, there are those raising worms in their homes and kitchens. And they use them not just for organic waste, but plastic as well. “People are interested because it’s new. But also because they want to do the right thing,” Erich Fässler, who co-created WormUp, told The Guardian in 2016.

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The newspaper also advised that – should you wish to start worm-composting yourself – you could probably get going with just 12 red worms. And as the critters tend to reproduce at a fast rate, those initial dozen will likely soon become many more. As a general guide, then, around 1,000 worms will deal with about 4.4 pounds of organic waste in seven days.

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Remember, too, that the critters don’t just help to reduce plastic waste. After the diligent little chaps have excreted the consumed waste, of course, the result can be used for other purposes. “Because you can use the soil the worms produce, anybody who has a plant benefits from composting,” Fässler said.

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Plus, it’s not just plastic waste that the worms could help you to deal with responsibly. The commenter “Rachelonthehill” wrote on The Guardian website that she has even used her composting friends to destroy “bank statements, receipts and phone bills.” This also ensures that no one will be able to access any of the private details from her mail.

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It may, however, be some time before the wider world utilizes worms and their amazing plastic degrading abilities for the planet’s benefit. But if you’d like to do your part in the meantime, you could add a worm nest to your kitchen. You never know, you might even enjoy it!

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