If ants and bees are social insects and praying mantis territorial predators, then I propose composting worms be categorized as a herd insect. In terms of bees and ants, the behavior is structured with a central head and a division of labor to create elaborate and complex homes. In the terms of praying mantis, they are born competitors, in which they establish against their own kind personal territory. Only during a brief period of their lives do they even allow for mating, with famously lethal results; the mantis is a rugged isolationist. Between these types of insects, I discovered very little about worm behavior, so I set out to study their behavior and discovered that worms are the herds of the insect world.
Herd: A large group of animals, especially hoofed mammals, that live together or are kept together as livestock. - Oxford Dictionary
Finding the Right Bin to Raise Worms
I have learned a great deal of about worm behavior as a worm farmer. I have raised worms in every size bin from the NLR Mini-bin to five gallon buckets, and from 20 gallons bins to a cubic yard size bin that can be stacked. With my amazing team, we have created windrows that range from a six foot pile to a quarter-acre field in the heart of Chicago. Along with my partner, Dale, we have tested nearly every system for growing worms, leading to our current models. So in this process, we have seen a lot of behaviors and actions that surprised us, taught us, and gave us a understanding of the daily life of a worm.
Worms: A Pacifist Herd
Other than hooves, worms fit the first definition of herds according to Oxford Dictionary. We keep worms in bins or in other forms of containment; in this, we see worms able to live closely, even on top pf each other, without causing each other harm. They have no means to cause each other harm. Worms are true pacifists, so being close to each other offers them many advantages, and as a domesticated creature for us, very safe and useful to our goals.
Eating as a Herd
The worm when it grazes on food is seeing with chemical and biological senses the microbes it desires to consume. When they find it, they pull them into their gut like a straw, digesting some and entering in a symbiotic relationship with others. This allows them to break down food, mix it with beneficial organisms, and allow it to further compost, making it an even richer food for the other worms. The more worms in the area, the more beneficial organisms available, which draws more worms. In time, you can have thick worms, with little space between them along the food line. This generates 150 to 200 worms per square foot of surface on average.
So herd animals often need large amounts of food, eating a disproportionate amount of low-energy plant foods, in order to convert it to proprieties and fats. Worms are equally disproportionate in they eat organic waste in order to convert it to proteins and fats. Feeding, like most herd animals, makes up the majority of their time. This creates a constant movement of the herd to find new feeding grounds, and in worms, they always follow the food. It is why you can lure them to the top of any bin they are contained in.
Predators and Surviving as a Herd
Another herd characteristic is the reaction to predators. The first primary predator of a worm is the sun. If a worm can feel the sun, it knows it is exposed and will see to go below ground as quickly as possible. When the sun is particularly harsh, worms will flow together and form a ball that can dive faster through the material, to dig deeper into the ground and further from the surface. When a individual worm is grabbed, say by the beak of a bird, it will thrash as much as it can, until it is consumed. In this, individuals work as long as they can to allow more of the herd to get away. In their limited capacity, they work together to survive in large amounts.
One of the first herd behaviors I noticed early on was their behavioral response to toxic environments. I saw an effect called streaming, which is when worms form a line to remove themselves from a critical environment. For me, it was 20 gallon bins with an excess of beer grains that went thermophilic, eventually getting to over 120 degree F. The worms from approximately 60 bins came streaming out every hole, and when they hit the floor, they pooled into big balls. This was herd survival behavior.
Now, worm herds migrate steadily and constantly. You can trace their paths along the waterlines and runoff spaces, along where food has been recently laid, within food a week or two old (which just happens to be the best beginning), and where the food has been completely broken down and filled with worm eggs. When the food is rich, the worms breed, and when it nears the end, they migrate to the new location, leaving the scraps for their children to be born three weeks later. This migration moves across the field in almost predictable patterns. Just as you can imagine bison and deer moving across the great plains, I can envision worms crossing the great compost plains to new feeding ground.
As with herd animals across the world, the babies of the herd have very little time before they must get up and walk. Inside the worm population, each worm is born an individual that must begin eating within hours of hatching (or else they perish). As worm herdsmen, we at Nature's Little Recyclers have learned to feed the hatchlings better because it is eat or die for them. We have learned they are often at a tremendous distance from the food, as the parents have eaten almost all the scraps before moving on. The distance can be several inches to as much as a foot -- which in proportion, is about a mile to several miles for worms. Many will perish in trying to make this transition. The healthiest populations of hatchlings are where the parents are fairly close and are freeing food up into smaller and smaller bites.
In conclusion, I would like to argue that worms are herd creatures, doing the great work of grazing on organic wastes, breeding young worms, and creating compost. Their behaviors when seen from this point of view demonstrate why worms are useful to the ecosystem. Like bees, our understanding of worms can help create a better world.