Invasive worms

An Invasive Worm That Could Destroy Your Garden

Please read this post and make note of it so you won’t have to spend hours researching if you end up having the problem of what some call “jumping worms” . This destructive invasive worm is making its way across the United States and even into Canada.

They rapidly

  • eat all of the organic matter near the surface,
  • sucking up nutrients,
  • often eating through plant roots,
  • undermining plants by loosening the top layer of soil, and
  • totally destroying good soil structure and
  • leaving the soil bare.  

 At the same time adults are laying cocoons (that encase the eggs and are the size of a mustard seed) into the soil to hatch next year’s worms.

They can destroy your garden. At the very least it can make gardening difficult.

Your Good Earthworms Have Helped You With Your Garden

If you garden according to TMG suggestions you’ve consistently replenished your soil with organic materials to help you have the most productive garden. You need only lay the materials on top of your soil and your earthworms (which have probably become plentiful) and other soil life  break it down and pull it into the soil for you.

As they burrow through the soil they create channels allowing air and water to enter. And the castings  (excrement) they leave behind adds even more beneficial bacteria and fertility to the soil. 

All That Could Be Undone By This Invasive Worm

Unfortunately, an Asian worm that is detrimental to our gardens, forests, and landscapes has made its way through almost all of our country. PBS Wisconsin reports “they rapidly deplete topsoil of all nutrients”.

AND where these invaders take up residence our “good-guy” earthworms that we all love will disappear.

First Recognized as a Problem the Smokey Mts. National Park

The invaders (natives of Japan and Korea) were first recognized as a problem when park managers in the Smokey Mountains National Park noticed the trees were not regenerating in the forest, the leaf litter was disappearing, and the soil was changing into something that looked like coffee grounds.

What’s in this Post to Help You

This post will give you some ideas about what you can do to prevent invasion.  The best control  known is prevention.

But I’ll give you as much information as I found to help you deal with them should they end up in your garden.

Their Various Nick Names

  • jumping worms
  • crazy worms
  • snake worms (too bad this is a nickname because there exists  a harmless little snake by that name)
  • Jersey wigglers
  • wood eel
  • Georgia jumpers
  • Alabama jumpers

Species  Names

The University of Maryland notes that these worms include 3 similar looking species.

  • Amynthas tokioensis, 
  • Amynthas agrestis, 
  • Metaphire hilgendorfi, 

More than one species often occur in the same location. One source indicated that only the first two listed above appear in the US.

Most sources I found list only the variety – Amynthas agrestis.

Family Name:

All 3 species are in the family Megascolecidae. 

Their Thrashing is One of the Best Identifiers (along with snake like movement and detaching their tail)

Violent wriggling and thrashing are the best indications of this invasive species.  Their movement can be snake-like. And they can detach their tail when annoyed.

Another Good Identifying Feature for Adult Worms

Adults have a band (called a clitellum) completely encircling the body. It lies flat against the body except when  eggs are being  produced.  Then it swells. 

It’s usually cream colored or gray, but can often show a bit of pink.

The problem here is that you don’t see these adults until a lot of damage has already been done by mid or late summer.

There are no adults in the early spring since they are said to have a one year life span. The young that hatch in the spring will take 60 days to mature and develop the band.

This Visual Might Help

The video I’ve provided the link for here is good overall and worth a watch BUT it’s not 100%.   Here are my reasons for saying that:

Reason #1 In case you don’t watch the entire video: the worm is first shown as gray but as you’ll see further along in the video – they’re not always gray and sometimes have coloring similar to our “good” earthworms.

Some Bad Advice Being Promoted

Reason #2  Some advice given in the video I felt was extremely bad and misleading.  It was the ecologist’s recommended solution to get rid of these invasives by putting them in the garbage.

It was probably done out of “not thinking things through”  or perhaps not being around the earth long enough to know how nature works. Unfortunately this same recommendation of “putting in the garbage” was made in several articles I read. 

Although some worms may not survive being bagged and thrown into the trash –  others will and go on to reproduce. That’s just how things work.  Lots can happen that make survival possible. As one article stated, ““jumping worms have a flexible diet and are suited to surviving in less-opportune environments.”

After I wrote the above – I happened across an article that expressed the same concern I just stated about trashing these worms.

At least this concern was mentioned somewhere.  But many people tend to read only one article and stop there, taking the advice offered by whomever is giving it.

The Best Approach

To not be part of the problem of spreading these invasive worms the best approach to date (other than prevention) is to drop them in a container of vinegar or alcohol to kill them.  

And even then I wouldn’t trash them.   It’s probable the eggs in their white band (the clitellum) are protected enough to remain viable and able to “hatch” and produce another generation.  

This is one of the things still being studied. It’s been found that even after eggs are laid/dropped they often don’t “hatch” the first year but can stay around and overwinter for multiple years.

Possibly More Bad Advice

Another recommendation I saw was that dead worms could be composted.   I think this is also bad advice for the same reason I stated for not trashing  dead worms.

Thus, I would not compost dead worms with their band (where the eggs are) still intact.

So How Might We Destroy Them?

Current information indicates that temperatures over 105º may/will destroy them. (I’d go higher just in case.)

I looked up the burning temperature for a small fire with twigs or a camp fire. Minimum to get the fire started good is 600ºF.  And a wood fire can burn over 2,000º F.

Thus, my approach would be to have a container of alcohol or vinegar. Every worm found on my “search and destroy mission” (each and every day) would be dropped into that.

A metal container could be used to start and contain a small fire. I wouldn’t want to chance anything on the ground escaping the fire. Thus, a container.

Keeping the fire going for at least an hour should burn and destroy even the eggs. (I’m guessing about the time of course.)

Carrying Things A Step Further

Considering how horrified I’d be if I had this problem I would take even more precautions after that. Since to date we don’t have enough facts, I’d rather err on the side of being fanatical.

After things cooled I’d place everything in the burning-container in a thick plastic bag. Since we don’t know for sure just what the facts are about what the eggs can endure – I’d think about placing the plastic bag in a small sealed metal container like a small trash can indefinitely until more facts come out.

Losing any production in my garden (that feeds me) just because someone would say I’m fanatical is just not acceptable to me.

Lies Being Told in Order to Make Money

I was dismayed to see articles promoting these worms as being good for the environment!!

The lies of course, are to get people to buy them for composting or to sell as fishing worms. The writers of these articles make money from affiliate links. It’s already been determined that selling them as fishing worms is one of the main ways they’re being spread.  And you sure don’t want them in a compost pile reproducing as they eat!

One writes the lie: “The Alabama Jumper is a native of the southeastern United States. ” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Another even bigger lie that was being promoted, “They are also a valuable source of compost and fertilizer for gardens and farms. When used in this way, Jumpers can actually be quite beneficial to the environment.” The poor gardeners that fall for this will be horrified after their gardens are ruined.

Don’t purchase invasive jumping worms for bait or vermicomposting. 

More Helpful Information

They’re most active a night when temperatures are cooler and will often stay under objects in the day.

Mature worms are 4-5 inches long.  Some sources site 1 inch to 8 inches.

Color is usually gray brown.

The young hatch in late spring when temperatures are 50ºF and above.  They’re about 1/2 inch to a little over 1 inch.  They’re in the top few inches of soil. The infestation will become noticeable mid and late summer.  Babies take 60 days to mature.

They start laying eggs in August.

They don’t need a mate to reproduce.

Cocoons left by the adults can survive severe winters and dry weather.

One source mentions these worms die off after the first hard freeze.  Other sources just say these worms only live one year.  Made me wonder if the adults could live longer in warm climates?

Don’t share plants  from your garden if you know you have jumping worms. 

When the presence of jumping worms/cocoons is unknown plants can be bare-rooted prior to exchanges or sales. 

Soil for potted plants can be solarized if you can get the temperature high enough.  Find more information on that in this link.

Worm cocoons from this invasive species can come onto your property on tools, shoes, and plants; and contractors equipment. Cocoons  – the size of a mustard seed (that encase an egg) can easily stick to shoes or garden tools and equipment.

They’re also spread in soil runoff.

When you buy plants inspect the pot for tell-tale granular looking soil. Better yet purchase bare-root plants, if possible. Or propagate plants from seeds and cuttings.

Make compost at home rather than buying it.

Purchased compost in bags can be placed in the sun if temperatures are hot enough to heat the contents above 105ºF. (Don’t know how long it will have to remain at 105º or more for it to be effective.)

Use leaves in your garden from your own property that you know have not been contaminated by these invasive worms.

It’s also recommended to “not pick up roadside compost, mulch, or plants.”  and “to ask nursery staff about the potential for jumping worms in products.”

“Most earthworm species move 30 feet a year while jumping worms can infest as much as 17 acres in one season.”

They can digest wood and favor areas with leaf mulch.

University of Wisconsin-Madison notes that areas with pine needles and native grasses are less attractive to them 

In gardens they diminish the growth of annuals, perennials, and turfgrass.

They displace other earthworms. The cause (or how they do it) is not yet known.

A Reader of TMG wanted to make you aware of these worms

She has them in her Northern Virginia garden!

She writes: (My comments are in red.)

Theresa, I haven’t seen anyone on gardening or composting sites discuss snakeworms.  We are dealing with them here in our garden in northern VA and it’s amazing how they’ve affected the soil.  They’re everywhere now, probably in part because people are selling them as compost worms.  Should be illegal, in my opinion—(They are illegal in some states.)

They’re in our compost bin now and I’m not sure whether to kill them all and throw the bin away (since the cocoons are so tiny so some could remain) or just use the compost since they’re in the garden anyway.  It seems to me that there are exponentially more of them in the compost bin so we shouldn’t use it. (I would not use it.) This leaves us without a way to make compost, since they most likely came from the leaves we added. (Lisa wrote to me later and clarified that the leaves were raked from ground that was already invested and thus transferred to her compost bin.) Any ideas or thoughts on this would be helpful.  It’s the second time we’ve found our compost full of them (2 different bins).  (I explained more of what I would do in this post. And yes, to you who are throwing up your hands thinking how much effort this will take –I know exactly how much effort it takes.  I’ve been through something similar with another insect.)

“These little buggers will eat every bit of organic material in no time, leaving the soil like silt with clumps of hard pieces (cocoons and excretement, I think).   If you haven’t seen them yet, they’re always described as moving or jumping like snakes, and some definitely do, but a lot of them don’t.  The band near the top of them is always there, and they’re rubbery instead of slimy.  You can’t tear one in half, and they drop their ‘tail’, which will wiggle, if you try. “ 

It would be great if you could get the word out about them.  There’s apparently no way to control them, but when we dig or weed and find one, we drop them into a jar with a bit of alcohol in it.  They die almost instantly.  I look at it as like weeding for worms ;-)”

We corresponded a bit after her first email.  In another email she writes,

“I’d hate to give the impression that all was lost when you find you have them.  Our early items like lettuce, chard, kale and other greens did really well, maybe because they put a lot of nitrogen in the soil?  Tomatoes don’t do as well as they had in the past (though this year was bad for everyone!)  Winter squash thrived, as did berries and mint.  I’m not sure they’re as big a problem as they seem as long as you keep adding compost or manure to the beds as they eat it, My comment below which is astonishingly fast.  Having a small jar with a little alcohol nearby and just dropping them into it kills them instantly so it’s kind of like finding grubs – take them out and feel a tiny bit of victory ;-)”

I can’t imagine having enough compost or organic materials to keep adding enough for these worms to enjoy and thrive.  A tiny little spot of garden – maybe.  But the only real solution is to search and destroy until they are no more however long that takes.  That would be my approach.  

Final Thoughts

Thanks to Lisa for thinking to make other TMG readers aware.

Although it is certainly my wish that no one ever have this problem, if you do and this post helps you, we can thank Lisa for bringing it to my attention.

____________

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10 Comments

  • Wow, thank you for writing about this; I had only heard about them in passing and might have fallen for some of the myths if they arrive in my garden!

  • Thank you, Theresa, for alerting us to this worm. Now we will be on the alert for it and know what to do and what not to do. I am appalled at the suggestions to put the worms in the compost, trash, etc., knowing that the worms are non-native, HIGHLY invasive, and destroy the soil in our gardens and for (our precious) earthworms.

  • Theresa thank you for making us aware of this creepy worm!
    Sure hope I NEVER see them in my garden
    I watched the short video.
    With you permission I will forward your email to my community
    garden group.

    I am anxious to get into the garden and am
    hopeful that this season is better than last year.
    Your friend
    Mary Jean

  • Wow… these worms are terrible! Thank you Theresa for researching them for us and making us aware of the problems.

  • Theresa, I read your post on the snake worms, aka jumpers, etc. My skin is crawling. Great article, and awesome that you are so knowledgeable about them and can be so descriptive and helpfully specific about how to eradicate them. I forwarded your post to my gardener brother in SO IL and my sister in TX. Grateful as always for your sharing your knowledge so generously and selflessly!

  • Hiya Theresa!

    Hoo boy……. My first reaction after reading this yesterday was to just shut down the post and sit and stew for a little bit. Next was to go online and see what I could read about them and if they had any natural predators. And next is to write this comment.

    I did read that moles eat them but I was scanning thru articles quickly and neglected to bookmark it. I guess I’ll have to be their number one predator and keep my eyes peeled for them. An ounce of prevention and all that. Since I already put on a headlamp, a rubber glove and carry a can of soapy water out into the garden night after night in the spring to control snails and slugs, fighting these nasty worms might be similar and not something I’d be adverse to doing, even if I’m not looking forward to it.

    Really appreciate the heads up about these things.

    Take care and God bless,
    Harold

  • Thank you for your thorough write up about these invasive and destructive worms. I will keep this information and pass it on.

  • Hi, Thank you for all your information. I have these wiggling monsters in my gardens in Central Vermont.
    I am broken hearted and worried about our world food system…
    Meanwhile we will build reised beds on legs and monitor to see if the can climb up them. And, work on defending the raised beds.

  • Cathy, I’m so sorry to hear you have those monsters in your gardens!
    It’s heartbreaking indeed!
    I wish you much success at keeping them at bay!
    Theresa

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