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Dirt Diaries: The Great Red Worm Migration

In which Yorkshire red wigglers become expats.

I have always loved compost worms. Even as a kid, and despite the smell, my favourite part of gardening was turning the compost heap. I just loved seeing all these happy red worms, wiggling away as we completely reorganised their living space.

In most temperate Western countries, if you don't already have compost worms, or if you somehow don't know anyone who has some and wants to share, they are readily available for purchase and arrive through the post. This, however, is not the case in Dubai. After a couple of years of scouring the internet and coming up empty, the only remaining option of procuring some compost worms here was to import them.

Since we were going to the UK that summer, I bought them on Amazon and arranged for them to be delivered to my long-suffering sister-in-law's house a couple of days before we were due for our last visit with them. The worms arrived in good time in a little permeable plastic bag with some of their compost and were well-behaved for a few days. I collected them and we went to the hotel for a final night before our flight out in the morning. My husband still had energy to go out and see some friends before we left again but I was tired. So I stayed in, ordered Chinese, watched a movie and went to bed.

I woke up the next morning to my husband asking me if I was okay. I said yes. He asked how the Chinese was. I said fine. He asked if I was upset about anything. I said no, why? He asked why there were noodles all over the floor.

The worms had had enough and had staged a mass exodus.

I salvaged as many as I could and rescued at least a dozen who were skulking beneath the tea tray. Back in their bag, I added some watermelon rinds from the hotel breakfast, zipped them up tightly, and carefully packed them in our checked luggage.

We exited the UK without a hitch and caught the flight to Dubai.

A six-hour red-eye flight behind us, we were crowded along the baggage carousel, waiting for our bags which were, as usual, taking forever.

I was worried about the worms. They had been wrapped up in their travelling bags with no access to fresh air for over 10 hours now, and judging by the 20 minute bus ride we had just taken from the plane to the terminal, they would be acclimatising to the Dubai desert summer temperatures, whether they wanted to or not. It was 6:30 a.m. and it was already 27ºC; we were still a baggage delivery, possible customs check and taxi ride away from home.

I worried.

The bags eventually arrived and a sneak peek established that the worms had at least remained within the paper encasing their travel bags. So far, so good. We headed for the final customs clearance where the UAE border guards are usually on hand to do extra baggage checks, X-rays and/or manual searches. I had never been waved over for extra screening before… and I’m sure they could sense that because, this time – of all times – we were waved over for an extra baggage check.

I promptly internally lost it- my poor worms, if they were still alive, had already endured way more than anyone can reasonably expect from these little creatures. My confidence in arguing the toss with border guards about the semantics of the undocumented import of live creatures immediately evaporated as we headed towards the X-ray machine.

Willing myself to stop sweating, I carefully placed my bag and its precious cargo on the conveyor and held my breath.

The bag came out the other end.

I picked it up.

The guards waved me through.

Maybe it was too early for everyone involved?

Irrelevant because… MY WORMS HAD MADE IT! Shroedinger’s Worms had touched down in the UAE and were on their way to their new home!

Half an hour later, E. James Shroedinger (Earthworms James Shroedinger and/or Earthworms Jim) were in the apartment and I started to carefully unwrap them.

Earthworms Jim were alive but very stressed. In the interests of getting them into a more hospitable environment as quickly as possible, I did not photo document them much – they had been through enough. Some hadn’t made it – they were lifeless within the still-moving mass of worms. However, Eisenia fetida and hortensis (Red Wigglers and (possibly) Tiger worms) were living up to their names. Some worms were producing a sticky white substance that clung to their bodies and didn’t smell particularly nice. Most of them were still wiggling and photo-phobic but, having just arrived back from a two-week holiday, I didn’t have much compost for them to immediately get started on. Despite my lack of immediate food for them, I was more worried about them settling in to their new environment. They had been though an incredible ordeal complete with extra X-rays, so I chopped up part of a watermelon, put it outside to ‘ferment’ and got started prepping their new home.

I soaked some cardboard insulation that I had been saving from my husband’s last appliance purchase and broke it up into chunks, which I put at the bottom of Earthworms Jim’s bucket. Next, I added some topsoil that I had previously purchased from a standard hardware garden centre in Dubai. This topsoil purported to have composted vegetable matter added to it, but my experience with it has taught me that there isn’t much nutritional value in that stuff, either for plants or animals.

Finally, I added about ½ Cup of the already-decomposing watermelon chunks (about the right amount, judging by the fact that I still probably had about 400 g of worms) and finally, Earthworms Jim themselves.

I didn’t bury them- I wanted to see who still had the strength and energy to burrow down into their moist, comfortable cardboard or melon. Some came out swinging and promptly disappeared. Others took a while and seemed a little disorientated – some even tried to escape. Sadly, others had expired or were not going to make it. I’m not sure if worms will decompose their deceased comrades, but, if they weren’t going to make it, I was hoping to be able to remove them from the top of the soil rather than have to dig though it to remove the remains.

All in all, Earthworms Jim had made it to Dubai- a mission to establish one of the few, if only, worm colonies in the city. Now came the most critical and perhaps the most difficult step: acclimatisation and adaptation.

There was nothing to do now but wait.

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