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Troubleshooting: Protein Poisoning

Protein Poisoning. String of Pearls. Sour Crop.

When I first noticed my worms were sick, I didn't know what their affliction was called or even how to describe it.

Cut up worms? Sectioned worms? Bubbles under worm skin? Unhealthy worms? Sick worms? After a prolonged image search, I finally encountered a couple of websites with information on what could be causing my worms to fall ill. The last one, from Adirondack Worm Farm, was published in 2019 and has some excellent pictures of protein poisoning in the worm bin.

Protein poisoning happens when too much food is added to the worm bin and causes an imbalance. Mercifully, it's not a communicable disease but it is basically food poisoning. If the worm ingests too much acidic food without enough grit or calcium to break it down, the food continues to ferment inside the worm's body, producing gas bubbles.

This is what the bubbles look like in the early stages of protein poisoning. These poor worms get bloated with so much fermenting gas that, because they can't burp, it ruptures out the side of their body. This then causes the worm to look like it's breaking into a string of pearls or look like it's halved itself.

As you can see above, a worm has started to break into a string of pearls, and another has already completely separated from the other part of its body.

Once protein poisoning has set in, it's nearly impossible to reverse the effects (due to a lack of burping). Steps must be taken immediately to mitigate the noxious environment.

The first thing you must do is remove all uneaten food immediately. This will rid the worm bin of the offending gaseous offerings of the decomposing bacteria.

The second thing you must do is add a lot of crushed eggshells. This provides grit to help the worms digest their food properly, provides an alkaline powder to help combat the acidic conditions produced by the decomposing and fermenting food and adds lots of calcium to neutralise the nutrient imbalance.

The third thing to do is add bedding. If the worm bin is dry (which it probably won't be), you can add water afterwards. The carbon will help restore bacterial/fungal balance in the worm bin.

This won't be enough to save the worms already affected but it will hopefully correct the conditions in your bin in time to save the rest of your worms from becoming sick. This is why it's important to check on your worms frequently to make sure everything is smelling good.

Other early hints your worm bin balance is off:

*It smells fermented or acidic (sour)

*Soil or dirt is sticking to your worm (it's not healthy enough to regulate its mucus production)

*White mites have surrounded it (it's giving off decomp pong and they have started digesting the poor creature already)

*Your worms are trying to escape

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