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The Miracle of the Earthworm E-mail
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Tuesday, 19 June 2007
The Miracle of the Earthworm


Countryside & Small Stock Journal

By Johnny D. Burns

The earthworm is truly an amazing little creature and the best friend the farmer and gardener ever had. The earthworm is one of the segmented worms: their bodies divided into segments.

The earthworm has well developed organs and systems. There is a body wall consisting of a surface covering and two layers of muscles. Fibers of the outer muscle layer go around the body, when they contract the worm becomes long and thin. The inner muscles run lengthwise and when they contract the worm becomes short and thick.

Inside the body cavity, through which the intestine passes, the front part of the intestine is modified into special parts. There is a muscular throat which sucks food into the mouth, a crop which holds food and a gizzard, similar to a chicken's, which grinds the food. Behind this tube shaped intestine runs the length of the worm. Above the throat there is a tiny brain connected to a nerve cord which lies under the intestine. This nervous system controls the action of the earthworm.

The earthworm has red blood which moves around the body in blood vessels. It can also have tiny "hearts" which help to keep the blood moving. Actually the hearts are just short blood vessels that contract and force the blood flow. The blood carries dissolved food from the intestines to all parts of the body. It also carries oxygen from the body surface to other cells of the body.

There are a pair of little tubes in most segments that collect dissolved wastes. These wastes are excreted to the outside through pores.

These tubes are the excretory system of the worm. They have a similar function to kidneys in mammals.

The earthworm has sex organs. A single worm has both male and female parts. Pairs come together and exchange sperm. Eggs are laid by depositing egg cases full of sperm into the soil. The eggs hatch, and the little white thread-like worms are not on their own. Each egg case contains several worms 1/16 inch long.

There are about 90 species of earthworm in the U.S. They look a lot alike until you study them carefully.

The Importance of the Earthworm

The earthworm digs through the soil by eating it. The soil passes completely though the worm's system and out via the anus. Any bits of humus in the soil are digested. The earthworm cannot live in poor soil; it will starve. It's digging stirs, loosens, and aerates the soil, allowing water and air to enter. The earthworm improves and enriches the soil for plant roots, thus making the plants healthy.

Some have called the earthworm the "intestines" of the soil. The earthworm is extremely valuable in creating top soil and maintaining soil fertility. The earthworm castings or manure are far richer in minerals than the soil which the earthworm ingests, and it is said that on average an earthworm will produce its weight in castings every 24 hours. The earthworm burrows as deep as six feet into the ground, aerating it and making holes for the rain to penetrate and even breaking up hardpan. The castings furnish nitrogen fertilizers which can amount to more than 50 tons per acre in rich organic soil.

One farmer, who farmed 120 acres chemically, switched to organic farming and after a few years dug up a cubic foot of soil and counted more than a dozen earthworms. He figures, if all the earthworms were dug up and sold to gardeners and fishermen, they would be worth something like a million dollars.

Members of the Annelid, a phylum containing over 6,000 species of earthworms are found everywhere on the earth's surface except in extremely cold northern and southern latitudes. They range in length from microscopic size to several feet long. Some common names familiar in different areas of the U.S. are the orchard worm, rain worm, angle worm, branding worm, night crawler and field worm. Some hybrids have been developed by cross breeding.

Life and Times of the Earthworm

An earthworm is headless, toothless, eyeless, but is very sensitive to light, with no antennae. It responds to vibrations within the ground. It breathes through the skin, as it has no nose or lungs. From tip to tail the body is composed of ring-like segments, which indicate the earthworm species from any other group.

The earthworm begins to mate two to three months after birth, depending upon the quality and temperature of the soil in which they live. Mating can occur once a month in some species but, generally, once or twice a year.

Certain species of earthworm, particularly those that surface and crawl about during rainy weather, are chiefly active at night. Other species are active throughout most of the day and night and seldom, if ever, surface but remain from six to 30 inches below the surface, depending on the porosity and moisture of the soil.

The earthworm will burrow more deeply into the soil if there is no rain or damp soil. The skin must be kept moist to allow the earthworm to breathe. Their bristles are used to grip the ground and enable them to crawl.

The earthworm can be easily raised for use in the garden on the homestead or in a city lot. The easiest method is using a culture box or to just grow them directly in the garden--just be sure you feed them. They like cornmeal, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, old coffee grounds, table scraps and manure (horse and rabbit manure--if no hormones are used).

So, in order to keep your friendly earthworm population high, do as I do in Natividad's Garden, grow things naturally. We use no chemicals or poisons, keeping the soil rich and clean for our friends to come, stay, and help us out.

Johnny D. Burns

Sarasota, Florida

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