Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Technical Difficulities and Hurray for "Dirt"

The Worms did this!

I am trying to get this post up as soon as possible, before my dumb computer crashes. After taking a day off yesterday due to personal reasons, and the lack of Worm news (despite what some think, a Worm bin is NOT non-stop craziness and wild partying), I am back today.
The Worms are doing great. They have completely consumed their first meal, or else it melted away. In any case, where there was nothing but disgusting molten vegetables before, now there is now just "dirt". I put that in quotes, just to be polite.
The latest meal, however, seems to be untouched. Probably because it has morphed into this weird solid moldy mass that seems oddly furry. I do not understand what causes some garbage to turn liquid, and other garbage to turn solid. Any scientists out there? I poked around at it some with an extra long chopstick to break it up a little, and then sprayed it down with some water to give it that tasty "glistening dew", like the greens in the produce section of the market. I don't think I fooled them.

This is the newest food, they don't like it.


At July 13, 2004 at 11:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Brooklyn Worm Girl,

Enjoyed your blogging. Just wanted to weigh in on your question about food waste decomposing differently.

You stated in your blog that "The latest meal, however, seems to be untouched. Probably because it has morphed into this weird solid moldy mass that seems oddly furry. I do not understand what causes some garbage to turn liquid, and other garbage to turn solid."

This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. :)

Warning: this explanation may be too detailed for the faint of heart! :)

Food waste comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes and as such can contain various amounts of water, sugars, fats, and proteins. The majority of the constituents of food waste that you add to a worm bin are water and sugar. Adding meats and oils would increase the protein and fat content respectively, but would also decompose much slower than the sugars in veggies and fruits and create foul smelling conditions that you nor your dinner guests would appreciate. If added to a large system in small amounts the meats and proteins can be accommodated. But for small home bins it's not recommended. Bacteria are the first to the "dinner table" in terms of eating the foodwaste. Fungi too will get to the "dinner table" and begin to consume food waste. What you saw was an example of some type of fungi taking over the decomposition process by sending out hyphae (those long little furry masses of tentacles from it's "body") to obtain nutrients from the foodwaste to keep it alive and functioning as a living organism. Fungi and bacteria are obtaining nutrients from the foods by hitting it with enzymes to break the food down into smaller and smaller parts (we do the same thing in our bodies but we have teeth which start the job and make it much easier if we chew a bunch of times first. Remember your mom telling you to chew your food at least 20 times? :) ). So when you put the food waste in the bin, odds are the bacteria and fungi have already begun their work, and as the days go by, they multiply. You can't see the bacteria or a majority of the fungi working (some fungi you can) but know that they are and they are working very hard to obtain the nutrients to survive. Depending on the arrangement of sugars in the foods you put in the bin will determine how that food behaves as it decomposes. In essence when bacteria and fungi digest foodwaste they are breaking the bonds between sugars in that food. In between the sugar bonds are water molecules. Water is the univeral solvent and makes life on the planet possible. Without it plants could not make the sugars we need to survive. And as such, in their ability to take sunlight and convert it into sugars, they need to have water in the process. These water molecules make it possible for the cells in plants to continue to produce sugar as well as when the plants die easier for the nutrients in these sugars to get to the bacteria and fungi. It's a beautiful system really. Bacteria and fungi usually flourish in a wet environment and also need the water to survive. For example, breaking down a raw potato involves breaking the bonds that hold all that sugar together. If you ever put a raw potato in a worm bin and just leave it alone for a few weeks and come back to it and squish it you should see a yellowy sticky mush coming out of it. Not the prettiest thing in the world, but a great demonstration of bacteria using their enzymes to break the potatoe's complex sugar arrangement into its component parts such that the bacteria can utilize the energy in the sugar to keep it alive. Bread is the opposite. There is usually a big fuzzy mess surrounding bread that is left to rot on its own (e.g., that old loaf left in the fridge with green mold growing on it). This is the Asgergillus species of fungi and they love bread! They grow in large solid moldy masses like you spoke of. Depending on the make up of the food (ie. its initial sugar, water, fat, and protein content) the foodwaste will either go from a solid to a liquid very quickly (like in the case of lettuce), or from a solid mass to a more hardened solid mass (like in the case of bread). The bacteria and fungi will digest the majority of the material in your bin first, while the worms come along afterward and digest the bacteria and fungi. Alot of people make the mistake of thinking the worms are actually eating the food waste. They can probably get very tiny amounts of it into their mouths, but for the most part they are consuming the bacteria and fungi that have already begun digesting the foodwaste. When the worms are taking some time to get to the food waste, chances are they are just waiting for the right conditions upon which to feast on the bacteria and fungi that have digested the food waste enough to make it worth their while so to speak. Fleshy fruits are probably the favorites among worms as they are high in sugar and water (everything a growing worm needs as well as everything bacteria and fungi need to survive) In essence, it's a beautiful food web you create when you make a worm bin. Foods like lettuce and the fleshy parts of fruits and vegetables contain mostly water, while foods like the skins of fruits and vegetables contain alot of complexly formed sugars called cellulose. If you ever throw a corn cobb in to your bin you will notice that it takes a little while to decompose. This is because the cobbs are made up of these complex sugars and take time to be completely broken down. The flesh of a mango will go in no time as it is mainly made up of simple sugars like glucose and fructose.

I hope I didn't bore you to tears on that one or confuse the issue. I really just wanted to help a bit to clear up the differences in food waste decomposition. It's a fascinating process and one in which I enjoy studying for my research here at Penn State. I'm studying soil science with an emphasis on composting. My email is if you have any further questions.

Good luck vermicomposting. I think it's a wonderful way to recycle and give back to the Earth.

Take care,
Drew Mather

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