The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Look out for Jumping Worms

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Worms are a good thing. Right? Well, it all depends. As gardeners we think of earthworms as happily improving our soil with their aerating tunnels and highly fertile poop. Red wrigglers devour our kitchen leftovers to make rich compost. But a new worm on the horizon can leave parched earth in its path.

During our recent First Detector training Chris Evans, University of Illinois Extension Forestry specialist, shared concerns about a new invader – jumping worms, (Amynthas spp.) found in Illinois (Cook, DuPage and McHenry counties) in 2015.

Jumping worms also known as crazy worms, Alabama jumpers, and snake worms are originally from East Asia. They are currently considered invasive in New England, southern Appalachians and in 2013 found in Wisconsin.

Before we start pointing the finger at other continents for sending us their problems, most of the earthworms we see now are not native, but of European descent. The glaciers, scouring over northern North America, pretty much wiped out the native worms in our part of the continent.

Worms, native or not, are basically eating machines. They love to live and feed in different levels of soil – leaf litter dwellers, topsoil dwellers and subsoil dwellers. Jumping worms are litter and upper topsoil dwellers. They love the decaying leaves and twigs of forests. Our propensity to mulch every inch of our gardens and landscapes render our yards perfect candidates for bounding populations of jumping worms.

So why worry about jumping worms? We don't know exactly how jumping worms will do in Illinois, but the outlook is negative. Sheer numbers are a concern as populations of jumping worms can be ten times higher than other worms. The resulting infestations in other parts of the country include soil degradation by reduced soil fertility and loss of soil structure. After jumping worms arrive, soil doesn't hold together nicely and instead looks more like coffee grounds. Forest soils infested with jumping worms are left bare of any vegetation to the point where a "worm front" becomes obvious.

What you can do –

Learn to identify. Don't confuse them with the smaller red wrigglers found in compost and used in vermiculture. Jumping worm adults are stocky 4-8 inches long with glossy dark grey to brown skin. As their name implies they are very active when disturbed. They move more like a snake than a worm and may shed their tail like a lizard. Worms reproduce using a clitellum which in the case of jumping worms appears as a flat and milky white band around the worm. Clitellum is raised up in our common earthworm.

In summer and fall look for them when mulching or composting. Jumping worms overwinter as hard to detect microscopic "cocoons". All adults die over the winter so adults won't be obvious until mid to late summer (July) until freeze (October).

Reduce their likely spread via soil, compost, potted plants, fish bait or contaminated equipment.

Don't buy jumping worms, crazy worms, Alabama jumpers or snake worms as fish bait.

Dump extra bait worms in garbage, not in compost pile or on soil.

Actively compost so pile heats up.

My advice – Get familiar with planting plants with bare roots. We all love to share our plants with other gardeners. Share the plant not the soil. Remove soil from plants. Wash soil off and leave it with the original gardener or as soon as you get the plant home wash off the soil before planting. Place discarded soil and water into a plastic garbage bin until fall or next spring when it's easier to deem it safe to place in your garden.

Think you found jumping worms? Corral them in a container with soil then report your finding to your local University of Illinois Extension office, UI Plant Clinic , Scott Schirmer Illinois Department of Agriculture or me.

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