by Connie Oswald Stofko
UPDATE MAY 2021: Jumping worms have been identified in Erie County and may be in other parts of Western New York, too. See the article here.
There’s a new threat to Western New York gardens: jumping worms.
They’re bad for your garden, and they can really screw up the ecosystem of forests.
Jumping worms (so named because they jump and thrash when handled) can change the consistency of soil, making it granular and grainy, like coffee grounds. That hinders the germination of plants, said Andrea Locke, coordinator for Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) in Western New York.
They can deplete the soil of nutrients. (See a great explanation of how this happens in the claymation video here.)
And because the soil isn’t bound together, erosion can occur.
Jumping worms can severely damage roots of plants in gardens and lawns.
They haven’t been spotted in the eight counties of Western New York yet, but they have been identified in Rochester and in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Could jumping worms already be in Western New York?
That’s where you come in.
Learn how to identify jumping worms and let researchers know whether or not you see them in your area through the Invasive Species Mapping Challenge.
A training webinar will be held at 12:15 p.m. tomorrow, Wednesday, June 26. Get details and sign up here.
The Invasive Species Mapping Challenge is a friendly competition to teach residents how to identify, survey and report invasives. The aim is to gather data for New York State’s invasive species database.
The challenge was created originally to look for the invasive water chestnut, but it now includes jumping worms as well. Prizes will be awarded to the individuals that report the greatest number of observations, whether positive or negative. Positive observations– finding jumping worms or water chestnuts– are important, but negative observations– discovering that there aren’t any of these invasive species at a site– are just as important to researchers.
The challenge will be held from July 5-19, in conjunction with the fifth annual Invasive Species Awareness Week, July 8-14. This year’s theme is “What YOU can do to help stop the spread.”
Even if you don’t attend the training webinar or go to any events, jumping worms are pretty easy to identify, so read up on jumping worms and watch this claymation video that makes it easy to understand the problem.
The shocking truth about earthworms
“Most people don’t realize that there are no native earthworms in our area,” said Andrea Locke of (PRISM). “All our worms are invasives.”
The ones that you are happy to have in your compost pile are European earthworms. They’re invasive, too.
European earthworms can cause problems in forests, too, Locke said. They’re great at breaking down plant matter in your compost pile, but they’re also great at breaking down plant matter on the forest floor. European earthworms have increased the rate of decomposition of plant material, which has altered the nutrient cycles in the forest floor. That has favored other species over native species.
“We’re putting a lot of focus on the new invader, but it’s not good versus bad,” Locke said. “They’re both bad.”
European earthworms have impacts on native plants, and they have to be taken into account when managing natural areas.
So should I feel guilty about nurturing European earthworms in my compost bin?
“European earthworms have been here since Europeans have been here,” Locke said. “There’s nothing to do about it at this point– there’s no management for them. You can’t get rid of them. I wouldn’t worry about them (in your garden). It’s one of those things you have to let go.”
But jumping worms are different because there are steps we can take before they become established.
The jumping worm threat
“Jumping worms just came on our radar last year,” Locke said. “It’s possible they’re widespread (in Western New York). It’s also possible they are located in isolated areas.
“If it turns out that jumping worms are not widespread, there may be things to do about them.
“We need to get folks to identify them. It’s pretty easy to identify them, so that’s nice. We want to get really good data this summer.”
There are three species of jumping worms: Amynthas agrestis (which is most often cited as the culprit), Amynthas tokioensis and Metaphire hilgendorfi.
Compared to European invasive worms, jumping worms reproduce more quickly, are more aggressive and can exist at higher densities. They can outcompete existing worm populations, do more damage to forests– and gardens– and do that damage faster.
What we can do about jumping worms
First, learn to identify jumping worms, Locke said. See the photos in this article and check out this factsheet for more on the crazy behavior of jumping worms.
If you see a jumping worm, please report it on iMapInvasives. You can make a report even if you didn’t attend any training and even if you don’t have an iMapInvasives account.
We can also take steps to prevent the spread of jumping worms. They include:
- If you’re trading plants, be careful and check the soil for jumping worms before giving or accepting plants.
- If you get compost, make sure it is heated high enough to kill jumping worms.
- If you find jumping worms, place them in a plastic zip bag and set the bag in the sun for 10 minutes to make sure they are dead. Throw the bag of worms in the garbage.
- Clean soil off your boots, trailers and trucks to make sure you’re not spreading any invasive species.
- Don’t use jumping worms as bait. Of course, don’t use them in your garden or for vermicomposting, either.
Learn more about invasive species and the state’s ongoing efforts to manage invaders.