Eco Talk: How to watch for the invasive jumping worm – The Citizen


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A jumping worm.
Earthworms are considered by almost everyone as beneficial. There are an estimated 30 different species of earthworms in New York state, with only five considered native to North America. The majority of earthworms have been introduced from either Europe or Asia.
Since earthworms mostly live underground and out of sight, little thought is given to them. They are credited with breaking down organic materials into a nutrient-rich compost. They burrow in the soil, providing aeration. And they supply nutrients to plants.
Indications are that North America was free of earthworms for over 15,000 years. Our forests and their ecosystems successfully evolved during that time without them. Most earthworms, including the fisherman’s favorite nightcrawler, have served backyard gardeners and farmers well. However, over time, they have changed northern forests.
Earthworms change the soil environment to meet their needs. They alter the structure, biology and chemical properties of the soil. The activity of nonnative earthworms assists the spread of some invasive plants, such as buckthorn and garlic mustard.
Additionally, seedlings necessary for forest regeneration can be disrupted by non-native earthworm activity. The changes to the forest floor produce a habitat that is no longer supportive of the many native plants, amphibians and microbes that support native forest trees.
Many of New York’s native earthworms live in undisturbed habitats that include wetland and stream ecosystems. There are also some native earthworms that live under bark from rotten trees and logs in mature forests. Our native species can be conserved by protecting natural forests and wetlands. When present, invasive earthworms create significant change, which can impact a wide variety of animals including ground-nesting birds, salamanders, millipedes, trees and other forest plant species.
Unfortunately, jumping worms have been invading the northern tier of the U.S. Jumping worms originated from eastern Asia, with early reports from southern states dating back to the 19th century. Jumping worms have the unusual habit of thrashing wildly when disturbed, even jumping off the ground. At first glance, jumping worms look like nightcrawlers, but the band around their body is closer to their head, is smooth and flat to their body, and is white or gray in color. A nightcrawler’s band is raised from their body, has segments and is pink in color.
Jumping worms devour organic matter, by some estimates, two to three times faster than European earthworms. Various Northeast states have been reporting the effects of jumping worms both in forests and horticultural situations. Not only will jumping worms devour leaf litter, they are also efficient at consuming wood mulch used in landscaping.
A lot is unknown about jumping worms. Research is underway to determine how far they have moved and ways to identify new populations, understand factors that lead to jumping worms invading forests, and examine what effect they have on the forest floor food webs. This research is currently being conducted in the Adirondacks and Vermont.
Unfortunately, there are no good control measures once jumping worms become established. Preventing their movement and introduction to new areas is critical. Continuing to raise awareness about these invasive jumping worms with homeowners, garden clubs and the horticulture industry is important. Some preventative actions include cleaning all garden equipment of soil, especially if moving from one location to another. If trading plants, do so bare root with all soil washed off, and use caution with mulching materials.
Currently most earthworms, including jumping worms, are overwintering in an “egg capsule.” When temperatures warm in early summer, there is a simple test for jumping worms homeowners can run. To bring any earthworms to the surface, mix mustard (anywhere from one tablespoon to 1/3 cup) in one gallon of water and pour it slowly on the ground. This will drive any worms to the surface, and you can then determine if you have jumping worms. The mixture is not supposed to harm any plants.
If you do find live jumping worms (there are videos on YouTube showing their behavior) place them in a plastic bag and leave in the sun for 10 or more minutes, then toss the bag with the dead worms in the trash. Consider reporting any findings to New York iMapInvasives at nyimapinvasives.org. Your county’s Master Gardener volunteer program will have for more information regarding jumping worms.
When outside, take time to observe the earthworm activity in your landscape. As you head to the forest, use caution to not transfer any soil on your shoes. Being aware of this potentially destructive pest can slow their spread.
Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.

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A jumping worm.
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