There I stood in my garden, shocked at the realization I was now the victim of the next onslaught of invasive creatures. This, after cutting down the dead ash trees in my yard and knocking armies of Japanese beetles into jars of soapy water. Truthfully, I can perceive no greater threat to the health of my yard than this beast … an earthworm flailing violently on a pile of upturned soil.
OK, so how could I possibly be traumatized by an earthworm? These weren’t the placid night crawlers that are beneficial to the soil. Instead they were Jumping Worms (Amynthas spp.). The major concern regarding these worms is their voracious appetites, which converts organic matter into castings faster than plants can consume it. So essentially, all the valuable organic nutrients are stripped away, leaving only a sawdust-like medium behind. In my own experience, I found that the soil in the affected areas felt dry and loose, even after a ½ inch of rain had fallen. Additionally, Jumping Worms quickly reproduce asexually, and therefore can spread quickly. Research has also shown that these more aggressive worms displace beneficial earthworms, further adding to soil degradation.
Fortunately, it is easy to tell these from other worms, as they violently jump and writhe when exposed, and they tend to stay in the top two inches of soil. There is also a white band circling their bodies, and they have a dry appearance that makes them distinguishable from other earthworms. They are easily spread by transplanting plants, and even the cocoons can be introduced by using an unclean shovel or wearing shoes that were exposed.
Like most invasive species, there is little that can be done to eradicate these worms. Research in Wisconsin, where the worms have been present for five years, provides some insight into the long-term impacts, but no control methods have been found. The only defense is preventing the spread of the pests by avoiding sharing plants from affected yards and to sanitize yard tools. In my case, I contacted the University of Illinois Extension so that they might properly identify the worms and document their appearance in Kane County.
The long-term hope is with enough data on the spread of jumping worms, researchers can figure out how to protect the long-term health of our invaluable soil. As for me, I will be spending my time trying to catch jumping worms in a desperate attempt to slow their spread.
Jim Stendler is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.