Gene Logsdon and Friends

Even Earthworms Are Bad Now

In Gene Logsdon Blog on July 11, 2012 at 5:51 am

From GENE LOGSDON

I am having trouble with one of the latest scientific findings. Some researchers are saying that earthworms are bad for forests. The new data claims the worms, which are mostly non-native species, gobble up too much of the leaf litter, leaving the forest floor bare and compacted. Wildflowers like trillium and bloodroot and even maple seedlings disappear, according to these scientists.

I know it is impertinent for a non-scientist to argue with the experts, but their conclusions in this case run counter to my experience in my tree groves and to my sense of logic. First of all, since the earthworms being discussed mostly came from Europe, why didn’t they destroy any forests over there?

For sure, my woodland is loaded with earthworms, especially night crawlers. I find their little piles of castings (I guess that’s what they are) on my way to the barn every morning. The woodland floor however remains six inches deep with leaf litter throughout most of the year, breaking down to about three inches by fall when a new layer of leaves drop. There certainly is no bare, compacted soil anywhere except on the lane to the barn where I drive truck and tractor.

Furthermore, the trillium and bloodroot that I have started in the woods proliferate except where deer nibble them. And as for maple seedlings, they grow up everywhere like weeds.

Furthermore again, the worms turn the leaves they do eat into rich humus and tunnel up and down in the forest soil, keeping it permeable and water-absorbing, a far, far cry from a barren, compacted soil surface.

I think scientists should turn their attention more to deer. Where plant life seems to be diminishing in woodland, deer are often to blame. When experimental fences are erected in forests to keep out deer, plant life proliferates, offering a stark contrast to the grazed portions outside the enclosures.

If earthworms really are a problem, I have a formidable solution. Or rather nature has. We have a scourge of moles in our gardens next to our woodland. They are there because they love earthworms. They also delight in going down a row of newly sprouted corn or peas, either eating them, or disrupting their root systems, or providing a tunnel for various voles to eat the sprouting seeds, depending on which authority you want to believe. If earthworms ever threaten to overpopulate our tree groves, the moles will surely take care of them.

I have a hunch the earthworm phobia is part of a larger, and sometimes justified, worry over “invasive” plants. So many plants causing problems for us now have come here from Europe or Asia. The presumed  balance of power between the native plants, achieved over centuries, has been disrupted. I see where greenhouses are now advertising “non-invasive” plants, which I find a bit humorous. Almost any plant can become “invasive” in certain situations. In cutover woodland, native blackberries are just as invasive as non-native multi-flora rose. Maple, walnut and various other beloved trees can spread like Canada thistles given the right environment, like in my lawn and gardens next to the woods. In fact many if not most native plants can become invasive nuisances under some circumstances and some non-native plants are really quite desirable to have around.  Bluegrass, certainly one of our most beneficial plants (except when it takes a toehold in my strawberry patch) is not native to America even if Kentucky does insist on calling itself the “Bluegrass State.”
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  1. I’ve often wondered what native species the earthworm as an invasive species crowded out. Certainly before the earthworm arrived from Europe, something else (beetles?, fire?) consumed the organic matter that earthworms consume now. Did this “scientific” study take that into account?

  2. Some “science,” in fact, over half of science in my experience, is flat-out nonsense. Much of so-called medical science (and after over forty years in the health-care profession, I think I’m savvy enough to judge) is no better than old wives’ tales and witch doctoring. In fact, a lot of the so-called old wives’ tales are based in herbal medicine and are actually quite accurate. I prefer observation and empiricism. If science says one thing and what I see, hear or feel is different, as you have described so well here, Gene, I say ignore the science!

    • Beth, this seems off the subject but I’m curious what you think from your vantage point about the whole notion of cholesterol causing heart disease and using statins to remedy the situation. Gene

      • I’m an old nurse too and I do not believe in statins. They may lower cholesterol but there is no evidence that this also reduces heart disease and the list of side effects from statins is a mile long. How these things make it to market is beyond me.

        Lately they’ve discovered that our “bad” cholesterol (LDH) is made up of two different kinds of cholesterol and one of them is not so bad after all–therefore new testing is in order because the old tests weren’t accurate.

        The answer to heart disease is good nutrition–real food and a variety of it–and of course exercise. I wish there was a pill too, but there isn’t

      • IMHO there is no connection between cholesterol and heart disease except in the coffers of the folks who manufacture statins (sugar and refined carbohydrates such as white flour are another matter!). Statins cause liver problems, muscle pains and nerve damage, increase the risk of Type II diabetes and negatively affect your memory. Plenty of people who have changed to the controlled carbohydrate diet espoused by the late Robert Atkins find their blood lipids improve, and that diet certainly doesn’t restrict cholesterol. Even more important, an Atkins-type diet tends to increase the HDL cholesterol, which is the form that protects you against heart disease. For you guys in the audience, your body can’t make testosterone without cholesterol. Normal cholesterol is actually about 200-240 and should be higher for post-menopausal women, but most docs are thrilled with numbers below 200. I agree with Betty — don’t take statins.

  3. Could it be that the reason “the earthworms being discussed [which] mostly came from Europe…didn’t…destroy any forests over there” is that Europe is an entirely distinct ecosystem made up of countless smaller ecosystems? To compare your Ohio trees/ecosystem to Europe’s trees/ecosystems is to compare Amish to polar bears.

  4. even apple trees are a non native species,. as it wheat, clover, honey bees, cows, sheep, chickens, most of the homo sapiens that live in the US, and oh so much more,.

  5. After the glaciers melted off the north half of North America there was only rock and gravel. All plant species found there now are non-Native in that they came in from somewhere else. Same with most of the animals, birds and insects. Ecosystems evolve and change. Where I lived in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) was ocean bottom at least a couple of times. That is climate and ecosystem change. I figure all is well with Mother Nature. Love your plot of ground and let some of the joy it gives you leak out to your neighbours.

  6. Hi Joyce, I don’t know if I would have put homo sapiens with all the other good non native species you mentioned. The homo sapiens are probably the most destructive species on the planet:)

  7. Nothing ever stays the same…nature is always in a state of flux and progression and I too believe we have bigger fish to fry than worrying about the humble worm. My observations on my farm and woodlot mirror yours, Gene. The world is so small and interconnected, that things can change that much faster. I used to try to dig up all my privet–impossible! Now I’m just happy that the bees seem to like them (and no the honey does not taste bad), and the goats love them too–free food for everyone.

    I’ve discovered that to be an expert in something these days requires very little. I obtained a “Master Meat Goat Producer” certificate before I ever acquired my first goat! None of the presenters in the class (from the agricultural extension service) had ever raised goats themselves! They mostly had experience with sheep. I am learning now from my goats and they certainly didn’t take the class!

    I find this true of beekeeping experts as well–it’s a wonder we have any bees left at all with all the misinformation continually recycled.

  8. I live in central B.C. where there were no native earthworms according to my naturalist friends. (They said there were some sort of white earthworms in glacial fans, but that they didn’t look like any earthworm they had ever seen.)

    In my own experience, I find that fungi seem to have done most of the work. Gene, your ode to manure pack as a way of preserving nutrients seems also to have a lot more to do with fungi than bacteria or worms.

  9. Gene, another great discussion as usual. First, the earthworm “scientists” sound like another government office screaming emergency so they don’t lose funding. I’d love to see what was spent on this “research.”
    Second, I too work in a hospital. I’m with the others, stay away from statins. Muscle pains, memory loss, not worth it.

  10. I think some researchers are bad for earthworms. Sounds like some grad students trying to be edgy in their Ecology class paper. I’d also suspect it might be a “publish or perish” paper, best suited for vermicomposting after reading. Gene, could you give us the cite?

  11. I don’t know how many of you live up north, by which I mean north of 45 degrees N Latitude, but the earthworm threat is real up here. There were no nightcrawlers in Northern Wisconsin or Minnesota before the late 1890′s/early 1900′s when European immigrant farmer’s brought them in to improve the soil.
    There are large areas of Northern Hardwoods that are berift of duff. The soil in the sub-boreal forest where I am now living is too acidic for nightcrawlers, so they have not moved into this area, inspite of the assistance of vacationers who dump them in the lakes and on the shore after they finish with them as fish bait.
    Contrary to the mindset of many, science is not a crock, nor are most scientists looking for money to prevent the next zombie apocalypse. If you want that go listen to talk radio.

  12. The negative stereotyping of science and scientists that I am reading in this discussion is VERY disheartening and disturbing to me. The comment that “over half of science is flat-out nonsense” makes me wonder what people think science is and how they determine what is genuine science and what is not.

    I am a former ecological scientist who is now an apprenticing market gardener and hopefully someday farmer (I’m 48). I have GREAT respect for farmers, practical skills, “common sense,” personal observation, etc.

    I have learned A LOT from Mr. Logsdon’s articles and books!

    I have also learned A LOT from scientists.

    Every occupation and group has people who lie or cut corners for payola, people who are incompetent, people who draw broad conclusions from small, unrepresentative cross-sections of data. This is true not only of scientists, but of doctors and other medical workers, of writers, of us blog commentators, and of farmers.

    It is my experience that scientists on average are just as honest and sincere as any of the rest of us, if not more so.

    If you think scientists are such a bad lot, maybe you need to meet a few more of them. And not just medical scientists. Take a geologist to lunch.

    REGARDS EARTHWORMS: People who frequent the Northwoods of northern MN and WI have noticed for many years now that more and more forests are experiencing large decreases in both leaf litter on the ground and in wildflower abundance. The areas hardest hit are areas near lakes with heavy fishing activity. Scientists who have taken the time to OBSERVE and quantify their observations have found a very strong correlation between high earthworm populations and decreasing wildflower populations and decreasing leaf litter thicknesses.

    These scientists are not exaggerating or lying in order to pad their tax-funded budgets or to be “edgy,” — they are simply reporting their findings. That’s what ecologists do, keep us informed about what is happening out there in the woods, including taking the time and effort to try and tease out what the likely causes appear to be.

    Are earthworms evil incarnate in the Northwoods? Probably not the Devil, but earthworms seem to be having some serious negative effects. Are Northwoods wildflowers henceforth rare and their former abundance but a memory? Probably not, but no one knows for sure yet. Maybe the Northwoods will adjust to earthworms and the wildflowers will bounce back to their former numbers in short order. Time will tell. Ecosystems and species are usually quite resilient. But sometimes “invasive species” lead to long-term “bad” effects, like the loss of the American Chestnut to an introduced, invasive fungus. Or maybe “all is well with Mother Nature” and the loss of the American Chestnut was no big deal.

    Maybe we want to discourage earthworms as bait in a few areas, in an attempt to provide a few places as refuges with abundant wildflowers.

    Maybe there is no way to stop the “earthworm onslaught” at this point in time anyway.

    …..By the way, does the fact that earthworms have a fantastic positive effect in agricultural ecosystems (something vast numbers of scientists have studied and corroborated, including the most famous promoter of earthworms, Charles Darwin) somehow imply that earthworms will always have a positive effect everywhere? Is the natural world ever that simple and predictable, ever that black and white?

    REGARDS DEER: Scientists for decades have been studying the effect of rising deer populations on plant species abundances. Check out the research of botanist Don Waller of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For the last 30 years he has been documenting the effects of deer on plants like the American Yew (dramatic decrease in this once common shrub).

    Does the decline of yews and several wildflower species make deer evil incarnate? Depends on how much you value deer, how much you value yews, how much you value other wildflowers, etc.

    I’m glad we have scientists studying these things, although I suspect that we won’t be able to afford so many scientists in the future.

    REGARDS STATINS: I recommend the book The Queen of Fats, by Susan Allport, a book describing the history of the scientific discovery of the omega-3 and omega-6 fats (which were not discovered until the 1940s and were not understood to be essential to the human diet until the 1960s). This is a fascinating book (I learned of it through the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan) . Among the many interesting stories in this book is a short one about how the pharmaceutical industry gave scientists lots of money to study statins but purposefully would not provide money for scientists to study how a balanced diet including grass-fed meat/dairy/eggs (high in omega-3 fats) influenced the prevalence of heart disease.

    Sometimes science proves that long traditional practices (like some diets) are good for us AND HELPS US UNDERSTAND WHY.

    Sometimes science proves that old wives’ tales are just old wives’ tales AND HELPS US UNDERSTAND WHY.

    I hope that we Americans will always value science as an invaluable method of ascertaining the truth as best we can.

    Brian Pruka
    Stoughton, WI

    P.S. I read Mr. Logsdon’s articles at the website http://www.energybulletin.net, which features articles on energy issues, including low-energy, sustainable farming (i.e. small-scale family farming).

  13. Did not mean to disparage science at all. Science fascinates me. But here was a time when scientists were able to do their work without regard to politics or business interests, which is as it should be. They may sometimes have been wrong or not yet have the full picture, but we trusted them to report to us facts as they knew them at the time. I think many people have lost trust in scientists because so much research is only funded by and reported on by those who can profit on the outcome (thinking pharmaceutical companies in particular but other business interests as well). We have good reason to be skeptical and to want to know more.

  14. I used to work at a university, babysitting biology professors, and one professor said he read a book that said Opossums were of the same intelligence as hogs. I was incredulous, and told him as a farm child I had just about every wild animal as pets, and the ‘possum was the dumbest animal on legs in the woods, unless there was a trained field biologist doing a non consequential field study. Someone needed a thesis subject, and the bottle ended up pointing to earthworms.

  15. Brian, I too think well of the scientific method and use it all the time. You seems to be an ethical and thoughtful scientist and I applaud your move to farming because I’m sure you will bring insight to your work. I also have the greatest of respect for honest and competent scientists who walk the talk. However, in my former professional life as an RN (a good chunk of it spent in clinical quality improvement, which relies heavily on research data to drive patient care) and in my current one as a medical freelance writer, I have repeatedly seen data that was skewed or manipulated to please the funder, data that was suppressed to ensure that the funds would keep flowing and data that was flat-out falsified. Cetero Research falsified documents and manipulated data. Scott Rueben invented Vioxx studies and reported false results. Dipak Das published false research on resveratrol. I have also experienced, first-hand, medical management of patients according to “scientific principles” that was clearly making the patients worse or was ineffective, not just once but over and over again. Over 56% of graduate business students admitted to cheating in one study I remember reading and there’s plenty of data about cheating in medical school as well. Unfortunately, money talks, and money influences research. Bias creeps into even the best research (Gene, didn’t you write about a university president who went from researching the deleterious effects of a soft drink to recommending it after money was donated by the manufacturer?). For example, are raw milk and pastuerized milk the same substance chemically and biologically? Yet research from one is generalized to the other in many cases. Are grass-fed and commercial beef the same? Ditto. Because of my experience, I take all research with a large grain of salt and will continue to do so.

    I live in California, a very different environment from the Great Lakes states. Earthworms here do seem to have a beneficial effect, and I’m fascinated by what MJ McEvoy describes in Minnesota. I suspect the answer is that earthworms are great in some respects or certain environments and bad in others, as is the case with so many things. Think rabbits in Australia…

    • Beth, I’ve written so many things I honestly can’t remember whether I ever said that or not. Thanks for answering my question about statins etc. As a journalist, I’m in such a quandary, trying to find out the truth when scientists disagree so much. Gene

    • Well, said, Beth.

    • Thanks, Beth, many of us with advanced degrees in science obviously understand the importance of the scientific method, but MJM, Brian et al, gave voice to balance opinion, which is invigorating in its own way. There are many species of worms. Ecosystems do change, and even if studies show a correlation between changes and species populations, it is hard to determine if there will be subspecies that emerge with more or less effect on the system. I would hope our understanding grows as well. Gene, you sure do read a lot! Look at all the electrons you stirred up in just this topic. Keep it up!

  16. Gene, you’re welcome. Didn’t mean to provoke such a firestorm!

    Brian, I forgot to add (and I really hope you won’t take this as condescending, as it is not meant that way) that as you gain experience in your new career, you will repeatedly find that science says X and your experience is Y. What happens in the lab is quite often very different from what happens in the real world…

  17. Think this science investigation could have a link to Monsanto? After all everyone knows that many of their products in fact kill soil/earth worms. If Monsanto grown crops don’t need earthworms neither does the forest.

    • Bill,
      It has nothing to do with Monsanto (a completely difference beast in and of itself).
      Earthworms are not native to the Subboreal/Boreal forests. The soil is too thin and acidic. If you bury a body, it takes years to decompose, there are not the decomposers present that are found in southern soils.
      The Subboreal/Boreal forests do not require worms, because there is little or nothing for them to do.
      Before everyone starts to criticize the book, you should read it. The title pretty much sums up the topic area “Earthworms of the Great Lakes” http://www.nrri.umn.edu/worms/products/book.html

      Fopr the record, I live and work in Ely, MN. I have a degree in Wilderness Management, and I have a great interest in the Boreal Forests. And, like Brian, I am saddened by the lack of individual investigation into topics and the reliance on pop science for psuedo-facts.

  18. Since we’re talking science here, consider this one by Max Planck, no shabby scientist, by the way:

    “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

    Not, I would suggest, the cheeriest insight on the ways/habits of each of us.

  19. hi. how about introducing the mole into the worm-affected forests? or will that open another can of worms? here in eastern ohio, and West Virginia and pennsylvania there seems to be no earthworm damage to the many forests i’ve seen.

    thanks, mr. mcevoy for excellent comments.

    remember that you can’t get gooseberries or currants because of research which is now being called faulty. it seems the rust comes from a nonagricultural plant and it was infecting the gooseberries, not the other way around.

    re; statins my mom moved here about 4 years ago. i thought she was losing her mind. her only scrip was for simvistatin. i looked it up on the internet!!! i took her off it and within 2 weeks she was close to normal, thanks to God!!

    she is now 87 and memory isn’t as good but she’s great for her age and takes no prescriptions at all. the only drug-free person in the house including a couple of pharmaceutically expensive cats.

    thanks, gene. i love all of your books.

    d j harvey

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