Freightening jumping worm program was a decade late

Jumping worms (Amynthas) are Asian earthworms, and I’ve been writing about them for a couple of years now. They alter the composition of soils and change its texture, damage native plants and help invasive introductions get established. I went to a public education presentation about jumping worms the other evening. Videos of writhing worms evoked a chorus of yucks and squeals. The discussion then focused on the spread of jumping worms in potted plants and bark mulch. Gardeners with worm-infested gardens are supposed to provide stations for visitors to clean their feet before leaving the premises to prevent the spread of worm egg cases. This was the exact, frightening and informative presentation the Department of Natural Resources should have been making — a decade ago. Officials around the country have known jumping worms are a threat for decades — the worms were first reliably reported in Arkansas in 1937. That means every state north of Arkansas has had about 80 years to educate the public and search for ways to control jumping worms, and all of them have ignored the problem until it landed on their doorstep. No earthworms are native to Wisconsin. This area was buried under glaciers for thousands of years, and when the ice melted there were no earthworms in the soil that formed. The wildflowers, shrubs and trees here developed in soils covered by a rich layer of decaying leaves and plant material. They developed relationships with fungi in the soil. Earthworms, first introduced by European settlers, consumed this material and slowly changed the landscape. Asian worms consume organic matter more rapidly than European worms, and they’re found in most of the state now. Stopping their spread isn’t the issue anymore because they’re well established. Finding a way to get rid of them is the priority. After the shock videos in the presentation the other night, the message was clear — resources have only recently been allocated for jumping worm research. Jumping worms aren’t a threat to agriculture, so native plants and gardeners aren’t a priority. The adult worms aren’t hardy here but their eggs are. Gardeners won’t know if they have them until July when this year’s worms are large enough to see. Treatments to kill jumping worms are few. Dried mustard dissolved in water and then poured on the soil drives the worms to the surface so they can be removed by hand. But the soil has to be bare and a gallon of water is required to treat a square foot. I’d need to do this about 43,000 times to treat my yard. I’d have to find a way to dispose of the mulch that might be contaminated and bag the dead worms. Then I’d have to repeat it the following year. An organic fertilizer, Early Bird, may kill the worms, but the company doesn’t promise it will work. We’re losing our botanic patrimony before we discover its full potential. Sugar maples may go the way of the Wisconsin ash. One thing is clear — the public will be left to clean up another mess and gardeners are on their own.

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