It’s a Bugs Life!

“You are never truly alone when composting. There is always something just over there, watching you and waiting for dinner!

The compost pile is a thriving location for micro and macro organisms, good and bad bacteria. Many life forms are found during the decomposition process; some bugs are more visible. These are your larger life forms. While some cannot be seen with the naked eye, you need a microscope to view them. 

We are talking about millions of microorganisms in the tiniest amounts of compost soils – bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes. Their presence is within mere grams of compost soil. A handful – well, you are potentially cupping an entire galaxy of life – which is why you should NEVER eat raw compost!

I remember reading a few years ago that there are various levels of microbe decomposers – the first are the tiny ones. Next, you have marginally more significant life forms. Then you have the macros, which are much bigger and most of these; you are probably all too well aware of. To make it easier to understand – let us look at it like this :

Microorganisms – like bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes – are at the minor level of breaking down materials. This lot is found at the end of the decomposition process and primarily in the humus’s final product level. 

Your next stage upwards would involve the likes of nematodes, mites, springtails, and protozoa, which eat the organic matter of your waste products. They will predate the smaller organisms previously mentioned.

After these, and going upwards again, we have the more commonly known first-line decomposers, which you will know well, more so if you are the gardener and, of course, composters. These bugs are the first ones to attack and start on the waste products of your compost heap.

These are the visual insects you see with your naked eye so: worms, flies, ants, slugs, snails, woodlice, spiders, beetles and centipedes too. I have seen all of these first-hand at various stages of the process.

This lot tends to start the breakdown process; they crunch, munch, munch, suck, tear and chew and every other variation of ‘eat’ the organic waste matter you provide them, and they relish their job.

You Are Never Alone!

So, as you can see, you are never alone when composting; more importantly, it’s not just you doing all the work. As composters, we move the content around, flip it, turn it, mix it, air it, heat it, cold compost it, calm it down and then wash, rinse and repeat. But this buggy gang are responsible for all the hidden detailed work. 

I remember a conversation with a chap who said he would spend an entire week attending to the bug life and eradicating them from his heap! He would not think they are all a valuable part of the decomposition process. 

But also, many seemingly need help understanding the absolute importance of the bugs in their bins and their roles in the decomposition process! I have even seen some new composters panic at the presence of bugs in their heaps.

Over the years, l have experienced infestations of my own, and l treat them as learning curves. Each lesson is teaching me something different about the whole breakdown process. Too wet, too dry, too much of this, too that, and so on. Composting is always about endeavouring to maintain a balance.

One of the significant infestations l have had experience with is ‘ants’. The conditions were just right for them at the time. The hot processing stage had not finished long, and there was very little moisture in the heap. The first time l had experienced it, l had only been composting for one season and was a little concerned, but after some research online discovered l had nothing to be unduly worried about.

There are benefits to having ants invade …

They build tunnels with their nests, and this helps airflow which in turn encourages quicker breakdown times.
Their own waste products aids the fertility of the compost.
They introduce nutrients in the form of minerals.
Ants feed on compost scraps as well as the smaller organisms.
In addition to their tunnelling behaviours they are also aiding in the distribution of the healthy bacteria through the heap itself making for a more evenly balanced end product.

What l learned was that once the hot composting period was over, the heap was cooling down. This would mean that the worms present during the cold composting stage were not under any threat in food competition from the ants and that, if anything, the heap required a turning, sifting and sieving, flipping and dampening down.

You have got to love your soil suckers.

Earthworms/Compost Worms – Own Image

I love my worms and will do what l can to ensure they are always happy – these are some of the most genuine friends to your initial compost pile breakdown you can get. They eat the shit, digest it, and shit it back out in the form of highly nutrient-filled castings that hold many valuable minerals the composting process needs. Worms also create tunnels and channels, which help to assist with the airing process and move these nutrients around the heap.

I am not a great lover of flies. But they are still more welcome than mosquitoes! Admittedly, I have not had a great deal of hassle with them, but mostly because my compost heaps are covered, but flies are also an essential part of the decomposition process.

I do see the annoying tiny flies, however, especially when l have put fresh kitchen scraps in, and these are the fruit flies and the fungus flies or gnats, l should say. Now you can keep this annoyance down if you up your level of carbons – like cardboard, paper or leaves on top of your moist waste content.

I have only occasionally seen a few millipedes when composting. Although, on occasion, l see centipedes, which are significant indicators to me and more so if they are present in higher quantities as that means my compost might be too wet, damp or moist. I see them more often during the cold composting process. However, they pitch into the overall responsibilities by predating the insects, tiny spiders, dead slugs, etc. They are excellent scavengers also.

Woodlice, pill bugs or sowbugs have several different names depending on where you are. The typical woodlice are the ones that curl up into a tight little ball, whereas the others do not. But these are also always welcome. They eat leaf matter, vegetable waste and rotting down wood and twigs.

I don’t want the snails eating my garden, but l am not adverse to putting them into my heaps – they scavenge through waste matter and feed on bacteria and fungi. In addition, when the snail produces its waste, the springtails and mites will eat this – which further aids the whole breaking down process nothing is ever wasted in a compost heap.

Like the snail, l prefer to have the slug working with me instead of against me. I am not into cutting these blighters up with scissors, but I will deposit them into my compost heaps. Slugs like snails will feed on living matter, but they are also highly proficient fungi and decaying matter feeders. [They are also known to eat worms, so l never deliberately place them into my actual worm farms]

I encounter a lot of spiders in the compost heap, and more so when l have added a lot of leaf matter to the bins, and the prime species l encounter is the ‘wolf spider’. Spiders are superb with population control, and they will feed on insects and springtails and keep balance to the order of life in the compost bin. When l had the pallet set up as opposed to my closed units of today, l tended to see more web-building spider species. 

“Not So Buggy!”

Of course, as l have mentioned before, there are other visitors to the compost bins who themselves work like the spiders in so far as keeping order and balance in a heap – these being the likes of frogs, toads, newts and slow worms and on occasion sleeping and sungrazing grass snakes – so always be aware that you are not the only one attending to your heap, especially with some the more giant feeders like just mentioned – take care when turning your soils over.

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Hope you enjoyed the article – Thanks for reading – catch you next time.

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Published by The Autistic Composter

Earthly Comforts is a wildlife journaling scrapbook focusing on the countryside, wildlife biodiversity and environmental conservation, flora and fauna volunteering projects, gardening, composting and vermiculture, inspiration, poetry and photography.

7 thoughts on “It’s a Bugs Life!

  1. Hey Rory, great post!
    Just a personal note to you that I will be going off Word Press for awhile. No worries, our health is okay. Just need to make some major life changes due to age and as slow as I move anymore this will take time. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It started off when were talking about how one of the biggest issues in urban areas is the desire to pack up/ship out garden and food waste when it can do so much more good being returned to the earth.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This is very true. I collect some of my neighbours kitchen wastes for the compost and l am often surprised at how much waste people throw away when it comes to food with very little consideration.

        People with gardens and flower beds could dig a small trench and place their food scraps in there and the wonders would be amazing for their soils.

        Liked by 1 person

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