The ancient art of worm charming

Need an interesting quarantine activity? Learn the ancient art of worm charming from past Midland County 4-H teen leader Nathan Laurenz.

Worms in hand
Nathan’s worm charming catch. Photo by Nathan Laurenz.

Nathan Laurenz, past 4-H member from Midland County, was featured in several Michigan State University Extension next generation of true science leaders growing in 4-H news articles. You may remember the “Michigan 4-H youth is a true leader in science with research in eating insects” and, a favorite of many readers, “How do you show a Tarantula?” Laurenz continues in being a true leader in science with his research on insects as a food source for humans studying at Cornell University. I partnered up with Laurenz once more in providing an educational, science and cultural quarantine activity in worm charming.

With a splash, the hook vanished beneath the water! An excited 11-year-old waited on the shore clenching his fishing pole, muscles tensed and ready to reel in the fish behind the inevitable bite. An eternity later, there was not so much as a nibble. A defeated younger version of Laurenz dragged his line in and examined the empty hook. A fish had stolen his worm and avoided getting caught! If only there was an unlimited supply of worms.

Today, Laurenz has all the knowledge and wisdom of a 20-year-old and will teach you how to coax worms right out of the soil, giving you that famed unlimited worm supply. Worm charming is a fun and educational activity for all ages, can be done in almost any soil, and calls for very few materials.

So how does this work? The idea is to create vibrations in the soil. A scientific paper on worm grunting, fiddling and charming found that the trembling mimics moles (a voracious worm predator), causing them to flee to the surface. People are very creative on how to make these vibrations and everyone has a different method. There are three techniques that Laurenz will focus on.

Technique one: Worm charming

The World Worm Charming Championships take place every year in a small England village. Most of the competitors use the traditional worm charming technique of driving a pitchfork into the ground. They then use a stick to bang on the pitchfork while wiggling the pitchfork slightly. Laurenz found that this method has the highest success rate.

A pitchfork can also be substituted for any gardening equipment, stick or pole that can be stuck into the ground and banged on. Multiple sticks close to each other also seem to yield better results.

Technique two: Worm grunting or fiddling

Professional worm grunters use a wooden stake driven into the ground and rub a saw or iron file across the top of the stake to create vibrations. At home, this can be replicated easily with a stick driven into the ground and another stick slid across the first stick, as if you were playing a violin. Laurenz has found that this tends to be less effective than just banging, but it works, nonetheless.

Technique three: Modern adaptations

Dancing, pointing a tuba at the ground, dribbling a basketball and whacking the ground with a stick also creates vibrations through soil. In theory, anything that causes trembling can draw out worms. These methods may not be as effective as the more traditional ones but can be loads of fun, especially for families with energetic younger kids. It’s still very possible to lure worms to the surface using unique tactics, which allows for great creative thinking on how to make the vibrations.

Tips and tricks for worm charming

Laurenz found some potential tips and tricks with worm charming. On a warm and wet day, there will be more worms close to the surface and you will probably have better luck. You can also pour some water over the area you are charming, which may help.

Since the worms will not come entirely out of the soil, look carefully for small, wiggly bits and pull them out slowly once you find them. The worms will be unharmed and can be safely released back in the soil. You should see a worm within the first 5-10 minutes. If you don’t, try a new location. After a few attempts, if there still are no worms you might have to try another day. Sometimes the worms just aren't out.

Laurenz feels that worm charming may be a perfect outdoor type of quarantine activity. Without any human contact, you can get outside and earn the lifelong clout of being a worm charmer. It’s also a great activity to help kids burn some energy and learn a bit about nature in the process.

Annotations and interesting facts that Laurenz found:

  • Fun facts about moles: They are one of the very few mammals that have venomous saliva (verified in European moles). This is so they can paralyze earthworms then come back and eat them later. They also eat most of their entire body weight in worms every day.
  • Most professional worm charmers claim the vibrations mimic a rainstorm, but no studies have confirmed this.
  • Worm grunting is a real job title. A grunter in Florida reports he can make almost $3,000 a day selling worms he has coaxed out of the ground.
  • Seagulls are able to secure lunch by doing a cute little dance. They are taking advantage of the same worm behavior you are when worm charming.

The last interesting fact Laurenz found from personal experience is that to an excited 11-year-old, an entire eternity can start and end within 10 minutes.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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