Sex and the South Beach Diet

Answers to the two most commonly-asked questions about earthworms:

1. Most worms are hermaphrodites—they are both male and female. Their sexual organs consist of tiny pores on their bellies that are usually not visible to the naked eye. (Train a hand lens on a good-sized nightcrawler and you might get a glimpse of them.) To mate, worms slither alongside each other, head-to-tail, belly-to-belly, and one of them releases sperm, which travels to a female pore on the other worm.

I have often wondered if the—ahem—event—ever happened simultaneously for both worms, but as far as I can tell little research has been done on this subject. I have visions of bleary-eyed graduate students sitting up all night in the lab, waiting and watching. (There’s another dissertation topic for you PhD candidates, free of charge. Now all we need is a title…how about “Was It Good For You, Too? Simultaneous Orgasm Among Hermaphroditic Oligochaete.”)

To continue: after receiving the sperm, the worm excretes a sticky fluid that forms a kind of mucus shell around its clitellum, that thick band of flesh about a third of the way down its body. Eventually the worm will scoot backwards and slide out of this shell, and the ends will seal, leaving behind a cocoon. Imagine a tiny lemon-shaped object that is murky yellow or brown and about as big around as the worm that created it. Fertilization takes place in the cocoon and the baby worms emerge as fully-formed, miniature replicas of their parents.

2. There’s no need to worry about putting your worms on a low-carb diet. The worms in my compost bin cannot digest meat, dairy, or fat of any kind, so Atkins is right out, and they crave fruit, especially tropical summer fruits like mango. They also eat plenty of newspaper, surely a high-carb food, and they love plain rice, pasta, or bread. So if you made a New Year’s resolution to go on the South Beach Diet, think of it this way: you can eat all the lean meat and beneficial fats you want, and give those unwanted fruits and starches to the worms. ( From your hips to the worms’ lips.) More good news: they can’t eat the South Beach Mocha Ricotta Creme dessert, so you’ll have that one all to yourself.