Trillions of flesh-eating worms grown at Littlehampton factory - and this is why

This is why trillions of flesh-eating worms are made at a factory in Littlehampton.

It sounds like the plot from a sci-fi film: microscopic worms that eat insects alive and burst out of their bodies, searching for fresh prey.

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152305001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152305001

But these creatures are actually a popular pest-control method, and are farmed right on our doorstep.

The BASF facility in Lineside Industrial Estate, Eldon Way, is the biggest producer of nematodes in the EU and the only one of its kind in Britain.

By selecting a handful of species that have a taste for garden pests out of the millions that exist of these microscopic worms, the company has been able to harness a natural resource that is all around us.

Scientist Jack Shepherd, 24, from Worthing, said: “If everything in the world suddenly disappeared except for nematodes, you would be able to make out mountain ranges, seafloors, towns, cities, different wildlife, just because of the nematode cover.”

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152450001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152450001

In the facility, there are 20 fermentation vessels, enabling the team to produce up to 40 trillion nematodes.

It employs 20 permanent staff with part-time packaging staff of up to six people.

In one of the laboratories, Jack showed us a slug that was being eaten by the nematodes.

To the naked eye, it shimmered.

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152341001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152341001

But under the microscope, it was crawling with a sea of the white worms.

The nematodes kill their prey by entering into a natural orifice and releasing bacteria inside the body which they feed on.

Jack said: “The nematodes grow inside the cadaver, and when they reach a large concentration they will burst out of the slug and continue to search for more slugs.”

To make their products, it is an involved process.

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152305001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Jack Shepherd. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901. SUS-190409-152305001

Each batch starts with a number of nematodes, harvested from dead insects in the laboratory, which are put in a flask with the associated bacterium that is specific to the species.

Here, they are fermented in a solution of nutrients under a controlled temperature and aeration until the numbers reach 20 million.

From there they go into fermenting tanks, the largest of which is 75,000 litres. In this one, the numbers swell to 8 trillion.

Once the nematodes are ready, the solution is put through a centrifuge to separate the nematodes from the waste and then stored in wash tanks where they are kept cool and cleaned.

The water is sieved out so only a ‘nematode paste’ is left, which is dried out, mixed with a gel, weighed and packaged with perforated film to allow airflow to the organisms.

They are then refrigerated until they are ready to be sold, which gives them a longer shelf life as the nematodes move around less and use up less of their fat reserves.

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152355001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152355001

The use-by date is a minimum of four weeks.

When asked if someone could drink a pint of the brown ‘stock’ before it is sieved, Jack said it would not be a good idea.

He said: “You wouldn’t be very well, because you’re swilling biological material.

“The hottest temperature that any of our worms operate at is around 30 degrees, so our 37 degree body temperature would kill the nematodes relatively quickly as well.”

So while we are safe, local slugs and their pesky friends should keep an eye out.

For more information about the business and its products, visit the BASF Youtube channel or the website, basf.com.

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152406001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152406001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152428001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152428001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152439001

Tour of nematode factory, BASF at Littlehampton. Pic Steve Robards SR04091901 SUS-190409-152439001