In praise of maggots.

milkweed_butterfly_by_doug_tallamy.jpgNow that’s what I’m talking about.

The NYT has a great article about Doug Tallamy, a fellow ecologist at the University of Delaware who studies insects.  He and his wife are on a mission to reclaim their farm from aggressive invasive plant species and make it hospitable again for . . . maggots.  Why maggots?  because chickadees love to eat them. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about the frightful scene that develops in your fetid garbage can, but rather the larvae of native flies that burrow into goldentod stems and other plants in the yard. And not just maggots but the menagerie of inconspicuous creeping and crawling and flitting creatures that metamorphose into butterflies and that nourish the birds. 

Theirs is a personal project of ecological engineering to support biodiversity.  It resonated with me immediately since, in the warming weekends of spring, I like to go out and whack back the vines and pull out the invasive privet thickets that sprout up everywhere, and clear patches around native saplings that are struggling under honeysuckle, and so on. 

goldenrodmill.jpg“Restoration ecology” is not quite the appropriate term since some of the plants they foster are not native to their specific region.  On the other hand, they do support native insects, and therefore higher levels in the food web.  And in any case, as climate change and other environmental impacts progress, we need to shift our focus to “emerging ecosystems”.  While remaining (or becoming) aware of the sometimes forgotten baselines of how nature used to look and work, we also need to incorporate the reality that geographc ranges of species are shifting, some invaders are here to stay, and some natives are disappearing inexorably.  How do we maintain biodiversity and functional, resilient ecosystem in this new world order? 

The answers are not yet clear.  But efforts like those of the Tallamys are  small experiments toward finding the answers. Doug has written a book about this, “Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens“, which I very much look forward to reading.  His basic thesis is deceptively simple: bugs are the key link in the food chain.  And bugs tend to be tallamybook.jpgextremely finicky eaters.  Many are strict specialists on one or a few types of plants.  This means that yards and gardens filled with ornamental plants introduced from elsewhere often support only invasive pest species and not the native insects adapted to local conditions and enjoyed by local birds and other animals.  Encouraging native plants — and insects — is a concrete way to restiore ecological balance to the patches of land over which we personally have stewardship. 

And that is an exciting and hopeful message.  We often feel helpless when confronted with all the bad news about environmental degradation.  Here is something we can do personally to sustain biodiversity.  Nurture native plants and the creatures that depend on them.  One yard at a time. Power to the people (and other organisms)!

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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2 Responses to In praise of maggots.

  1. Don says:

    Dear Emmett:
    Nice but it ain’t true! Butterfly conservation in this horribly eroded landscape is greatly aided by the right exotics. See for example,
    Diversity and Distributions, 2002, 8, 31–40
    The Californian urban butterfly fauna is dependent
    on alien plants. ARTHUR M. SHAPIRO

    and

    Graves and Shapiro. Biological Conservation 110 (2003) 413–433 “Exotics as host plants for California butterflies.

    The key is nectar, and some exotic plants supply it in great volumes.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for the references Don. I will indeed check them out. I haven’t read Tallamy’s book in full but I have now bought a copy and covered some of it. One of the points he makes is that, although butterfly bush and other aliens may be great for the nectar-loving adults, the more discriminating larvae need other specific plants and don’t do as well on aliens. This is based on at least some quantitative data although I’m not sure how much of it is published yet.