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Wild WNY / A different view of insects

Doug Tallamy says we should support them, not eradicate them


Almost universally, we have a very negative attitude toward insects. Some sting; others bite. They eat our plants. They invade our homes and our food supplies. Many are ugly, smell bad, or make life unpleasant. Think bedbugs, lice, mosquitos, hornets, stinkbugs, and ticks. Creepy crawlies indeed!


Wouldn’t it be nice not to have to screen our homes, spray our plants, cover ourselves with foul-smelling substances, or worry about ticks?


This represents the downside of insects; these are the reasons I had always marched with the anti-insect throng. Until, that is, entomologist Doug Tallamy came to town. His message: we not only need insects, but we also should support them by planting native trees and shrubs. He’s provided chapter and verse in support of his thesis, in the form of his paradigm-shifting book, Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants. It should be required reading for all homeowners.


Consider just one study Tallamy cites. Researchers followed the activities of pairs of chickadees rearing nestlings through their first sixteen days. One pair delivered to its chicks 570 caterpillars of seventeen species in one day; another, a caterpillar every three minutes. Each of these tiny bird pairs fed between 5,000 and 6,000 caterpillars to their chicks over that short period. Note that soft and squishy food is important during this critical period. Those sunflower seeds that are so popular in other seasons don’t serve here. They are not digestible by these young birds.



Spotted bee balm; Monarch butterflies

Photos by Jay Burney


That is, of course, just one species and one study. But it is important to note that ninety-six percent of all of our perching birds feed their young insects. And insects play other even more important roles, the most important as pollinators. (Even mosquitoes contribute here.) But Tallamy’s focus remains on insects as an important food source for wildlife—and not just birds. They are eaten even by bears.


Step two of Tallamy’s argument is crucial. Native plant species supply these important insects; introduced plants do not. In oversimplified terms, the problem for introduced species is that insects do not identify them as food sources. Thus we have (at the extreme) the alien ginko attracting two species of insect, while our native oaks attract over five hundred each.


Tallamy would have us think seriously about our planting in support of insect production. High on his list of trees, along with those oaks, are cherries, willows, birches, aspens, maples, and hickories. For herbaceous plants he adds goldenrods, asters, strawberries, and sunflowers. (Note how sunflowers serve birds with both insects and seeds.)


Thus we have Tallamy’s straightforward message: choose native when you add to your yard’s flora. Others, like Ken Parker, would have us go still further: don’t just plant species native to North America; try to plant those native to this particular region.


I find these arguments convincing. It is certainly not a sacrifice to add native flora to our gardens. These plants are every bit as attractive as the foreigners and generally fit far better with our soil and our climate, as well as provide those necessary insect food sources.  


Read more about our environment from Gerry Rising here.


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