Tallamy all about local landscapes

Little Washington Theatre lecture promises to inspire

By Bruce Jones
Special to the Rappahannock News

I have been privileged to hear renowned entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy speak several times, and every time I learn more about the importance of the inter-relationship between plants, insects, birds and mammals (including humans). Each time I hear him speak, I am inspired by his knowledge and he moves me to improve our habitat even more. Tallamy is a professor of Entomology in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Bringing Nature Home, and the co-author of The Living Landscape.

Dr. Doug Tallamy Courtesy photo

Tallamy’s presentation,“Making Insects: A guide to restoring the little things that run the world,” at the Little Washington Theatre, Sunday, Sept. 24, at 2 p.m., illustrates how important biodiversity and native plants are to sustaining wildlife. Admission is free.

BJ: Doug, How did you first discover this unique relationship of insects to native plants?

DT: Well, I learned decades ago in graduate school that most insects must specialize on one or two plant lineages that share a common chemical defense in order to defeat that defense. In this way an insect species can acquire the adaptations necessary to bypass the nasty defensive chemicals when they eat the leaves. The monarch, for example, has the adaptations to circumvent the chemical defenses in milkweeds. But such specialization locks insects into eating only the plant they have specialized on. Back when I learned this, no one was thinking about native or nonnative plants, and no one was worried about invasive species. It was a walk around our new property in 2001 that brought all of this back to me. The property was heavily invaded by autumn olive, Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose, etc. I noticed that insects were using the few native plants we had but avoiding the nonnatives. Of course! There is no way insects in North America could have specialized on plants from Asia. Which means our ornamentals and invasive species support very few insects and that threatens local food webs.

BJ: Are there any common, perhaps outdated, myths about gardening or landscaping that you’d like to dispel?

DT: I think the biggest misconception is that plants are just decorations, and so we should only use the prettiest plants in our landscapes. We have not thought about what the ecological roles those plants need to be playing. Another myth is that nature is happy somewhere else, so we don’t need to landscape for ecosystem function at home. That may have been true 50 years ago, but now there is not enough nature left to run the ecosystems we all depend on.

BJ: When you began your career as an entomologist and scientist, did you ever envision the ecological path which you’re presently on?

DT: Not in the slightest. I was interested in insect behavior.

BJ: Considering, for example, the diminishing number of bee colonies, fewer and fewer butterflies and birds, etc., how does the future of our environment look to you?

DT: The future is entirely up to us. If we can convince enough people that there is a direct connection between how well other species are doing and our own well-being, then I am optimistic. If our culture continues to think that humans do not need other species, then I am pessimistic.

BJ: You have been teaching entomology and wildlife ecology at the U of Delaware for nearly 40 years. What stands out to you as the most important issue for the world of conservation?

DT: By far the most important issue in conservation is human population growth. There are now 3.5 times more humans than the earth can support in the long run and we are using all the resources other species need to survive. If we don’t edge back down below the carrying capacity of planet earth, there will be no conservation.

BJ: What about the garden centers, the landscape architects, planners/designers — where do they fit into the picture with this somewhat new concept of using native plants because of their specific impact on wildlife?

DT: The horticultural industry can play a critical role in leading this transition. A nurseryman once told me I was trying to put him out of business. The opposite is true. There 129 million homes in the U.S. If everyone re-landscaped, it would not put nurserymen out of business. It would be the biggest boon the industry has ever experienced. All they need to do help educate the public about the plants we need in our landscapes.

BJ: What basic suggestions do you have for us here in rural Rappahannock County to promote native plants, protect our wildlife, and spread the word to a much wider and diverse audience?

DT: Think of your property, your little piece of the world, as being part of your local ecosystem. The way you landscape your property — the plant choices you make and the amount of lawn you maintain — will determine whether your property is enhancing your local ecosystem or destroying it. As Roy Dennis says “Land ownership is more than a privilege, it’s a responsibility.”

— Bruce Jones is a resident of Rappahannock County whose main interest is creating and sustaining habitat for insects, birds, and mammals by using native plants, trees and shrubs in our shared landscape.

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