Native species key to bringing back bugs and birds, entomologist says

 University of Delaware entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy highlighted the importance of native plants and attracting native insects to privately-owned yards and gardens, in the University of Connecticut Environmental Metanoia lecture “Restoring Nature’s Relationship” on Saturday at the Biology/Physics Building.(James Petts/Flickr Creative Commons)

University of Delaware entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy highlighted the importance of native plants and attracting native insects to privately-owned yards and gardens, in the University of Connecticut Environmental Metanoia lecture “Restoring Nature’s Relationship” on Saturday at the Biology/Physics Building.(James Petts/Flickr Creative Commons)

University of Delaware entomologist Dr. Doug Tallamy highlighted the importance of native plants and attracting native insects to privately-owned yards and gardens, in the University of Connecticut Environmental Metanoia lecture “Restoring Nature’s Relationship” on Saturday at the Biology/Physics Building.

The lecture, sponsored by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, focused on the decline of natural ecosystems due to the decimation of native vegetation by modern infrastructure, as well as the damage from invasive, non-native species that are often used to decorate gardens.

Native plants, Tallamy said, are key to attracting native insects; insects, he added, are the key to everything.

“Life as we know of it depends on insects,” Tallamy said. “If you take those insects away, nasty things will happen.”

Those nasty things, Tallamy said, include the decimation of other local species that depend on insects. Birds, for example, depend on insects as a major part of their diets, or to feed their young. Without those food insects, bird populations take a nosedive.

So far, 423 American bird species-- about one-third of the world’s avian species overall-- are faced with extinction, Tallamy said, as a result of deforestation, habitat destruction and the loss of food sources.

The issues, Tallamy said, is that most modern gardening practices are ecologically destructive. Gardeners that cut away dead stems or remove dead trees take away important habitats for crucial insects, such as native bees.

Grass is a large culprit, as it provides little to no shelter or food for most insects, and takes up a large amount of space that could be used for more ‘high impact’ vegetations, Tallamy said.

Worst of all? Invasive ornamental species such as Japanese honeysuckle consume burning bush and Callery pear, which, Tallamy said, are indigestible and uninhabitable by most native insect species, and often breed out-of-check plants because of a lack of natural predators. Despite this, they’re still covered by gardeners for their aesthetics.

“Eighty percent of nursery plants [for sale] are non-native,” Tallamy said. “It’s become a regulated part of our culture. People don’t think about native and non-native; they think in ‘pretty.’”

Though land trusts and national parks can serve as a refuge for many creatures, it’s up to private landowners, who own 83 percent of the terrestrial land in the U.S., to help bring back native species for the rest of the world, Tallamy said.

“[Land] ownership comes with the responsibility of owning the entire universe,” Tallamy said. “We have to get serious about fixing the earth.”

Home and landowners can start by planting fewer invasive species, Tallamy said, along with less grass. Instead, they should plant native species such as black cherry, white oak and milkweed, which will attract caterpillars, spiders, moths and native bees, which help support local birds and other animals.

“All places have ecological significance,” Tallamy said. “It’s a matter of educating.”

According to Tallamy, students who don’t own land can still help by spreading the word and encouraging others who own land to be more aware of what they’re planting. They can also push policy that would ban the sale of invasive plants.

“It’s going to take top-down regulation to [stop] the sale of invasive species,” Tallamy said. “Changing policy is really important.”

For many audience-goers, Tallamy lecture reaffirmed their views on the environment, especially for UConn graduate student Valerie Milici, an ecology and evolutionary biology researcher.

“I hate grass,” Milici said. “Lawns that we plant are not that diverse. There’s no food sources. People just look at them. They’re kind of useless.”

For others, the lecture changed their views on how they maintain their gardens.

“I have a mix of natives and non-natives [in my garden,]” UConn botany professor Cynthia Jones said. “We have a big area in the back we just bought grass seed for…now I think we’ll take it back!”


Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.