For entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy, everything begins and ends with insects.
“The planet’s entire ecosystem depends on pollinating insects and the native plants that sustain them. If we lose our pollinators, we lose 80 to 90 percent of plants on the planet. And if we lose that, the food web that supports all the animals would collapse, and they would all disappear,” he said. “The earth would rot without them, because you would only have bacteria and fungi to turn things over.”
Tallamy, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has taught insect-related courses for 40 years, will give a virtual lecture Monday to discuss his new book, Nature’s Best Hope. The event starts at 4 p.m. and is hosted by the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
The virtual lecture is free and open to the public. Participants can register at www.palmbeachpreservation.org/events. All attendees will receive a complimentary copy of Tallamy’s book, which can be picked up at Classic Book Shop, 310 S. County Road.
Susan Lerner, the Preservation Foundation’s director of horticulture, described the premise in Tallamy’s book as “revealing,” saying that without productive native plants co-evolving with insects, the basic food chain would be interrupted.
“When I was a kid, butterflies and bees would be all over the place, but they aren’t anymore. The reason is, we don’t think it matters what kind of plants we have because we believe they are wallpaper for us and not food for animals,” she said.
Lerner explained the need for more residents to incorporate native plants into their garden, and for them to understand exactly how harmful non-natives are to the ecosystem.
“There are already some landscape designers who use native plants in the town. But unless the customer asks for it, designers will do what they already know,” she said. “I think designers in Palm Beach are fantastic and creative, but we would like them to expand the palette of plants that are being used. We need to move to a more eco-centric form of landscaping rather than an egocentric way of landscaping.”
But how can residents help create a more sustainable garden for insects and birds? Tallamy says the first thing to do is chuck the miles of non-native hedges in front of their homes.
“We’ve had this idea that humans are here while nature is someplace else, and the way they landscape Palm Beach is a perfect example,” he said. “There is no nature. If you see an insect, you spray and kill it, but then everything becomes a dead zone, not producing the ecosystem services that keep us alive.”
Tallamy explains that it’s a matter of convincing people not just in Palm Beach but everywhere on the planet that spaces must be shared between humans and nature.
“Most people are so far removed from nature. They think their food comes form the store and water from the tap, but it’s all generated by a healthy ecosystems,” he said. “We’re currently living in healthy ecosystems generated in the past, but we’re using up some services faster than they’re being produced.”
That’s where native plants come in, Tallamy said.
“We have around 4,000 species of native bees and more than one-third of them are specialists, meaning they can only reproduce in the pollen of particular native plants. If you walk into a healthy natural area in Florida — and they are hard to find — you don’t see plants defoliated or filled with pests. Yes, you have the insects that eat them, but you also have the insects that eat those insects,” he said.
In 2018, the town launched its Green Initiative, seeking to move the island forward to more environmentally friendly practices. This included the Town Council acting to nix plastic straws as well as the use of herbicides and pesticides on public properties.
The council also approved an ordinance in 2019 that set aside $27,000 to cover the cost of removing ficus hedges from some private properties, on the condition that homeowners replace them with native shrubbery.
Town officials sought to specifically ban the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina) after an outbreak of whitefly caused the pests to jump from the hedges to infest the town’s iconic tree canopy along North County Road and the banyan canopy that shades Lakeside Park near the Town Docks.
The town also informed its property maintenance contractors they could no longer use herbicides such as Roundup that contain glyphosate on town land.
“If the town wants its residents to understand that this is a plant that is very dependent on a toxic pesticide to stay green, it needs to set an example with its own choices,” said council member and Public Works Committee chair Bobbie Lindsay at the May 2019 council meeting.
Tallamy said whiteflies would not be a problem if it weren’t for the non-native hedges that attract them.
“These whiteflies have grown resistant to sprays, so they have to be sprayed 1,000 times over, killing everything else along with it. It’s an unnatural situation because now you have an introduced plant with an introduced pest and no natural enemies to keep them in control,” he said. “That’s also why your water is polluted. It’s a juggernaut of mistakes that we have to start to turn around.”
Tallamy said systems such as an ovitrap, which captures and kills female mosquitoes, to prevent egg-laying and the development of larvae or mosquitocidal chips, which can be added to any container of standing water, is a much better and environmentally friendly solution to spraying.
“This doesn’t kill anything else except mosquitoes, and its a much cheaper and better approach,” he said.
Oak trees also are the best plants in terms of producing the food that supports both insects and birds, Tallamy said.
“One thing that’s hard to get people to realize, is that they as landowners are important to the future of conservation. Conservation is going to either succeed or fail on private property because the preserves we have are either not big [enough] or too isolated,” he said.
“We lost 3 billion birds in the last 50 years in terms of population decline, so what we’re doing is obviously not working,” he said. “If you own a piece of the earth, you have to be a steward of [it]. We can’t wreck it for status symbols or social reasons.”