By Kevin Greer, Lakeside Communications Manager
Entomologist and author Doug Tallamy wants to solve many global environmental issues. He can’t do it himself, but people can do their part and they don’t have to go very far to help. Tallamy will be the Keynote Speaker on Thursday, Aug. 17 in Hoover Auditorium at 7:30 p.m.
Prior to his visit, he took a few minutes to speak with The Lakesider newspaper to discuss various topics that can help the planet.
What are you going to talk about in your lecture?
Tallamy: Climate change is certainly a big problem, but we have serious issues with biodiversity loss. It’s the plants and animals that run our ecosystems and keep us alive on Earth, and we’re eliminating them. We have a global insect decline and have lost 3 billion breeding birds in the last 50 years; we’re going to lose more species in the next 20 years. I’ll also talk about how to address these very serious issues, focusing on each individual’s role. Most of the land in the U.S.is privately owned, and east of the Mississippi 86% is privately-owned. Conservation has to happen on private property. We’ve got our preserves and they’re doing the best they can, but we’re in the sixth great extinction event that the Earth has ever experienced. What I talk about is everybody’s role and the role of native plants, the important role of insects and transferring energy from those plants to everything else, and which native plants are the very best.
Give some examples of the best native plants to help not just your yard but the environment.
Tallamy: Oak trees are the best, followed by native cherries, willows, birches and cottonwoods. In herbaceous plants, golden rods are way up there. Native asters, perennials and sunflowers are all very highly ranked.
What are the examples of some alien plants that you should avoid putting in your yard?
Tallamy: You definitely want to avoid all the invasive aliens. Not all non-natives are invasive, but all invasives are not native. Things like burning bush, calorie pear (some people call it Bradford pear), barbary, porcelain berry, autumn olive, privet, English ivy and honeysuckle.
Which insects are good for your yard that you don’t want to kill?
Tallamy: Almost all of them. But you want to kill the ones from other countries like gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid and the emerald ash borer. Those guys are causing huge problems. Everything else is part of our local ecosystem. They belong here. Rather than thinking about what the particular role of this housefly or caterpillar is, just say it is part of the total species diversity that’s running our ecosystem. We need all of it.
The big job that insects and plants are doing is capturing energy from the sun and turning it into food. Through photosynthesis, they created simple sugars and carbohydrates and that’s the food that supports all the animals on the planet. If you don’t get that food from the plant to animals, then you don’t have any animals. For example, 96%of our birds rear their young on insects. If you lose those insects, you lose that 96%of birds. Insects are critically important in recycling nutrients and in pollination. As we lose pollinators, we lose 90% of our flowering plants.
What about stinkbugs?
Tallamy: They’re here because we brought them here from Asia in packing material. It’s one of the invasive insects that we have. They come to an area and really spike in population. Around 15 years ago at our house, there were thousands of them. They’re not a problem at all. Every once in a while, you see one crawling around your window, but it’s not worth even thinking about.
What can you tell us about the mayfly?
Tallamy: It’s one of the aquatic insects the larvae live on the bottom of the lake. They grow for a year off the nutrients in the lake and then they emerge synchronously. There are actually fewer mayflies now than there were in the 1950s when the lake was really loaded with nutrients. They come out in big numbers. It’s a normal phenomenon in particular lakes, and LakeErie is perfect for the development.
If you see more mayflies, does it mean the lake is healthier?
Tallamy: No, because it’s cyclical eutrophication where you load the lake with nitrogen and phosphorus, and it builds up algae and all kinds of things. It really leads to a slow death of the lake. They take advantage of all the nutrientst here. Normal mayfly populations are a good indication of the lake’s health. Stoneflies are even better because they’re very sensitive to pollution. When you get too many nutrients in the lake, the mayfly populations can explode. It probably means too much farm runoff and it’s not a great sign of a healthy lake.
How dangerous are algae blooms?
Tallamy: Algae blooms remove oxygen from the water and kill the fish. That’s just a symptom of poor watershed management. We load our farm fields with more nitrogen and phosphorus than they can use. When it rains, it all runs off into the lake. We’ve known about this for 100 years and we keep doing it. It’s ruining the lakes, oceans and the tourist industry.
Talk about the importance of the oak tree.
Tallamy: There are four ecological goals that every landscape has to accomplish if we’re ever going to reach a sustainable relationship with Mother Nature.
1. Support the food web and pass that energy onto other animals.
2. Support the pollinators, not for agriculture, but because they pollinate 80% of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants.
3. Manage the watershed. Everybodylives in a watershed and every landscape has to manage the water that falls under that landscape.
4. Sequester carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and tie it up and plant tissues and pump it into the ground.
That’s the job that every landscaper has to accomplish, and oaks are the very best plan in three of the four goals. They also help pollinators even though they’re wind-pollinated because the spring bees go to the oak catkins and use the pollen, even though they’re not moving into the female flowers. If you’re going to pick one plant to address each one of those ecological goals, oaks are the best.
How did you start Homegrown National Park?
Tallamy: I guess it was when the original study came out in 2005 that we had 40 million acres of lawn in this country. I said, what if we cut that area in half? That would give us 20 million acres we could put towards conservation right at home, and that would be an area big enough to create a new national park. I started calling it Homegrown National Park.
Not long ago, Michelle Alfandari said we need to create a nonprofit to get this message to all the people who don’t already know it, which is almost everybody. So Homegrown National Park is designed to get people to register their property on what we call “The Map” and the amount of area they’re going to be good stewards. It doesn’t matter what you do, the area that you’re now managing correctly is going to go on The Map and your little piece of the U.S. is going to light up. The object is to get the whole country to light up, but states are colored by the number of participants.
We’re trying to get states to compete against each other to see which can get the most members of Homegrown National Park. We don’t charge anything, so we’re not pulling members away from Audubon, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club or any of those existing organizations. We just want to record successful conservation that’s happening on private property. It’s really to help change the culture. We’ve been in an adversarial relationship with nature and killing an ant in your yard is not a collaborative relationship. With all the information that’s on our website we seek to reach people who don’t know that they are the future of conservation. We need to get them engaged.
What is your biggest environmental concern right now?
Tallamy: The one nobody talks about is our constantly growing human population. We’re growing on a finite planet. We’ve already used more resources than the planet has, which is why everything’s declining rapidly. As long as we grow, the closer and closer we get to just total ecosystem collapse. If we had a stable human population, there would be some hope in reaching a sustainable relationship with Mother Nature.
What changes have made improvements to the environment?
Tallamy: People are reacting to the bad headlines they’re seeing. They’re concerned about global insect decline. They don’t want to lose the birds or a million species. The big thing is they all think that one person is powerless and there’s nothing they can do. My message has been that you’re not powerless, there’s plenty you can do. Start right on your property. Just worry about the piece of the Earth that you can manipulate. You can watch positive changes and that’s motivational. The positive thing is that more people are engaged in the act of conservation. They didn’t realize they could do it themselves or do it without a degree. They’re starting to realize that and it’s really starting to go viral.
What’s the best thing that we can do in our yards?
Tallamy: Reduce the area of lawn is the single most important thing that a homeowner can do. You have to put the right plants in your lawn, but that’s easy to do. It doesn’t happen overnight; you can just pick at it over time. The easiest thing is simply to plant another tree and put a bed around it. That removes some lawn and puts a powerful piece of biodiversity into your yard.
Anything you want to add?
Tallamy: I always want to emphasize personal responsibility. If you own a piece of the Earth, then you also own the obligation of taking care of it. You own that obligation because you and everybody else requires a healthy, functioning ecosystem. That means the responsibility of taking care of this ecosystem belongs to everybody, not just a few ecologists. People don’t realize that it is their responsibility. When you have four acres of lawn out there, you’re shirking that responsibility. You’re actively destroying your local ecosystem. So, realize that what happens on your property does not stay on your property. The plants you choose impact your local food web, the pollinators, watershed and carbon sequestration. All those things are impacting the greater society. It’s not just your property. You privately own that property, but you also own the responsibility to managing it correctly.