Call the Cleaning Crew!...Again!
by Deidra Wirakusumah, Workshop Designer and Webinar Instructor
In the last blog post we covered insect detritivores, insects that help break down organic waste - these are Mother Nature’s recyclers. Herculean dung beetles, roly poly millipedes, and potty-mouthed butterflies were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to insect detritivores. Read on to learn more..
They are any homeowner’s nightmare. But before you call the exterminator, you should know this - termites are some of the most important detritivores in natural forests. Dead trees, leaves, and fallen branches make up important resources for these social insects. They are also some of the most successful insect species on the planet, termite have colonized 6 of the 7 continents (all but Antarctica), and live in colonies that range for several hundred to millions of individuals. Just like ants and bees, termites have queens, and she can lay between 20,000 to 30,000 eggs a day. She actually gets so swollen from carrying her eggs that her workers need to bring her food and help her move around.
As mentioned, the primary diet of termites is dead plant material, which has cellulose, a chemical high in energy (it’s one of the reasons wood is used to make fires). But cellulose is difficult to digest, and termites don’t do it alone. Termites have special gut bacteria that help with the breakdown of cellulose. In truth, very few termite species would be able to digest cellulose without their bacteria friends.
So when a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, did it make a sound? It sure does, it’s the sound of the termites’ next meal!
Fun Fact: Did you know that some termite are gardeners?
Some termites will harvest, plant, and tend to a garden of fungi. The fungi of the genus, Teritomyces, thrive on the nutrients from insect frass. And when the fungi are eaten by the termites, the spores that get excreted by the termites germinate and grow into new fungi (like how some seeds only grow after being pooped out by birds!)
When an animal dies, there is a particular insect that is often first at the scene. She isn’t there to eat, in fact her mouth is not built to allow them to eat much. Within a few minutes of landing on the carcass, she will lay her eggs, and in a few hours, it is her babies that will hatch and feed on the buffet.
The behavior of blowflies in this way is so reliable, that they are often used to help us solve crimes! Forensic entomologists can study a body, figure out the age of the maggots (baby blowflies) and determine how long that person has been dead, a.k.a “time of death”. All of this can be used to understand ‘what happened’, ‘how it happened’, and ‘when it happened’.
Blowfly maggots have been used to help living patients too. For patients who tend to have poor circulation, such as the elderly, or those with chronic diabetes, maggots provide a way to help their wounds heal more efficiently. Since the maggots will only eat dead tissue, they can be put directly onto the wound to clean it up and help prevent infection. The patient gives them a free meal, and the blowfly babies help the patient’s body better heal itself!
These guys are not insect detritivores. While they are detritivores, they are not insects at all, but a type of worm from the phylum Annelida, meaning ‘segmented worms’ (insects are part of the phylum Arthropoda, meaning ‘legs with joints’). So why are they being highlighted in this post? Because earthworms are some of the most important detritivores, and we seldom see them. Earthworms are considered “ecosystem engineers” because their actions drastically impact the environment in which they live. By burrowing and often digesting the soil, earthworms make tunnels the zig zag and leave behind pockets for air and water as well as nutrients in the form of their poop. This helps plants grow because their roots are better able to breathe, eat, and drink. For this reason, in those countries where they are native, earthworms are often a gardener’s best friend.
At this point, you may be wondering, what about mealworms? With the Hive Explorer 2.0, we recommend giving your mealworm colony some food scraps, so are mealworms detritivores too? The answer is ‘no’.
While mealworms can and will eat certain types of food waste, they are actually classified as grain pests. That is why if we want to feed them a more varied diet, we need to first prepare the food and make it more digestible for them. We show you how to do that during our webinar series: Your Waste to Edible Greens, and as part of our school curriculum, which you can purchase here.