Doug Tallamy’s Blame Game

The fact that insect populations are declining in many places around the world is well known, but the reasons for the decline are not well known.  Where there is uncertainty, there is speculation and where there is speculation, there is debate.

Doug Tallamy recently stepped into that debate by publishing a review article about insects and their use of plants.  The article is a mind-numbing list of studies that find both positive and negative relationships between insects and non-native plants.

Tallamy contends those studies add up to support for his belief that non-native plants are bad for insects and native plants are good for insects.  He suggests that declining populations of native plants should be considered one of the reasons for declining populations of insects, but then he goes one step further. Tallamy suggests that non-native plants are responsible for declining populations of native plants.  It follows that Tallamy blames non-native plants for the disappearance of insects.

My interpretation of the studies in Tallamy’s review is different.  The studies tell me that there is too much variation in insect-plant relationships to generalize about the relative value of native vs. non-native plants to insects.  A more accurate conclusion would be that sometimes insects make a successful transition from a native to a non-native plant—especially in the absence of a native in the same lineage—and sometimes they don’t…or at least they haven’t yet.

Anise swallowtail butterfly is one of many insects that have made a successful transition from a disappearing native plant to an introduced non-native plant in the same lineage. Prior to that transition, swallowtails were able to lay eggs only once a year, when the native was available. The introduced non-native is available year around, which enables the swallowtail to lay its eggs year around. Courtesy

Since evolution is a process and not a historical event, these insect/plant relationships will continue to change.  There are many studies that document such transitions and Tallamy cites some of them in his review.  Tallamy assumes insects will be forever handicapped, if not killed, by whatever deficiencies there are in the non-native substitute.  I assume the insect is more likely to adapt and eventually evolve to cope with those deficiencies.  Both our assumptions are just guesses.  Tallamy considers nature immutable, while I consider it dynamic.  Where Tallamy sees doom and gloom, I see opportunity.

Professor Art Shapiro’s (Distinguished Professor of Evolution and Ecology, UC Davis) assessment of Tallamy’s review article is less equivocal than mine.  Keep in mind when reading his assessment that he is far more knowledgeable than I am:

  1. “There is little evidence known to me of alien plants (‘invasives’) competitively displacing natives in ‘communities’ except in highly disturbed environments, except in the case of ‘ecological engineer’ species like Japanese honeysuckle, Himalayan Blackberry, climbing fern in Florida, Purple Loosestrife, etc. — things that drastically alter the ground rules for structuring the vegetation by smothering or prompting fire.

  2. “The use of natives and non-natives by insects has a long and venerable history, going back to T.R.E. Southwood and his comparisons of insect faunas on British trees to Godwin’s history of the British flora, Azevedo’s student study at SF State, etc. — demonstrating overall that enemies accumulate in time on naturalized aliens, but it may be a very slow process if there is no phylogenetic or chemical bridge to their colonization. Experiments using haphazardly-selected species to examine acceptability are basically silly, and very easy to ‘stack’ if one knows one’s phytochemistry.

  3. “As I have repeatedly pointed out, ‘weed’ eradication would lead rapidly to the extirpation of nearly all of the non-tree-feeding urban and suburban butterfly fauna in lowland California (and many other places).”

Why are insect populations declining?

A 2017 study revealed a shocking 76 percent decline in the biomass of flying insects over 27 years in protected areas in Germany.  The German study does not offer specific explanations for the significant decline in insects, but it speculates about probable cause: Agricultural intensification (e.g. pesticide usage, year-round tillage, increased use of fertilizers and frequency of agronomic measures) that we could not incorporate in our analyses, may form a plausible cause. The reserves in which the traps were placed are of limited size in this typical fragmented West-European landscape, and almost all locations (94%) are enclosed by agricultural fields. Part of the explanation could therefore be that the protected areas (serving as insect sources) are affected and drained by the agricultural fields in the broader surroundings (serving as sinks or even as ecological traps). Increased agricultural intensification may have aggravated this reduction in insect abundance in the protected areas over the last few decades.”  Presumably “protected areas” in Germany are not landscaped with non-native plants, rendering the use of this study to corroborate Tallamy’s hypothesis irrelevant.

A comprehensive review of 73 reports of declining insect populations around the globe was published in 2019. These studies report the reasons for declining populations: “The main drivers of species declines appear to be in order of importance: i) habitat loss and conversion to intensive agriculture and urbanization; ii) pollution, mainly that by synthetic pesticides and fertilisers; iii) biological factors, including pathogens and introduced species; and iv) climate change. The latter factor is particularly important in tropical regions, but only affects a minority of species in colder climes and mountain settings of temperate zones.” The “introduced species” are usually insects rather than plants.

In a Yale e360 article about Tallamy’s review, one commenter offers his opinion that the over-population of deer and their preference for eating native vegetation is likely a greater threat to native plants than the existence of non-native plants that provide an alternative source of food for deer, thereby reducing predation of native plants.  Tallamy seems to agree that deer are a problem for native plants, while rejecting deer as a greater threat to native plants than the existence of non-native plants.

The list of reasons for declining insect populations is long and will probably get longer as more research is done.  If the existence of non-native plants is on that list, it is unlikely to be higher on a prioritized list than the pesticides that are being used to eradicate non-native plants.  The more herbicide that is used to eradicate non-native plants, the more harm is done to insects.

EPA Biological Evaluation of glyphosate is a black eye for native plant “restorations” that use herbicide

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally published its Biological Evaluation (BE) of the impact of glyphosate products (all registered formulations of glyphosate products were studied) on endangered animals (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, invertebrates) and plants. The BE reports that 1,676 endangered species are “likely adversely affected” by glyphosate products. That is 93% of the total of 1,795 endangered species evaluated by the study. Of the total of 792 critical habitats of endangered species, 759 (96%) were “likely adversely affected” by glyphosate products.  Most of those critical habitats probably contain predominantly native plants that are clearly not benefiting from herbicides used to kill their competitors.

Both agricultural and non-agricultural uses of glyphosate products were evaluated by the BE. Although only endangered plants and animals were evaluated by the BE, we should assume that all other plants and animals are likewise harmed by glyphosate because the botanical and physiological functions of plants and animals are the same, whether or not they are endangered. Herbicides, specifically glyphosate products, are used by the majority of projects that attempt to eradicate non-native plants. As a result, the crusade against non-native plants is undoubtedly a far more important factor in the decline of insect populations than their mere existence.

Why are native plant populations declining?

There are many reasons why native plant populations are declining, but there is little evidence that non-native plants are the cause of declining populations of native plants. Many of the causes of declining insect populations are also causes of declining populations of native plants. A recent study reports that 65 taxa of native plants in the US and Canada are thought to be extinct. The study did not report a single case in which the extinction was caused by the existence of non-native plants. Sixty-four percent of extinct plants were single-site endemics. The same drivers cited by recent insect studies appear on the list of causes of plant extinctions. Nearly half of the extinctions occurred more than 100 years ago, long before introduced plants were considered an issue.

Butterfly bush is a host plant of Variable checkerspot butterflies. It is also an important source of nectar for butterflies and bees. It is being eradicated on public land because it is not a native plant.

My New Year’s Wish

Nature is too complex to be reduced to a single cause for changes in the environment.  Human knowledge is insufficient to identify all of the causes.  That’s why we make many mistakes when trying to fix a perceived problem in nature.  Our own priorities influence our evaluation of changes in the environment.  We should not automatically assume that a change is a problem or that it must be reversed.

The existence of novel ecosystems is a case in point.  They can as easily be seen as positive as negative.  If a native plant or animal is no longer adapted to changes in the environment, such as climate change, we should be grateful that a non-native substitute is capable of tolerating the change.  Where some see enemies, others see friends.

I wish you all a very happy New Year in 2021.  I can’t wish 2020 a fond farewell.  I can only say good riddance!  I am hopeful for a more peaceful year, one in which we befriend our enemies and work together for a better world for nature and for humanity.  I am grateful for your readership.