Happy Maggot Land

I came in to my cubicle at school last week to find a maggot squinching across my desk. After a moment of shock and disgust, I thought, “Ooh! What a nice present!”

You know you’re a naturalist when finding a maggot among your things makes you happy.

I’ve been collecting insects, so I naturally thought that one of my classmates left the plump grub for me to add to my collection. Surely it hadn’t come from the pile of soil samples I had on my desk, nor the cache of snacks I had in the cabinet. But yes, it had. I had collected a handful of red oak acorns and left them in an open plastic bag on my desk. Later, when I was working at my computer, I looked over and saw a pale yellow grub with a red face squinching around inside the slippery plastic among the acorns. I examined the nuts and discovered a hole in one of them, about 3 millimeters across.

That was when I got really excited. All I had to do was feed the little creatures and keep them happy, and I’d eventually find out what species they were. So I dug around in the faculty kitchen for a plastic takeout container, poked some holes in the lid with a pen, dumped my soil samples into it, and dropped the acorns and grubs on top. The grubs promptly burrowed out of sight. I labeled the whole thing with a permanent marker, “Happy Maggot Land, Please do not disturb.”

Then I started to worry about my maggots. What if the soil wasn’t enough to make them happy? Did they need something to eat?

I visited Jeff Hughes, the director of the Field Naturalist Program, who recommended I look in Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a recent book by Charley Eiseman, an alumnus of our program, and Noah Charney. I thumbed through and found the name of my maggots: long-snouted acorn weevils.

The female of this beetle species saws a hole in the shell of a red or white oak acorn and lays her eggs inside. The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae eat the acorn meat. Beetles undergo metamorphosis like butterflies do; caterpillars are butterfly larvae, maggots are beetle or fly larvae. They molt five times inside the acorn and then leave their nutty shelter and burrow into the soil to pupate. Pupation in beetles is analogous to the caterpillar cocoon: a usually immobile stage of metamorphosis just before emergence as an adult. In the spring, adults emerge from the soil and fly off to mate before beginning the cycle again.

I have named my maggot friends Weevil Kneevil, Do No Weevil, and Axis of Weevil, but I have no intention of keeping them. I plan on releasing them back into the forest to continue to parasitize on oaks. It’s not because I don’t like oaks, but because I like ecology. These weevils create food for other species: one genus of ant lives inside acorns abandoned by weevils and eats the leftover meat. Squirrels eat acorns sometimes just for the grubs inside—that’s one reason why you might find partially eaten acorns.

Having maggots as pets helps me see more when I go outside. I see potential Happy Maggot Lands everywhere—inside plant stems and fruit, in dying tree trunks, and in the soil under my feet. A new way of knowing the world around me has opened up.

One thought on “Happy Maggot Land

  1. Cyndi Brewer

    Hello,
    I enjoyed your article and came about looking up maggots in a pretty interesting way. Now, don’t get me wrong, the kind of maggots on rotting dead animals and on fruit in my kitchen get NO sympathy from me. This year, however, I have been harvesting acorns around the neighborhood to feed “my” squirrels (I don’t have any oak trees). I noticed after the first day, at the bottom of my acorn bags, there were 30-40 maggots of varying size and disposed of them without a second thought. As a couple of days went by and I was collecting more and more maggots (and sorting through and disposing of any acorns with drill holes or big cracks), I started feeling bad for the little creatures that were showing such a strong will to live. I have several bags of mulch behind my shed (most with holes in them) and just by coincidence, I put the first batch in the holes and was AMAZED at how fast they dug themselves out of site!! Ever since, I take the “babies” I collect out every day and place them in the mulch, so I’m happy, after researching on the internet, that these “acorn weevils”, in fact, burrow themselves underground and emerge as adults in 1 – 2 years!!
    It’s really special in a world full of such inattention to nature, to find that a lowly maggot can bring about a new understanding of the world around me and rejoice that these “pests” have a chance to grow and mature.

    Thank You,

    Cyndi

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