‘Maggot whisperer’ explains why Rob Ford is wrong about the misunderstood larva

Katrina Clarke | May 29, 2013 | National Post


Paul Venter/GNU licence

On his radio talk show this past weekend, Rob Ford called reporters “a bunch of maggots.” The press has swarmed Mr. Ford since allegations of a video of him smoking crack cocaine arose mid-May. He later apologized to reporters for his comments but no one has yet come to the defence of maggots. The fly larvae have found a spokesperson in Jennifer Rosati, a PhD candidate in biology and ecology at the University of Windsor. Colleagues know her as the “maggot whisperer.” The Post’s Katrina Clarke spoke to Ms. Rosati on Tuesday.

In learning of the comments our mayor recently made, what are your thoughts?
Maybe initially he meant it as somewhat of a negative comment but I would honestly see it as a compliment. Maggots have a very important function that makes the world go round, as do reporters.

Can you tell me about what the function of maggots is in the world?
Well maggots are the biggest decomposers. They are responsible for taking a lot of the biomass, recycling nutrients back into the environment. If you didn’t have maggots, you’d have a buildup of carcasses all over the place with not really anything to break them down.

How are they nature’s scavengers?
They’re really, the adults anyway, very efficient at finding a dead resource. So the adults will fly in and they’ll lay their eggs within minutes of finding the resource, which is often times within minutes of death. Right away, within 12 to 24 hours, those eggs are hatching into larvae and they develop very quickly, very fast. So they consume most of that dead resource. So really, they’re a clean up crew. They find anything that’s dead and they basically clean it up.

They take out the trash?

Jennifer Rosati

Jennifer RosatiThis MaggotArt (™) was created by Jennifer Rosati’s maggots. After dipping the maggots in non-toxic paint, she let them wander around the canvas. This piece is first one is entitled Ballet Dance. “They make some astonishing pictures,” said Ms. Rosati.

How effective or aggressive would you say maggots are at getting what they want?
Well they start off pretty slow but their development and their activity level is actually based on the temperature around them. So in the spring and in the fall, if you’ve got, say a 50 pound pig, it can probably take two to three weeks of feeding. But in the summer when the temperatures are hot, they can have that completely stripped down to skin and bones in four days.

Would they eat gravy?
Oh for sure. Gravy is basically animal fat.

Do they have any destructive tendencies?
Well unfortunately because of what they do and what they feed on, a lot of times they can spread diseases. So the blow flies will feed on feces and dead material with a lot of bacteria and then when they come into contact with a fresh piece of meat, they can unfortunately spread diseases.

Can they be good and helpful?
Oh they’re very good and helpful. They can also be used in maggot therapy to help get rid of the necrotic tissue for people who have sores and wounds that just refuse to heal with conventional medicine.

Are maggots ever eaten by people? Are they ever eaten alive?
Eaten alive, yeah. The ones that would be in the gravy, they are actually considered a delicacy in Europe. They actually make this specialized cheese, a Sicilian cheese. What gives the cheese the special flavor is the maggots when they go in and they feed on it. They eat the cheese with the maggots included.

Yeah. It’s supposed to be amazing and very flavourful. I’ve also seen them chocolate dipped. They’re definitely out there to eat.

Is the “yuck factor” warranted?
Yes, it is warranted. When you’re dealing with dead decomposing material, there’s a stink that you just can’t get away from. And it’s unfortunate because I think that’s where most of the bad rap comes from ­just from the smell of them feeding and doing their job. I’m not going to say you get used to it but you learn to deal with it and sometimes it becomes sort of like a comfort. I can smell maggots from a mile away.

Do you think that maggots have a bad rap?
Definitely. But once you learn about them and you learn about their function and how important they are — there’s a lot to their behaviour, they don’t just sit there.

Jennifer Rosati

Jennifer RosatiThis MaggotArt (™) was created by Jennifer Rosati’s maggots. After dipping the maggots in non-toxic paint, she let them wander around the canvas. This peice is a two panel artwork entitled Swim of the Angel Fish, One and Two.

Do comments like Mayor Ford’s further stigmatize the maggot community?
They could potentially. But hopefully when people learn more about them maybe they can question, “What exactly did he mean?” Start to learn about all the neat things that they do. There’s a lot of important thing you can learn from maggots. So maybe Mayor Ford might have a different opinion after he reads this article.

Do you think he needs to learn a bit more about the actual role of maggots?
Oh sure! And hey, I¹d be happy to show him some maggot art. They make beautiful pictures.

How do they make pictures?
When they’re done feeding they tend to wander away. So we’ll take them and we’ll dip them in non-toxic paint and you put them on a canvas and just let them go. They make some astonishing pictures.

Can you think of a better insect he could reference if he wants to make a good insult?
I’m kind of biased towards insects. Maybe rats. But rats are great for research too.

This interview was edited for clarity and condensed for length


About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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