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by Larry

April, 2017

Maggot Musings

At age three, I first became aware of these fly larvae when in Georgetown, an upscale part of Washington, D.C., where my parents and I lived at the time. My folks noted that the contents of a garbage can out back of our townhouse was infested with them. There being no spaces between ours and adjoining living quarters, Dad and Mom tried to hurriedly move the container through our residence to be disposed of out front, but there was no lid, and about halfway across the front room, the whole mess accidentally tipped over and spilled out onto the carpet. Hundreds of little grubs now sought to burrow into the weave of the rug, which led to much disgust and frantic behaviors by my mom and dad, including beating at the now writhing yet disappearing mass with a broom: whack, whack, whack!

A maggot is defined as a soft-bodied, legless, larval form of a fly and often is found in decaying flesh, since adult female house flies and botflies, for instance, tend to lay their eggs there. Animal flesh is not necessarily required. Rotting veggies, fruit, and wood will do nicely too. In the natural order of things, objectively maggots are no more onerous and disgusting than vultures, both kind of creatures filling a practical niche and purpose, ridding the surface of the Earth of untold trillions of tons of carcasses that would perhaps otherwise accumulate into vast heaps wherever on the planet animals and plants complete their life cycles. Maggots also assure that energy in the form of calories inherent in both our dead tissues and those of all other late fauna and flora still above ground gets efficiently recycled and reused.

In the normal course of things, something else eats the flies that came from their maggots, a spider perhaps, something bigger eats that, etc. Eventually, indeed, we may consume a turkey or a fish that ate one of the flies, or something else which ate them, etc. So if we just let nature take its course, sooner or later we would in a manner of speaking be eating ourselves. Were it not so, what a lot of wasted food and energy!

In fact, in this increasingly energy frugal world, it is a shame in a way that we waste the available energy of our own bodies, converting fuel to heat and burning our loved ones' mortal remains or filling them with such embalming chemicals that they pollute the very ground from which new growth might otherwise have come, in both cases keeping them from rapidly returning to being the healthy soil from which we ultimately derived, a process of disposition which, left to their own impulses, maggots would, like sharks do in the deep, happily assist us. Yet we had better hope no virus takes out the maggots. We would then have a huge problem with excess dead tissue in the world as well as the loss of many species that depend on flies for food.

On the other hand, in the movies flies are typically portrayed as both bad and gross. It seems reasonable, then, that, rather than revering the form, as perhaps indirectly was done in "Lord of the Flies," when we come upon a maggot-ridden corpse, the numerous wriggling maggots heaving about just below the surface, each in a frenzy to eat its fill before the available supply is depleted, we may react by heaving too and losing our collective lunches.

Flies, of course, have other beneficial functions, ones we may accept more readily. For example, in ancient and modern times alike, maggots have been used to aid in medicine, quantities being put into wounds so they can cleanly separate the dead and putrid flesh from that which is still living. Maggots can more quickly debride the dead from the living, cleanly removing what can no longer heal from where still connected to living tissue, and with greater precision, than if cruder human instruments are employed to cut away no longer viable muscle and skin.

People usually do not give piles of living maggots more than a passing glance before looking away and maybe uttering a curse of a loud "Yuck!" Yet for the curious there is more here than merely grounds for disgust. Here are a number of less known things about maggots that might be at least interesting, if not exactly whetting our appetites for more:

  1. Maggots can only live on moist substrate, so a dry chicken bone will not attract them, and frequently emptying cans of dry trash in order to avoid them is not useful.

  2. Contrary to the tenor of the comments above, primary screwworm flies' maggots are flesh eating and will consume living tissue if allowed to remain in and around open wounds. Keep open sores clean and/or covered!

  3. The orgy of eating that occurs when hundreds of maggots are gorging themselves on rotting flesh generates a lot of heat, so much in fact that it can kill them unless they retreat to cooler parts of the carcass. Maggot laden flesh can heat up substantially. The maggots begin to die if their wriggling spaces reach temperatures between 104-122°F.

  4. The stages of maggot infestations can give forensic specialists good clues about the time of a person's death.

  5. Maggot therapy, or using maggots grown in sterile conditions for medical debridement, is making a comeback, is FDA approved, and helps, for example, in cases where it is otherwise hard to effect healing in wounds among diabetics or when drug-resistant bacteria have infected sores under treatment.

  6. Maggots can aid in our composting efforts. Compost with plenty of maggots often breaks down more quickly, rapidly becoming rich and less obnoxiously pungent soil. Certain kinds of fly larvae break down woody tissues in our compost piles so quickly that smelly bacteria hardly stand a chance.

  7. Chicken, pork, and fish farms have frequently used fish meal from sardines and herring as animal feed, but it is being found, and profitably so for the entrepreneurs who are maggot raisers, that meal made from fly pupas, the next life cycle stage of flies after maggots have eaten their fill and grown as large as they normally would, serves just as well and is cheaper. There is also with this substitution a net reduction in greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

  8. In a few places, for instance Sardinia, maggots are part of the process of making and maturing cheese, and the cheese with maggots still in it is said to have a special flavor that locals at least appreciate.

  9. Maggots can live in water, so drowning them is not always the best answer to ridding oneself of their infestations.

  10. They typically live only about 8-10 days before becoming pupas, so if bothered by them, the solution, as with many other nuisance difficulties, may come with just a little patience. On the other hand, if they are truly obnoxious, a bowl of beer placed nearby is said to attract them and lead to their demise. Other options include pouring boiling water on them, steam treating them, and, of course, spraying with pesticides.

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