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Can black soldier fly maggots solve the world’s food crisis?

Although it's yucky looking, "dog vomit" slime mold

Although it's yucky looking, "dog vomit" slime mold is harmless. Credit: Cornell University, / Sandra Jensen

I’d like to introduce you to the black soldier fly larva, and as icky as it might look, it’s a very beautiful thing. The beneficial maggots, which may be black, brown or white, are being eyed as potential solutions to the world’s food shortages, and you might even have some of these master recyclers in your own backyard.

The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens) is incapable of causing any harm. In its adult stage it has no mouth, so it doesn’t eat, regurgitate or bite, and therefore doesn’t carry or spread disease like other flies do. It lives only to mate and reproduce, perishing less than a week after reaching maturity.

And its larval stage holds remarkable potential: Not only are the maggots themselves perfectly edible (if one were so inclined), but they’re also remarkably adept at consuming decaying matter and converting waste into a highly sustainable, calcium-, protein- and amino acid-rich biomass that’s being eyed by the farming industry as a replacement for farm-animal and fish food.

In the compost pile, the end product of their rapid-speed munching is sludge-like, not crumbly, as one would expect, so it doesn’t lend itself as a hospitable host for non-beneficial flies. As a consequence, the pest population takes a hit.

So if you see one, let your little visitor be. He won’t be around long, but his progeny could change the world someday.

DEAR JESSICA: I have been seeing in my flower bed this crazy looking mushroom-spore-like, light-orange, irregular-shaped growth. It looks like throw up. My garden has black mulch in it. Have you heard of this and what can I do to stop it from returning? I have been digging it up and throwing it away.

— Nancy Bajorski,

via email

DEAR NANCY: Ah, the ol’ “dog vomit” fungus — I know it well! Its nickname’s origin is obvious, once you take one look at it, especially if you have a canine companion, or an eagle eye, as you apparently do. But if we’re being official, this slime mold goes by Fuligo septica.

The fungus, which thrives in cool, shady, dark places and feasts on decaying matter like your mulch, poses no danger to flora or fauna. Its biggest offense is its appearance.

If it bothers you to look at it, keep removing it. Otherwise, if left alone, it will turn black and disappear on its own in a few days.

DEAR JESSICA: I noticed my holly tree leaves are yellow with black patches on them. I don’t know if it is mold. There are plenty of flowers on the tree, which is 3 12 years old.

— Marilyn,

via email

DEAR MARILYN: It sounds like your tree has holly leaf spot, a fungal disease. Your first course of action should be to open up the tree to increase air circulation between its branches. Do this by pruning off any crowded or crisscrossed branches, as well as any that are diseased or dead. Be sure to cut them near where they meet the main trunk.

Next, spray the tree every two weeks during summer with the fungicide thiophanate-methyl, diluting according to package directions. Also drench the soil around the tree with the same fungicide (following specific dilution instructions on the label for drenching — these will be different than for spraying).

Avoid overhead watering, which leaves foliage wet and encourages the growth of molds and fungi. Instead, aim water directly at the soil. Finally, be sure to clean up any fallen leaves and plant debris from the area, as the pathogen can transfer from them to the soil and back to your plants.

DEAR JESSICA: Last fall I selectively pruned my hydrangea bush to ensure blossoms this summer. The unpruned stalks grew so tall and laden with flowers that they are falling over. As you can see, the branches in front are hiding my lilies. The pruned stalks have also grown quite high, and I foresee the problem repeating next year. Is it possible to prune this fall so that I can assure blooms next year and, at the same time, prevent any stalks from becoming unwieldy?

— Mary Gallagher,

Garden City

DEAR MARY: The thing about pruning is that it coaxes the plant to grow. When a branch tip is cut, it forks and produces two new branches, which results in a fuller plant. That’s why, although it may seem counterproductive, my advice to those seeking bigger, fuller plants is usually to cut them. You don’t say whether you pruned the branches completely off or cut them midway, but based on your report that it has since grown rampant, I suspect the latter.

When pruning hydrangeas, timing is important to avoid removing buds that will become next year’s blooms. But if you just want to remove those two flopped-over branches, you can do so at any time without harming the plant. Be sure to cut them completely off — all the way back to the main part of the plant. Since summer’s end is less than two months away, you might want to wait until the flowers fade, so you can continue to enjoy them these next few weeks.

Each hydrangea species has specific pruning guidelines. Yours are a macrophylla, so if you needed to do a real pruning (to thin crowded branches or to improve shape or maintain size), you would have to do so in late summer, as soon as the flowers fade, but never after September. To do so, remove weaker stems from the base of the plant, being careful to retain several stems of old wood, which will produce next year’s flowers. From the looks of it, though, you don’t need to do that this year. Just remove those two stems and you should be fine.

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