Amazing maggots: learning to love some digusting things

Aditya Rengaswamy, Weird Science

If you’ve read my previous articles, you may already know that I thoroughly despise flies. My room back in my home state Michigan is always armed with a flyswatter to take care of these pesky bugs. I remember one day, however, when I discovered not only a few flies, but some maggots lying around as well. The maggots were absolutely disgusting to look at, and I began to wonder why flies had maggots in the first place. What gives this technique of making offspring efficient and evolutionarily effective? Looking into this, I found some interesting things.

One of the most bizarre things I discovered about maggots was their anti-bacterial powers. Centuries ago, soldiers in the Middle East noticed that wounds with maggots in them healed faster and were cleaner than those without the creepy crawlies. Thus, the idea of maggot therapy was born. It took hundreds of years for the idea to spread, but now over 1000 hospitals worldwide use maggot secretions as a way to clean wounds. This medical treatment is especially common in areas where antibiotics are not easily accessible. These creatures are the perfect antibiotic substitute.

Maggots are also used widely in forensic science. Insects usually enter a corpse within 24 hours of death. Scientists can study the state of the maggots on a body and determine to what extent they have taken over the corpse, then from this estimate the time of death. This technique has only been efficiently studied and perfected over the last century.

After I read these things, I began to understand the very special niche that maggots fill. They are a vital part of the decay process, much like mushrooms. They eat up bacteria, dead things, and anything else most humans seem to despise. The flies that lay them know where they are the most affective, and they continue to thrive in these environments. As long as the world has organic waste, flies and maggots will flourish.

This also taught me to have more respect for these flying creatures. At the very least, they can be a medical tool when used properly to save lives in places where antibiotics are unavailable or cost-prohibitive. But it’s still hard to imagine that maggot secretions are helping humanity in so many ways. Perhaps I should listen to the film actor Tab Hunter, who once said, “People place such importance on the external. It’s disgusting.” Maybe he’s right; no matter how disgusting I think maggots look, they can do a world of good.