Maggots in Compost? They Aren’t As Bad As You Think – Here’s Why

All gardeners take pride in their compost, and I’m no different. I love to touch it and let myself be amazed by the fact that the waste destined for the smelly garbage dump was instead turning into black gold – right there in front of my eyes. 

However, there was an instance when my enthusiasm felt drastically curbed in a second.

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I raised the cover of my bin nonchalantly, wanting to put my finger in to check on the humidity and the feel of the compost. 

However, my hand jerked back, and in some instinctive terror, I let out a small shriek (well, at least I like to think it was a small one).

There were small, wiggly, fly-maggots on the compost surface – just striding around and perking their tiny heads up!

The light I’d just let in had seemed to annoy them – as if I had just busted their party.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? 

If you have, I feel for you completely! Dealing with living insects was a part of my education, graduate research, and a large chunk of my daily life, but I still can’t help but feel a distinct kind of dread when I find maggots in my compost bin.

After the discovery, the questions start to multiply at maggot-reproduction speed. 

You may ask yourself: Why are there maggots in my compost, and is it OK to have maggots in my compost? And the question above all questions: How do I get rid of maggots in my compost?

Wiggle on through the article to find out!

What Are the White Worms in My Compost?

maggots

‘Maggot’ is a common term for a fly larva. There are thousands of species of flies, and many of them reproduce on decaying matter. 

Fly babies are worm-like, dull-colored, chubby, and visibly segmented. They tend to be gregarious, and they wiggle, wiggle, and wiggle, which adds to our cringe when we encounter them.

Larvae that we most commonly encounter in compost bins come from house flies, soldier flies, and fruit flies (fruit flies are tiny and may go unnoticed). 

Gnats are also there, flying around compost bins, and they too have maggots – only too small to see. Still, they will get an honorable mention due to their frequency and impact.

Read more: The Beginner’s Guide to Composting

Why Are There Maggots in My Compost?

As you know, compost is alive and full of nutrients, especially nitrogen. Such an abundantly living thing is sure to attract other living things. 

While we cherish the microorganisms and their performance in our compost heap, we may be less enthusiastic about the uninvited wiggly manifestations of life we may find in it. 

Nature wastes nothing. When aerobic compost bacteria can’t degrade something, anaerobic ones will take over. 

Then, it will turn smelly! In the world of flies, the stench is a dinner invitation. 

They come with a higher purpose, flying in to work for you and your heap by eating it. Talk about the “will work for food and shelter” philosophy!

The fact is that even the slightest odor of decaying nutritious matter attracts flies. They are particularly excited about the protein or sugary waste bits. 

Read more: Worm Farming and Composting In a 5-Gallon Bucket

Are Maggots Bad for the Garden?

Visible maggots cannot harm your compost or your plants. They are beneficial to your compost, as they will degrade what the desirable compost microorganisms can’t handle due to size or chemical composition. 

Take Soldier fly larvae as an example. They are the superstars of biodegradation, reducing the mass of organic waste by two-thirds in just one day! SFL farmers manage composting operations based solely on soldier fly larvae. 

The nutritious soldier fly maggots are sold or used as food for birds, pigs, fish, and reptiles. Your chickens and backyard birds could reap the same benefits.

However, it is understandable why an average gardener would still prefer flies and baby maggots to stay away from their compost bins and heaps despite the perks. 

First of all, the very fact that they’re here means that there could be an odor coming out of the compost – and usually, it’s not a pleasant one. 

Maggots and smelly compost often (though not always) go hand-in-hand. Anaerobic, oxygenless processes are undesirable in regular composting.

Secondly, maggots will become flies, and if enough food is still available, the cycle will continue. That means more flies in your garden and yard. 

While compost-born flies usually aren’t harmful to your garden, they can be a nuisance, especially during summer when their activity is peaking.

Did you know?

Black soldier flies are all the buzz lately! Merritt Drewery, an assistant professor for the Department of Agricultural Sciences, is studying if black soldier fly larvae can potentially replace soy as livestock feed.

That’s excellent news since some livestock feed, like soy and corn, requires a ton of resources to produce! 

Read more: The Complete Guide to Starting a Vegetable Garden From Scratch

How to Avoid Maggots in Compost?

fresh-compost-no-maggots
Fresh compost – with no maggots!

Prevention is always better than cure. Here are the ways to make flies stay away from your compost.

Cover it Up

Keeping a compost bin with no lid or with a lid even slightly opened will inevitably allow the flies entry. Ever since I use a compost bin with a well-fitting lid, I get no fly maggots. 

If fly maggots are still appearing in your compost despite having the lid on, you may want to cover the holes in your bin with pieces of window screen. Cut about 1 cm (0,4 inch) wider than the hole. 

First, apply a waterproof caulk inside of the opening and then press the screen over it. Then, tape the edges of the mesh to the wall of the bin with some waterproof tape.

However, know that the tiny gnats still manage to squeeze in through most obstacles, but more on these little beasts a bit later.

Read more: Why I Don’t Grow Vegetables in Raised Gardens

Aerate Well

Turning your compost often will help bacteria degrade all the waste before flies get a chance to settle in. 

Also, aeration is essential in getting the composting temperature up, which works against grubs and other pesky macro-organisms.

Be Careful About What You Put into The Compost Bin!

Certain foods will attract flies to your compost more than others.

In my experience, grass clippings, leaves, and herb and vegetable scraps are unattractive to larger flies. However, be careful with the following items.

  • Animal scraps. Never put food scraps of animal origin in your compost pile as they can’t be adequately degraded by regular backyard composting and will attract flies of various kinds.
  • Protein scraps. Soy meal and soy food scraps, oatmeal, cornmeal flour, and other cereal products are rich in protein that will attract various flies.
  • Fruit scraps. While you can add some fruit scraps to your compost pile, make sure they are outnumbered by the neutral, low-sugar, and/or carbon-rich compost ingredients. Still, I prefer to avoid them altogether.

Since bacteria can’t digest them quickly, large chunks of food in your compost also have the potential to linger and attract large backyard predators that you wouldn’t want lurking nearby!

Read more: The Best Compost Bin Only Costs About $40

Can You Compost Directly in The Garden (and Not Get Maggots and Flies)?

Many people with a high amount of plant waste opt to create a compost heap somewhere in the garden instead of having a bin.

That is perfectly fine, but you should make peace with the fact that you can’t control the larvae as well as in a closed system. Since maggots can’t harm your garden and help the decomposition process, it’s no big deal anyway.

Avoiding adding food items mentioned above and putting the heap to a far corner of the garden should make all the unwanted maggot and fly activities very low-key and unnoticeable.

On the other hand, large compost heaps, if aerated right, will reach that desirably high decomposition temperature easily. This temperature is not favorable for the development of most macroscopic organisms – including maggots!

Read More: Bucket Gardening – The 30+ Easiest Vegetables to Grow in a 5-Gallon Bucket

Pro Tip: What if Fruit Flies Invade My Compost Pile?

You can’t just manually remove the fruit fly larvae from the pile – they are way too tiny. However, there are things you can do to get rid of them.

  • Check if there are any larger pieces of fruit in your pile and remove them (I was once baffled by the number of fruit flies around my compost, only to find that one of my kids has stuck a whole apple in there; even if you are sure you haven’t filled your pile with fruit scraps – check!)
  • Set up a simple cider and vinegar fruit fly trap.
  • A large and well-aerated compost pile that reaches high decomposition temperature will not allow fruit fly maggots to develop.

How Do I Get Rid of Maggots in My Green Bin?

Luckily, removing maggots is easy. Unlike various worms, maggots usually stay near the top of the compost, burrowing deeper only when it’s time to pupate. 

You scoop them up using rubber gloves or an appropriate garden tool. To be sure you’ve removed them all, you can scoop up the entire upper layer of compost.

When you finished, put the maggots in an open tray with smooth vertical walls and leave them as a treat for wild birds, who will be especially appreciative of the gift during the nesting season when they have many hungry beaks to feed.

If you have chickens, you can make them a feast – they have likely earned it.

Read more: Can You Eat Bay Leaf + 14 Other Things You Should Eat, Not Compost!

What About Gnats?

Fungus gnats are the only kind of compost-loving flies that can harm your garden plants – and unfortunately, they are compost pile regulars.

You won’t see fungus gnat maggots because they are too tiny, but if adult gnats are hanging around, their kids are surely crawling through your compost.

Fungus gnat flies are attracted not to the nutrients but to moisture and the presence of fungus, which is a compost bin default setting. 

Once the larvae from the compost end up near your plants, they can go into the soil and damage root hairs. That is especially true if you are using your compost for potted plants.

The best way to handle gnat flies seems to be biological control by adding beneficial nematodes or mites

Did you know?

You can buy predatory, parasitic nematodes on Amazon! Known by their scientific name, Steinernema feltiae, these fungus gnat control nematodes specialize in devouring fungus gnats!

Predatory nematodes also ravage other garden pests, making them a smart purchase for all gardeners.

How to Avoid Maggots – and Give Your Birds a Treat!

Now that you’ve wiggled to the end of the article, let’s sum it up.

  • Maggots won’t harm your compost or your plants and help degrade your waste; however, adult flies are often considered a nuisance.
  • You can avoid maggots in your compost by physically preventing flies from entering by using a lid, a dry layer on the top of the compost, and protective screens over the holes.
  • Choosing what waste you put in your compost and avoiding high-sugar and high protein scraps will also go a long way in keeping the maggots at bay.
  • Removing the existing maggots is easy to do manually, and the birds will be happy to take them out for you if you leave the maggots in a tray.

People usually fear what they do not know. I hope that by getting to know the tiny wigglers and their purpose, you will be less disgusted by maggots and maybe even accept their biological role in your compost pile.

Do you have anything to add? What do you do when you find maggots in your compost? Let us know in the comments!

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