September 28, 2010

New Pest In Mid-Atlantic States: Stink Bugs

Bed bugs aren't the only pest invading mid-Atlantic states this year: stink bugs are now posing a serious problem, causing damage to fruit and vegetable crops that has reached critical levels, the New York Times reported on Sunday.

Although they don't bite, the brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) are a hassle for homeowners "” particularly if they are stepped upon, causing the emission of a strong skunk-like odor.

However, stink bugs pose no known health dangers, and even the fruit they invade is edible once the hardened parts are removed.  "Marmorated" refers to their marbled appearance.

"They're taking money out of your pocket, just like a thief," said Richard Masser, whose 325-acre Scenic View Orchards a few miles south of the Pennsylvania border has seen 20 percent of its apple crop affected by the bugs.

"We need to stop them," he told the Times as he brushed the stink bugs off his shirt and baseball cap.

No one seems to know how to get rid of the pests, and researchers say they need more time to study the bug, which has no natural enemies in the U.S.

Native to Asia, stink bugs first appeared in the U.S. around 1998 in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Although a small increase in the stink bug population was seen last year, this year's swarm is out of control.

Researchers acknowledge that the bugs reproduced at a faster rate this year, but are not sure why, the Times reported.

"These are the hot spots right now, but they're spreading everywhere," Mr. Masser said.

"They even found them out in Oregon."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, populations of brown marmorated stink bugs have now been found in 15 states, with specimens found in 14 additional states.

The bug is highly mobile, particularly when seeking a warm home before the onset of winter.

The Department of Agriculture is spending $800,000 this fiscal year on stink bug research, twice as much as last year, said Kevin Hackett, national program leader for invasive insects for the Agriculture Department's research arm.

However, no immediate solution is in sight, he told the Times.

In Asia, a parasitic wasp that attacks stink bug eggs helps manage growing stink bug populations.  But using such an approach in the U.S. would take several years because the wasps would first need to be quarantined and studied.

Representative Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) held a meeting last week with officials from the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, and is working to reclassify stink bugs to allow farmers to use stronger pesticides.

But farmers and other experts say the use of more pesticides can ruin many years' worth of effective "integrated pest management", in which farmers kill some pests but allow others to live because they prey on yet other pests.

For instance, wasps eat worms that otherwise would kill crops.

"It is a way to use nature's own defenses against pests in orchards," said Penn State University entomologist Steve Jacobs in an interview with the Times.

"That's been finely tuned and works well. This brown marmorated stink bug blows all that out the window. You kill them today, new ones come tomorrow.  So this is a serious problem."

Farmers aren't alone in their struggle with stink bugs, as homeowners in the region scramble to control the problem.

Vicky Angell of Thurmont, Md., first noticed the bugs last year, although "not in flocks" like this year.

She told the Times she now kills about six stink bugs per day, and suspects they enter her home when she leaves the door open to let the dog out.

She received an unwelcome surprise while getting dressed last Friday, after noticing something in the rear pocket of the pants she had washed and let dry in her laundry room.

"I thought I left a piece of paper in them when I washed them," she said.

"Pulled it out. He was alive. Stink bug. Flushed him down the toilet," she told the Times.

"I thought, I'm glad I didn't sit on that."

Mr. Jacobs said the response to stink bugs so far is not an overreaction.

"I'm standing here in my living room watching some of them crawl up my walls," he told the Times.

"The best thing to do is make your house as tight as possible. Use masking tape to seal around sliding glass doors, air-conditioners."

Image Courtesy Gary Bernon, USDA-APHIS


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