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October 07. 2012 9:37PM

Stink bug battle begins in Granite State


The brown marmorated stink bug, a native of Asian countries, has invaded the United States and caused millions of dollars in damage. (COURTESY)

The stink bug, a smelly critter that could pose a risk to crops and become a serious pest to homeowners, is making itself at home in the Granite State. But researchers around the country are rushing to find ways to make the malodorous creature go away.

The common brown and green stink bugs seen around New Hampshire may do some minor damage to gardens, farms or orchards, and release a terrible smell when they’re bothered, but they’re manageable, according to George Hamilton of the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.

It’s the brown marmorated stink bug that poses the greatest potential risk, he said.

Entomologist Dr. Alan Eaton of the Cooperative Extension said the brown marmorated stink bug was first discovered in Portsmouth in 2010. The bug arrived in the United States from China and Japan and was first seen in Allentown, Pa., in 1998. The stink bug can fly and walk long distances. In September, the insects like to gather in large groups on houses, cars and RVs.

When the brown marmorated stink bug first made its appearance in Pennsylvania, no one really knew what to expect. At first, the insect seemed benign. But 10 years after the Allentown discovery, the stink bug began to strike the Mid-Atlantic states, said Dr. Tracy Leskey, research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Mid-Atlantic saw $37 million in losses in 2010 from the brown marmorated stink bug,” said Leskey. “Growers lost their entire peach crops.”

But because the stink bugs like such a wide variety of hosts, they went after apples, corn, various vegetables, even the grapes growing in the vineyards.

“They would strike the vineyards just as it was time to harvest the grapes for stomping,” Leskey said. “Who wants stink bugs in their wine?”

Tight spaces

For homeowners in the Mid-Atlantic area, stink bugs are making their skin crawl. Though stink bugs don’t bite or spread disease, at this time of year they love to swarm on the sunny side of a house. They make their way inside the house and settle in for the winter. In West Virginia, where Leskey is based, one scientist decided to count the number of stink bugs in his home. He stopped when he reached 28,000.

“People are counting how bad their infestations are based on the number of coffee cans full of them,” Leskey said. “And they recently cancelled recess at the elementary school because the stink bugs were swarming the playground.”

The bugs like really tight spaces and often crawl behind the screen of a television or behind the glass on a painting. When homeowners try to get rid of them, they release a smell intended to leave a bad taste in the mouths of their predators, Leskey said.

In 38 states

She said researchers have come together to try to find solutions for the stink bug problem, as the creatures have now spread to 38 states and the District of Columbia. The researchers are looking at ways to use the bug’s pheromones to lure them, as well as seeking out natural predators that feed on stink bugs and trying to find chemicals that will destroy the pest. But researchers are discovering there is no easy fix for the stink bug problem.

“This is not a problem we can spray our way out of,” Leskey said. “This bug is constantly moving — you could kill what’s there at the moment and three days later, turn around and find an orchard is infested again.”

Because stink bugs also hang out in deciduous trees, corn fields, and in people’s back yards, a new batch of bugs is just waiting to re-infest a cleaned-out area. Spraying also increases the risk of killing off beneficial insects that farmers and growers depend on for everything from pollination to keeping other bad bugs at bay, said Leskey.

Race against time

For a lot of states, including New Hampshire, the race is on to find good management alternatives before the infestation begins.

“We have some time,” said Hamilton. “It looks like we have six or seven years before they build up enough to cause major damage to the crops.”

Leskey said in addition to time, New Hampshire and other northern states also may have an advantage — a short growing season. In the Mid-Atlantic, the stink bugs appear to produce two generations of offspring during a season, but it may be too cold in New Hampshire for the critters to breed twice. Still, there’s no guarantee that a single generation of stink bugs won’t do severe damage to New Hampshire’s crops, she said.

“There’s a lot we don’t know because this is all still so new,” Leskey said.

For more information about the brown marmorated stink bug and what’s being done to combat the growing problem, visit www.stopbmsb.org.

nfoster@newstote.com


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