Stink Bugs: It Could Be Worse

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WHAT could be worse than stink bugs eating all your tomatoes this summer?

Well, you could be stung by a caterpillar while walking barefoot in the Peruvian jungle, and die, if you didn't have the antivenom that must be administered within 24 hours.

You might step on an Arizona bark scorpion, suffering near-unbearable pain for 72 hours, not to mention the embarrassment of frothing at the mouth.

Or you could have a cockroach crawl into your ear while you're sleeping. (I had a moth fly into my ear once; the fluttering on my eardrum made me scream.)

I've been reading "Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army and Other Diabolical Insects," by Amy Stewart, published this month by Algonquin. It's a cheerful sequel to her 2009 bestseller, "Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities." Perhaps you've noticed a theme.

Ms. Stewart, who grows poison plants in her garden in Eureka, Calif., likes the dark side.

Like the Arab warriors, back in 198 A.D., who hurled pots of scorpions at the Romans. (The scorpions fell into their eyes.)

Or the body lice that tortured Napoleon's soldiers as they marched across Russia in the winter of 1812, suffering freezing temperatures with little food or shelter. One soldier, maddened by the "unbearable tingling" of the lice, stripped and threw his clothes into the fire. If he didn't die of exposure, the typhus carried by the lice might have killed him.

I called Ms. Stewart a couple of weeks ago to ask about the wicked bugs that appeared in my garden in central Maryland last summer. Thousands of brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys) ate their way through my sacred Brandywines and Italian frying peppers.

But Ms. Stewart and I got sidetracked discussing maggots -- baby flies that are "doing nothing but eating and growing as children should," as she puts it in her book.

The larvae of the tropical botfly, I had read, with morbid fascination, feeds on human flesh. But not to worry, she writes, "these wounds rarely become infected, thanks to an antibacterial secretion from the larva itself."

What a relief.

"If I were hospitalized," she told me, "and the doctor said, 'I have these tiny bugs to clean up your wound,' I'd be jumping up and down. It would be better than TV, to have this colony of maggots to eat the diseased tissue."

O.K. But about those stink bugs that ate their way through the mid-Atlantic region last summer. They ruined entire crops of apples and peaches in commercial orchards, descending on vineyards and corn and soybean fields.

According to U.S. Apple, a trade association, the bug caused $37 million in damage to the mid-Atlantic states -- Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia -- in apples alone.

This is a wicked bug, for sure.

But while Ms. Stewart included stink bugs in her book, the hungry hordes apparently attacked after her deadline. She writes that scientists are watching the Asian bug closely "for its potential to damage fruit and vegetable crops," but that the damage "has been mild so far."

Now, she explained, "A bug that eats a plant -- or another bug -- is not my definition of wicked. That's just how they make a living."

As she put it in her book, a wicked bug has "to change the course of human affairs." (Should the brown marmorated stink bug be considered wicked if it eats miles of genetically modified corn?)

"Wicked Bugs" defines bug in the amateur sense -- that is, anything creepy-crawly, including worms, snails, slugs and other insects that are not, technically speaking, bugs. A true bug, Ms. Stewart acknowledges, has six legs and wings, like all insects, as well as piercing and sucking mouthparts.

And wicked, she makes clear, lies in the eye of the beholder, whether you're a Roman with scorpions falling into your eyes or a Marylander with stink bugs falling into your hair.

And don't become complacent, New Yorkers, this bug is on the move. It has been sighted on Long Island and in southern parts of New York, as well as 32 other states and the District of Columbia. It hitches rides on cars and trucks on I-95; it's only a matter of time before it reaches your tomatoes.

It loves peaches, too.

Tracy C. Leskey, an entomologist at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, is leading a national team of scientists and Department of Agriculture extension agents studying the insect and its behavior. "The first moment I was totally horrified," she said, "I was walking into a grower's orchards and realizing that every single peach had injury."

Ms. Leskey's team is trying to figure out how to kill the stink bug, or at least reduce its population to a manageable level. And so far it looks as if the most lethal of the broad-spectrum pesticides -- the ones that kill beneficial insects, too -- are what's required to kill them. When fruit growers sprayed with other chemicals, the bugs would fall to the ground, Ms. Leskey said, "moribund but not dead, and then climb back up in the trees 24 hours later."

Our native stink bug is held in check by natural predators, which is the organic gardener's dream of nature's balance. But when a bug is imported by mistake, it often leaves its native predators back home. That means it can reproduce like mad, and have its way with your Yukon Golds (it likes potato leaves, too).

This new stink bug looks as if it carries a marbled brown shield on its back. Native to Asia, it came into this country by accident -- maybe on a plant or a wooden palette, nobody knows for sure. It was first collected in 1998, in Allentown, Pa., and at the time was considered only a nuisance.

In "Wicked Bugs," Ms. Stewart tells of a family in Lower Allen Township that found the bugs sitting on the dishes in a kitchen cabinet, crawling in the attic and climbing the Christmas tree, to take "their place among the ornaments."

Marylanders, I can attest, watched the bugs swarming over their houses last fall, crawling under siding and into air-conditioning units, to hibernate for the winter.

As Steve Allgeier, my local extension agent, observed in a slide talk last winter, "It's almost becoming a social behavior in the evenings to stand there with a beer in one hand and a sprayer filled with insecticidal soap in the other." The local library was packed.

On warm, sunny days last winter, my boyfriend, Rock, and I would find them on the windowsills or crawling along the sloped ceiling of the bedroom. If they fell onto the floor, our cat, Scrapple, would eat them if she hadn't had a mouse in a while. I like to stomp on them, thinking of all the stink bug babies I have eliminated.

"A female lays about 25 eggs at a time, and about 10 clutches of eggs a season," Mr. Allgeier said. "We've seen two generations here in Maryland."

If I squash a female bug, that's potentially 500 baby stink bugs that will never see my tomatoes. If it's male, well, at least I've discouraged a suitor.

One day last fall, as Rock was picking the last of our tomatoes off the vines, he took hold of a big, juicy Brandywine, which had a split down its side, and it almost exploded in his hand.

"It was horrible," he said. "All these stink bugs spilled out from the inside, like some science-fiction movie."

(Was he hallucinating? Stink bugs usually swarm on top of the fruit, sticking their strawlike proboscises through the skin to suck out the juice, and laying their tiny black-and-white eggs on the backs of leaves, which gardeners should check for daily, and destroy. Maybe Rock was suffering battle fatigue.) But no, it was probably nymphs feeding there, Ms. Leskey said.

Organic gardeners could also try spraying with Surround or kaolin clay mixed with water, to repel the bugs. But it must be reapplied after rain.

"Wicked Bugs" has some good tips for gardeners, like putting out rolled-up newspaper or cardboard tubes at night to trap earwigs and dumping them into soapy water in the morning. But it won't help you with stink bugs, which are just beginning to venture out into the garden to mate.

Stink bugs do not bite people, because they don't have chewing mouth parts. They just pierce the fruit of a tomato -- or a peach or an apple -- and move on, leaving behind a yeast that causes rot or a corky spot inside the fruit.

A gardener can cut away the bad parts and eat the good, but commercial growers can't sell damaged fruit. As Ms. Leskey noted, last year "some growers had a 100 percent loss."

These bugs like grapes too, and a handful in a vat of juice can taint the wine.

Which doesn't surprise me, because every time I squash one, it smells, to my nose, like rancid cilantro. Other people think the bugs smell skunky. Still others, like Rock, can't smell them at all.

Here, "Wicked Bugs" was enlightening: "Their defensive secretions contain cyanide," the bug-loving author writes, "which explains the bitter almond smell."

In fact, no bug is truly wicked. It is just eating.

The Formosan subterranean termite, for example, is eating away at the seams of the floodwalls in New Orleans. For years before Hurricane Katrina caused the city to flood in 2005, Ms. Stewart writes, entomologists had warned officials that the termites, which were feeding on sugar cane waste in the seams, were weakening the levees.

"Gregg Henderson, the termite guy, raised the alarm about the fact that they were nibbling away at the seams of the flood walls," she told me. "But entomologists have a hard time in convincing other people that little creepy creatures can be so powerful."

When Katrina hit, she said, Mr. Henderson said he "had this horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach those flood walls would not hold."

I'm starting to feel a little bit like that about the brown marmorated stink bug gearing up to eat our crops.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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