Stink bugs: Everything you were afraid to know about the invasion



In flight they sound like aggravating little helicopters. When threatened they release a vile smell. The brown marmorated stink bug is something few care to touch.

They taste bad too, Jennifer Osterritter discovered.

The 27-year-old Spring Hill woman was eating buttered toast last fall and began spitting it out when she was overcome by a foul odor and taste.

Spitting and choking, she summoned her husband, Dean, 33, who flipped over the toaster, sending a stink bug tumbling onto the kitchen counter.

PG VIDEO: STINK BUGS PESTER HOMES

"I've had it," she told him upon seeing the toasted bug. Soon after, he called the Verona exterminator, stinkbugspecialists, and for months now the company has been using a mild pesticide to treat their house and grounds. They've killed thousands, and though the exterminator says the company has had good results in many cases, fresh waves of bugs keep returning to the Osterritter home.

So last Sunday, the Osterritters went searching for a new house.

"I'm honestly ready to move over this, it's that bad," Mr. Osterritter said.

Consider an opposing argument. Stink bugs neither bite nor threaten human health or homes. Unless you grow the crops they like to eat, what's to hate about them?

So suggests Allegheny County Health Department entomologist Bill Todaro, who's been getting daily calls from distraught county residents.

Relax, he suggests. Let bugs be bugs. (At least, don't call the health department. It cannot provide a SWAT team.)

"Insects are a powerful force of nature, and people don't give them the credit they deserve," Mr. Todaro said. "Stink bugs stick around and are proven tough bugs and at least they don't bite, sting or do damage to the house. There are worse things out there."

"They are so ugly, and even if they don't do anything, I still hate them," Nancy DeMuro, 48, of Jefferson Hills, said in a desperate-sounding email. "I don't ever use that word [hate], but there is no other way to describe how I feel. They fly around and buzz when they're active and then land in our lights or on our robes or on our beds."

Her final email reaction: "UUUGGGGGHHHHHHHH!"

Stink bug biography

Steve Jacobs, a Penn State University urban entomologist, says on his popular stink bug website that the Asian insect first was collected in the United States in 1998 in Allentown, Lehigh County, though he says it probably arrived earlier. It's now spread to at least 37 counties but most likely exists statewide, and is found in many other states as well.

It is almost as wide as it is long, has a piercing mouth that sucks juices from apples, peaches, tomatoes, green peppers, beans, squash, corn and other vegetables, along with soybeans. Sturdy and persistent with a strong survival instinct, it is named after its most notable weapon.

Mr. Jacobs' website, http://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/brown-marmorated-stink-bug, says the bug has "scent glands located on the dorsal surface of the abdomen and the underside of the thorax."

The stink bug seems likely to migrate nationwide, unless disease or a natural predator emerges to return its numbers to natural balance, he said. The only current predator is a small wasp that lays eggs inside stink-bug eggs and kills them.

Pesticides kill the bugs, but have little residual effect after only a few days. Mr. Jacobs said the bugs seem to be hitching rides inside vehicles and crossing the country along major highway systems.

More than just a nuisance

The bug caused an estimated $37 million in agricultural losses in 2010 in the Mid-Atlantic Region, the U.S. Apple Association states. There's concern of comparable, possibly even worse, losses this year from what appears to be a burgeoning stink-bug population in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"I don't think there is anybody in southwestern Pennsylvania who doesn't have stink bugs," said Eric Oesterling, Penn State University Cooperative Extension agent in Westmoreland County. "For homeowners, there's the nuisance factor, but there is increasing damage and concerns for fruit and vegetable growers."

Greg Krawczyk, an extension agent in Biglersville, Adams County, who specializes in statewide fruit production, said agricultural losses from stink bugs are greatest in southern counties stretching from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. "I'd seen orchards with 70 percent injured fruit," he said.

The bug's piercing mouth causes a corky wound that blemishes fruit and vegetables, eliminating them from the fresh-produce market. Orchardists can sell fresh apples for up to $1 a pound, he said, but must peddle bug-damaged apples for juice or cider for only 12 cents a pound.

Mr. Oesterling said he's received scattered reports of stink-bug damage last year in southwestern Pennsylvania of 10 to 20 percent. There are few predictions about their impact on fall harvest.

"It's another introduced pest that we have to learn to live with as time goes on," he said. "We have to learn how to manage it. For now we're learning by trial and error."

Miracle sought

Lacking natural predators in the region, stink bugs are procreating explosively.

"The person who figures out how to get rid of them will make millions," Ms. DeMuro said, noting her only weapon is a vacuum cleaner.

Cooler spring weather offers some hope that the bugs won't procreate so quickly. The bugs winter inside homes then try returning outside in the spring. The goal next fall is to prevent them from getting back inside for the winter.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Penn State researchers, among others, are working on methods to lure and kill the bugs or perhaps repel them.

"We have to use pesticides now because there is no other means, but it is not the long-term feasible solution to deal with stink bugs," Mr. Krawczyk said. "We have to find something."

The crises for many present opportunity for a few.

"The stink bug was a godsend," said Andrew Strube, 36.

After losing his airline job, then his house, he moved his family to an apartment in Columbia, Lancaster County, that proved to be infested with stink bugs.

"I don't mind the bugs," he said, "But when they are crawling on your face while you are sleeping, or when you sit down to eat and they are dive-bombing your plate, and you have three kids who don't like them crawling everywhere, well ..."

Well, he took action.

He tried commercial sprays and contacted exterminators, but noted stink bugs stuck in paint after he'd painted an all-terrain vehicle and motorcycle. They all were dead.

Soon after he began building the Strube Stink Bug Traps consisting of a bug-luring light enclosed in a cylinder covered with sticky stuff. He also spiked the trap with a formula that, along with the light, lures the bugs.

At first he produced traps for family and friends.

Now he's working 20-hour days and has sold thousands online at $50 each and in hardware stores. He's seeking a building to set up production while searching for a commercial producer. He's even been invited to appear on the Animal Planet program, "Infested."

"We couldn't be busier," Mr. Strube said. "The problem is huge."


David Templeton: dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578. First Published May 8, 2011 4:00 AM


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