Pennsylvania could see stink bugs' return

Spring's arrival has a stinky downside

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You've been craving more sunlight and warmer temperatures for months, right? And now that spring-like weather finally has arrived, you feel your energy returning? Well, so do the stink bugs.

Those infernal pests that zoom through your house, cluster in your windows and release foul-smelling fumes when disturbed -- being sucked into vacuum cleaners or squashed with tissues, say -- love light and warmth just like people do, local entomologists say. And while we got a bit of a break last spring from emerging hordes of the brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, bug experts say that 2013 just might be the Year of the Stink Bug.

Beginning right about now.

Archive video: Stink bugs plague home owners

Entomologists expect the stink bug population to be a little more pronounced this spring. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/22/2013)

Trap offers hope in battle with stink bugs

One expert thinks a trap may hold the answer for home owners at war with stink bugs. (Video by Doug Oster; 4/22/2013)

"With greater numbers going into overwintering last fall, if those bugs survived the winter, that could mean more bugs going into 2013," said entomologist and stink bug researcher Tracy Leskey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's fruit research service in Kearneysville, W.Va. "Some of the populations are already out there, moving about and doing things, like finding something juicy to feed on."

In the past three weeks, she said, researchers have begun finding stink bugs in traps hung in various commercial fruit orchards throughout the region, indicating that the bugs have begun to emerge and that farmers, in particular, should take note.

"Anybody who has a vulnerable crop needs to be aware of that and protect their crop," she said.

An invasive species native to Asia that was first spotted in the United States in Allentown, Pa., in September 2001, the brown marmorated stink bug has experienced a few population setbacks, as in the fall of 2011 after tropical storms apparently reduced the number of overwintering bugs. But overall, the stink bug population has been "under substantial expansion" and now has been detected in 40 states and the District of Columbia, Ms. Leskey said.

Along the way, stink bugs have annoyed and disgusted a large percentage of Americans, whose homes they often use -- hunkered down in clumps in tiny, cool places such as attics, under shingles and in window frames -- as shelter during the winter months.

"They're kind of like nonpaying tenants," Ms. Leskey said.

Worse, stink bugs have caused serious damage to peaches, apples, tomatoes, peppers, corn and other commercial crops in six states including Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, beginning in 2010, researchers say. The bugs plunge in their piercing, sucking mouthparts like a tiny hypodermic needle, making a tiny hole that ultimately damages the plant tissue. That hole can ruin the appearance of fruits and vegetables, making them impossible to sell.

Juicy fruits and vegetables are favorites, but stink bugs don't limit themselves to buggy V-8. This time of year, before fruit has set, the bugs find their food in pretty much any growing plant with expanding, sap-filled tissues, said entomologist John Rawlins, a curator of invertebrate zoology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

Every plant outside, whether it's a woody shoot on a bush or a stem on a daffodil, has shoots that are beginning to grow, and where there's growth, there's moving sap to suck, he said.

"It's an explosive development of expanding plant tissues, and all those plant resources are whipped up into a frothy plant milkshake, ready to be sipped," Mr. Rawlins said.

But to reach their milkshakes and begin to reproduce, usually sometime in May, stink bugs must emerge from their hidey-holes inside our houses in a lengthy process that typically starts in April and doesn't begin to dwindle until June, Ms. Leskey said. Along the way, their journey takes them crawling implacably along our walls and across our ceilings, and zooming from walls to windows to lamps while we're trying to sleep, eat and just generally not think about sharing space with ugly, stinky bugs.

So, can the brown marmorated stink bugs be stopped?

Some native insects, such as spiders, praying mantises and assassin bugs, have learned that stink bugs are good to eat and have begun preying on the stink bug population, entomologists say. Parasitic wasps have learned that they can lay their eggs inside stink bug eggs, just as they can those of native plant bugs. All that predation, however, only has slowed the growth of the stink bug population, not stopped it, according to Ms. Leskey.

Researchers are looking into whether it would be safe to import another kind of parasitic wasp that is the stink bugs' natural enemy in Asia, but first must discover if that wasp could prey on beneficial native species here in the United States.

So far, farmers are spraying crops with pesticides to control stink bugs, part of a much larger bug family that also includes native plant bugs that can cause crop damage, researchers say. Homeowners can turn to outdoor sprays and traps for crawling insects, or hire an exterminator if they are being completely overrun.

And if the indoor stink bug population isn't too overwhelming, homeowners can seal up any openings to prevent escape -- not to mention re-entry this fall -- and start a little bug hunt of their own. Online forums abound on the proper disposal method of stink bugs; stinky squashing of them and water-wasting flushing of them generally is frowned upon, while efficient drowning of them in a cup of soapy water is encouraged.

Each female stink bug lays approximately 200 eggs at least once a year, creating that many more stink bugs to infest homes and cropland later in the year, and make more baby stink bugs next year, Ms. Leskey said.

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Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: or 412-263-1719. First Published April 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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