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US (PA): Bug causing big stink for East Coast

A matter of time. That is the phrase that pops up most often when discussing a new pest on the horizon: the brown marmorated stink bug. It showed up in Allentown, Pa., sometime in the late '90s. It has since been sighted as far away as California. The insects have been reported in 33 states, including the entire East Coast. The Asian native feeds on a variety of crops, everything from peaches to cotton. The brown marmorated stink bug is in the order hemiptera, the "true bugs" all of which make their way in life by piercing and sucking on things, in this case plant juices. They are not particular about what those plants are, and though they don't kill plants, they can deface them to the point where they are inedible. Typically on fruit such as apples and peaches, the fruit is dimpled and corky with necrotic spots where the insect has fed.

David Stephan is a state-extension specialist in the entomology department at North Carolina State University in the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. Stephan is the guy who county-extension agents send samples to when they need to have an insect identified. Stephan said that unlike some sucking insects, such as aphids or whiteflies, the true bugs are not really known to vector diseases from plant to plant. Stephan said he has gotten incidental reports of the brown marmorated stink bug from North Carolina but nothing like the numbers reported from the mid-Atlantic. He said they will probably arrive in a matter of time. Much like ladybugs and box-elder bugs, stink bugs congregate in large numbers in the winter in the crevices of south-facing walls. To the homeowner, this translates to the house.

In Maryland and Pennsylvania, brown marmorated stink bugs have been reported gathering in attics and on walls in the thousands. Stephan said this behavior is typical of many insects that hibernate for the winter. "They can tolerate extreme cold, but seek shelter from the wet, which would freeze them," he said. "It's a safety in numbers kind of thing." The bug lives up to its name. Marmorated is defined as being variegated or streaked like marble. The shield-shaped bugs are mottled with a brown and gray streaking. And the bug does stink. If distressed, the insect gives off a foul scent to protect itself. The smell has been described as skunky or cilantrolike. To my nose, it is a far cry from cilantro. Stephan said "many different kinds of the true bugs produce a bad-tasting chemical from scent glands." It is an effective defense and leaves the stink bug with few natural enemies.

"There are some flies and wasps that prey on them that can tolerate the chemical defense," Stephan said. One of those is a wasp that attacks the eggs of the stink bug in its native Asian habitat. But more research is needed before scientists assess the consequences of adding another insect into the mix. Some closely related species are beneficial predators in the garden. Meanwhile, chemical defenses seem to have little effect on the hordes of insects invading some mid-Atlantic regions. Although some chemical measures are effective on the adults, a new crowd is quick to take their place. According to a news release from the U.S. Apple Association, the national trade association representing all segments of the apple industry, mid-Atlantic growers estimated the damage to the 2010 apple harvest at $37 million. Growers are desperate to discover a more effective method of controlling this spreading pest.


Publication date: 6/27/2011


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