Stink Bugs Waging Year-Round War

By Tim Persinko
|  Monday, May 16, 2011  |  Updated 10:59 AM EDT
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An army of foreign invaders is making its steady march across America, and is threatening to go after the nation's crops.

No longer just a nuisance, stink bugs are now a major problem that is affecting local business.

Woody Woodroof, an organic farmer in Montgomery County, said the pests ravaged his crops last year.  He said stink bugs were responsible for a 50 percent decrease in his farm's tomato harvest, and a 90 percent hit in the okra crop.

Woodroof, who has operated Red Wiggler farm in Germantown, Md. since 1996, says that his farm was swarmed by the alien bugs last summer.

"They would be flying around and they would fly into your hair," Woodroof said.  "It was creepy and it made you think of horror movies."

Researchers in Virginia and Maryland who have been watching the population grow over the past decade agree that this year, local crops are at serious risk.

"We've got a lot of people that, I think, their livelihoods are going to be in question if we can't get this thing in control," Bryan S. Butler, a fruit educator with the University of Maryland Extension, told the Carroll County Times.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study linked crop damage in West Virginia to the pests in 2008 and 2009.  The damage had been happening late in the season, but last year, it started happening earlier.

"It wasn't until 2010 that their population hit a threshold," Tracy Leskey, a USDA scientist told the Carroll County Times.  "It seems that they were so well established that they weren't just a late-season pest, but season-long."

Part of the problem is that the variety of stink bug that has been swarming through orchards and gardens across the mid-Atlantic region has a strong resistance to traditional pesticides.

The species is called the brown marmorated stink bug, a native of Asia.  The bugs were first noticed in eastern Pennsylvania in the mid-1990's.

In USDA testing, when stink bugs were sprayed with insecticide, the majority of test sample appeared to die.  However, pesticides only induced a comatose, "moribund" state.  In lab trials, as much as 50 percent of the test samples would alive and active after seven days.

"Normally when you spray an insecticide, dead is dead," Butler told the Times.  "Not this time."

There is hope on the way.  Agriculture Department researchers have been looking at a wasp that lays its eggs inside stink bug eggs, killing the insects.  The wasps are smaller than a match head. 

Woodroof is skeptical about the predator, which is not a native to the region.  "We have to be cautious not to overreact in the moment, and go with a solution that can cause unintended consequences," he said.

On his Red Wiggler farm, Woodroof said they have been experimented with "trap crops."  He has noticed that the insects are attracted to sunflowers, so he will be planting those alongside his tomatoes, eggplants, and okra plants this season.

He has also discovered a type of jumping spider on his farm that he said has been an enemy of the stink bug.  Woodroof said he has caught one, and has been feeding the arachnid one bug a day.

In Maryland, Congressman Roscoe Bartlett has called for a meeting of farmers and local stakeholders to discuss the stink bug epidemic on Friday, March 18.

On the agenda will not just be a minor annoyance, but the livelihoods of local residents.

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