Stink Bugs: What’s All the Stink About?

I guess we must just be lucky.

When a tornado cut a 24-mile-long swath through Southern Maryland in 2002, we were blissfully unaware of it. We stood at our back door and marveled at the golf-ball-sized hail that slammed down into the back yard for a few minutes, and only later did we find out why. When the Cicadas (17-year locusts) emerged in 2004, we were on the fringe of that too. We saw a few here, but nothing like what I saw in Virginia, where they were piling up on sidewalks and being swept into office building lobbies by revolving doors. And now? As I sit down to idly Google what for us has been little more than an oddity and an aggravation, I find that once again we’re on the fringe of something big.

Well, bigger than it is in our yard, anyway.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, meet the brown marmorated stink bug.

You’ll want to make a good impression and get on good terms with him immediately, because if agricultural scientists are right, you too will be hosting him at your home, farm or garden sooner or later.

The adult bugs are about the size of a fingernail, and are native to parts of China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The official theory is that they were unwittingly brought into the county in shipping containers about ten years ago, and their first confirmed appearance was in Allentown, PA, in 2001. By 2003 they were in Western Maryland and heading east. Populations have been found in 15 states so far, with specimens in 14 other states, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and Virginia, to smaller populations in Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon, and California, the stink bug is getting around. According to what I’ve read they pose no known health hazard and they don’t bite. The problem, apparently, is that nothing bites them either. The stink bug has no known natural predators in this country, and over the past ten or so years they’ve been hitchhiking around the country on cars and campers, and multiplying like … well … stink bugs.

This – along with their resistance to pretty much every known pesticide and their tendency to stink like a skunk when irritated or crushed – may make them the ultimate garden pest of the future.

They leave small craters on the surface of an apple or pear, and make the inside of the fruit look like a wine cork. They leave little hard spots on tomatoes and peppers and can apparently devastate corn and mar peaches. Their population has now reached a level that is drawing the attention of entomologists and agriculture experts across the country, because this year the stink bug is being blamed for significant damage to the orchard fruit crop in Maryland and Virginia. They’ve done noticeable damage to apple, pear and peach crops, and other crops are in danger as time goes by with these little buggers because apparently they are not picky eaters.

But I don’t recall seeing them in the garden this year, though I suppose they must have been there. I probably didn’t notice them because I was so distracted by the squash bugs. I only mention them now because over the past few weeks they’ve been slowly invading my house. At least it felt like an invasion to me. I have found one, two, or three of them a day buzzing around the house and landing on the windows, the walls, the lamp shades and the television. They make a buzzing noise that is a little louder than a fly, and when they land within reach they are remarkably easy to catch. Since they’re not skittish, you can just reach out and grab them.

My research indicates that I can expect them to continue sneaking in through open doors, and that their intention is to bed down anywhere that’s not freezing. Apparently they won’t do any harm. They won’t breed, or lay nests or eat anything or cause any damage. They’ll just hang out in a state of semi-hibernation until they start to feel warm again (sometime in June), at which point I’ll have to start pulling them off of my walls again. Because gosh knows I don’t want to usher them outdoors. If I do, they’re sure to find the garden.

Among other irritations, apparently, the stink bug is the house guest that just can’t take a hint. They’re the old friend that comes for a weekend, and stays for six months.

For us smallish-scale organic gardeners, it looks like the stink bug is going to be business as usual – just more of it. It’s just something else to keep an eye out for. Apparently I can choose from either of two effective techniques that I have used in the past: pluck-and-smush…or pluck-and-drown (in soapy water). There is some evidence that pluck-and-drown is preferable, since all articles I can find on the subject say that the stink bugs, well, stink. They are known to emit a skunk-like odor when irritated or crushed. But I have scooped several of them up in hand, and smacked quite a few of them with magazines, and have yet to experience this.

  • Published on Oct 8, 2010
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