A big stink over an invasion of the tiny bugs

Aug 2 2011 - 9:13am

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. -- Tracy Leskey's job stinks.

Whether working at her Department of Agriculture lab, in orchards or at home, she's a leader of a kind of federal SWAT team fighting what a rural Maryland congressman calls the "bug from hell," the brown marmorated stink bug that is all the buzz in the mid-Atlantic region.

Thousands of the winged, six-legged invaders from Asia inhabit Leskey's West Virginia lab, as specimens trapped in a jar and as pests flying and crawling around. The insect is aptly named for its self-defense mechanism -- a pungent odor that some liken, perhaps too kindly, to cilantro.

"I don't think it's quite that pleasant," said Leskey, a specialist in bug behavior.

With her traveling slide show -- call it Stink Bug 101 -- she has drawn crowds at community meetings.

"Typically, people don't really care about what we do," the career entomologist told a packed auditorium in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "You know it's a big deal if you're competing with bed bugs for press."

Among the questions she was asked: Squash or don't squash?

Answer: Don't! Unless you want to find out why they're called stink bugs.

"I've had 26,205 in my home since the first of the year," said Doug Inkley, who admitted to counting carcasses. A scientist who lives near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Inkley said he keeps a "dedicated stink bug vacuum cleaner" to gather the pests. "As they go in the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner, it makes a little thump. It's a very satisfying sound."

Leskey says the shield-shaped insect is the most serious pest she's encountered, feeding on more than 300 plants. It has no natural enemy in the U.S. that can keep its population in check, and pesticides have limited effect.

The bug has been found in 33 states. But its maddening infestation is worst in the mid-Atlantic, where thousands of bugs invade homes, buzz around lamps at night, stroll across TV screens, land on dinner tables and become lodged by the hundreds in window sills.

The infestation is so widely discussed in the mid-Atlantic region that it has become a conversational ice-breaker.

"Somebody told me that if you're having a dinner party and perhaps guests don't know each other very well, just bring up stink bugs," Leskey said.

The Swedenburg Estate Vineyard in Middleburg, Va., has scrambled to keep the pests from stinking up the wine-tasting room. "When you have a tasting, you shouldn't even be wearing perfume or aftershave because it impacts your senses," Marc Swedenburg said. "Well, you can imagine what a stink bug does to your tasting experience."

So pervasive is the problem that a West Virginia hotel placed a notice in rooms: "Please excuse our uninvited guests. ... They are harmless, but an extreme nuisance." The hosts of a Pittsburgh radio show wrote a rap song with the line, "Stink bugs run this town."

A West Virginia school cut recess short because a cloud of stink bugs was swarming students. It's not unusual for Leskey to talk to homeowners who report sweeping up what amounts to a coffee can a day full of stink bugs.

"We've had (harvesters) who had to turn on the windshield wipers because there were so many bugs within the crop," Leskey said.

Though annoying to homeowners, the bugs pose a serious problem to agriculture, piercing fruits and vegetables and sucking out the juices, scarring the fruit skin and leaving corky, brown areas beneath. The bug caused $37 million in losses to mid-Atlantic apple growers alone last year.

The insect was first identified in the United States in Allentown, Pa., a decade ago. It is believed to have entered the country through a cargo shipment from Asia.

In the quest to eradicate the infestation, an entomologist in the Department of Agriculture's Beneficial Insect Introduction Research Unit in Delaware is trying to determine whether a tiny wasp from Asia -- one of the stink bugs' natural enemies -- could be released against the pest.

The wasp lays eggs inside stink bug eggs and the wasp larvae devour them. It's like the creature in the movie "Alien" that "feeds on the inside of its host, killing it in the process, and then bursting out to search for more prey," said Kim Hoelmer, one of Leskey's colleagues.

(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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