By Michele S. Byers
Ask any biologist and they’ll tell you that invasive species stink. In the case of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, they really mean it! Chances are you’ve had the “pleasure” of meeting and smelling this latest invasive insect in your home.
The United States is home to several native bugs in the stink bug family, such as the common green stink bug (Acrosternum hilare). But the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys) is a native of Asia. It first showed up in Allentown, Pa., in the late 1990s and has spread rapidly. Today stink bugs have been detected in all but 14 states, reached nuisance levels in 10 states, and become severe agricultural pests in five more.
Stink bugs live only six to eight months. In adulthood they take on a distinctive, elongated “knight shield” shape. They get their name from their self-defense mechanism. Lacking the ability to bite humans or other predators, stink bugs instead emit a pungent odor – sort of like a skunk – when they are aggravated or crushed.
You may not notice the little stinkers until they come calling in your home when the weather turns colder. They’re looking for a warm place to spend winter, in a state almost like hibernation. In the spring they emerge, hungrily making their way back outside to eat plants.
Although Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs don’t directly harm humans, they do threaten agriculture and biodiversity. This is true of many invasive species. In 2005, for example, researchers estimated the annual cost of damage from all invasive species and the expense of controlling them to be over $138 billion, just in the U.S. alone.
Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs are not picky eaters. They feed on a wide variety of plants – from ornamentals to fruits trees and vegetables. Apple and pear crops have been severely damaged in this state we’re in, along with parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia.
In Asia, a parasitic wasp keeps stink bug populations under control by attacking their eggs. But with no natural predators here, the population is exploding. Government and university research, both expensive and time-consuming, has yet to yield a biological control for stink bugs.
So what can you do about Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs in your home?
Don’t think saturating the area with insecticide will help. Adult stink bugs are hardy and shake off many of the available broad spectrum insecticides. You would likely kill many more beneficial insects, and expose your family to more chemicals, for no real reason. The best solution is to keep them out of your house in the first place. Seal cracks and gaps with caulk or weather stripping, wrap window air conditioners and cover vents with screens.
If they get into your home, here are some suggestions. Scoop them gently into a container, take them outside, dump them into a bucket of soapy water, and close the lid. You’ll avoid most of the stink from releasing them inside your house. If you have hundreds or thousands, a vacuum will work. Just make sure you get them outside and into the soapy water right away! And you will probably have to deodorize your vacuum cleaner! Don’t flush every stink bug down the toilet, as that will waste countless gallons of water!
In the garden, hand pick the bugs and drop them into soapy water – and keep a lookout out under leaves for egg clusters to scrape off. You can buy traps that entice stink bugs with scent; young bugs respond all season, but adults will respond only in late summer.
You can find out more about the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug in New Jersey at the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station website at www.njaes.rutgers.edu/stinkbug.
And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.