Smelly Invaders Want To Crawl Into Your Home

The brown marmorated stink bug, which hails from Asia, had a population boom this year — terrorizing farmers and homeowners up and down the Eastern U.S. USDA entomologist Tracy Leskey explains what's known about the bug and how to cope.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, aliens. Well, we don't know if there are any aliens on Zarmina's(ph) World, but there might be some right here in the U.S. soil. And their mission is to eat your food and sleep in your home. And their weapon, smelliness. I'm talking about the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive species from Asia. And move over bedbugs, there's a new pest in town, at least if you live in the Eastern United States. The stink bug population has been exploding this year. But why? And what should we do about it? What can we do about it?

Here to tell us more is Tracy Leskey, research entomologist at the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. TRACY LESKEY (Research Entomologist, USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Station): Thank you. Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Wow. Why do we all - so tell me, why we're seeing all these stink bugs showing up?

Dr. LESKEY: Well, I think you sort of touched on this in that this is an invasive species. It is native to Asia - Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan. And it was actually accidentally introduced into the United States, probably somewhere in the 1990s, around the Allentown region of Pennsylvania. And so this particular insect, because it is an invasive, it has no native natural enemies per se. It has no natural enemies that are really very effective at controlling populations of this insect.

FLATOW: And what kind of damage do these stink bugs do?

Dr. LESKEY: Well, originally, when the populations were first detected, really most of the injury and most of the detections were made on things like shea trees, like white ash or empress trees, Polonia. But this year, what we've seen and throughout the season is injury on tree fruit, particularly the stone fruit peaches and nectarines, as well as apples, Asian pears, European pear cultivars. It's extended into tomatoes and peppers, the veggies, even field corn and sweet corn, as well as soybeans, have been affected this year.

FLATOW: And so why if they're having so much fun out there in the orchards and the veggies, why are they now finding their way into our homes?

Dr. LESKEY: Well, part of their natural behavior is to leave their host plants and move to overwintering sites. And so for a stink bug or for a brown marmorated stink bug I should say, your home is actually an ideal spot. Of course, they over winter and probably more naturalized habitats under rocky areas and things like that, leaf litter , that sort of thing, but certainly homes are also on the list for them.

FLATOW: We're talking about stink bugs for the rest of the hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Tracy Leskey.

You seem to put this marmorated stink bug apart from the other stink bugs. Is that because they're not a nuisance to us?

Dr. LESKEY: Right. And we do have about 200 native stink bug species in North America, and certainly, some of these species are crop pests, but they do have natural enemies. And certainly, their populations have never been to the degree that we've seen with this invasive species.

FLATOW: And do we know why suddenly it's become, you know, a problem?

Dr. LESKEY: Well, we do know that we have observed increasing populations annually since first detection in this region of central Maryland and eastern West Virginia. And so in late 2009, they were causing injury in tree fruit, and we also knew there was a very large population going into overwintering. And so I think coupled with the fact they have no natural - really effective natural enemies, they have a broad host range, and we also know they produced two generations this year within the region. It's just - all of the factors were there to lead to this very large population that we're dealing with now.

FLATOW: Is there anything we can do?

Dr. LESKEY: In terms of...

FLATOW: Keeping them out of your home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LESKEY: One of the - there are two things that homeowners can do right now that I think are good and safe recommendations. One is to try to seal up any obvious cracks and crevices. They definitely have a natural tendency to walk up, and so they will collect in sort of high points on your house. So if you have sort of any cracks or crevices, just use caulk and that sort of thing. If they enter your home, we've been recommending to people to really just use a vacuum cleaner to vacuum them up and then dispose of that bag because they are obviously pretty smelly.

FLATOW: Do they emit the stink when you attack them or is this something that they have a natural body odor?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LESKEY: Yes, they actually emit that odor when you sort of prod or provoke them. It's basically a defense against birds, reptiles, amphibians, that sort of thing.

FLATOW: So you're not telling people to go out and buy a can of insecticide and kill these bugs?

Dr. LESKEY: No. And really even if they did and followed up all the label precautions and that sort of thing, it's really not that effective because the bugs will continue to move toward their homes. So they may spray one day, but the bugs will just come back. So it's better to just try to, you know, seal those crevices and vacuum them if they do get in.

FLATOW: Will spiders or ants eat their eggs? Or do they have any natural predators that might do those kinds of things?

Dr. LESKEY: They do to some degree. We have observed things like praying mantis just feasting on them, some spiders, toads. Some birds do eat them. But certainly, it's not making much of a dent in the population.

FLATOW: So if it's not bed bugs, it's stink bugs.

Dr. LESKEY: Apparently so.

FLATOW: Yeah. Which would be your choice?

Dr. LESKEY: Oh, I'll take the stink bugs.

FLATOW: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. LESKEY: They're not going to suck my blood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Why don't we just quick - let me ask you about - you're the head of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Working Group. What is that?

Dr. LESKEY: Well, I'm a co-chair with George Hamilton at Rutgers, who did some of the very good early work, and so what we did was to bring together researchers from land grant institutions and, of course, the Agricultural Research Service of USDA, and we have come together to sort of prioritize the research objectives that we really need to approach as a group and also just sort of keeping each other on the same page in terms of what's going on in the field, in the nuisance aspects of everybody's programs, so that we can coordinate and collaborate more effectively.

FLATOW: Well, you got the spotlight shining on you folks now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Good luck to you. Thanks for taking time to talk with us.

Dr. LESKEY: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Tracy Leskey is a research entomologist at the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station. That's in Kearneysville, West Virginia.

That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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