Stopping The Stink Bug Invasion

May 14, 2014

Credit Flickr Creative Commons: Armed Forces Pest Management Board

Northwest researchers are teaming up to stop an invasion of stink bugs moving across the region. The bugs, which can smell like dirty gym socks, ruin tree fruit and grape vines. Those crops are vital to Northwest agriculture.

You have to go through three airlocked doors to get to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s stink bug research lab.

The quarantined, closet-sized room has it’s own ventilation system. The stink bug colony of about 400 bugs is kept inside an even smaller room within the lab.

Chemist Lee Ream opens the door.

Ream: “So, here’s our colony.”

The stink bugs are kept in plastic containers. They fly around, and eat the green beans, almonds, and figs Ream feeds them.

Pockets of these invasive bugs have been found in Washington and Oregon. More are expected to fly into the area during the 2014 growing season.

That could become a real problem for area orchards, vineyards, and homes.

The brown marmorated stink bug is different from other stink bugs native to the Northwest.

This invasive bug eats pretty much any crop with sap – destroying any fruit it bites into.

Ream breaks open an almond he had placed in the stink bug colony.

Ream: “You can actually see where there would be no damage on the outside of the almond, but on the inside, you can see where it’s decomposed. They’re actually soft and squishy.”

The brown marmorated stink bug is originally from Asia. It first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1998 and has made its way across the U.S.

With no native predators, the bug has become a big problem on the east coast. On the east coast, the bugs overwinter in people’s homes.

Zack: “You go out to your house, you go out on the porch in November, and there are 1,000 of these things sitting on your porch with you. And they stink, and you’re stepping on them, and the dogs are eating them. So they become a real problem.”

That’s Richard Zack. He’s an entomologist with Washington State University. He’s on the research team that’s trying to fight the brown marmorated stink bug in the Northwest – before the region sees those amounts of stink bugs.

Researchers are training homeowners, growers, and master gardeners to spot the invasive stink bug.

Zack says so far in the Northwest, the bug has been found in the Willamette Valley, along the I-5 corridor and in southwestern Washington.

The bugs are slowly moving eastward toward the Yakima Valley. One was discovered in Kennewick, Washington, last November.

Zack: “It could have serious, detrimental effects on the agricultural industry in Washington.”

Researchers are working as fast as they can to develop ways to control the bug if it shows up in the Northwest in large numbers.

At his lab, Lee Ream is trying to understand stink bug behavior: where the bugs will be, at what time of day. For example:

Ream: “During the day, the stink bugs might not want to be out in the sun, so they might hide in bushes, but not necessarily in the apple trees. If that’s the case, you don’t want to spray the apples during the day because then they’re not going to get any of the residue, and they’re not going to die.”

That way Ream and his colleagues can know when and where to place traps.

Michael Bush is an entomologist with Washington State University. He says researchers are trying to limit the amount of chemical pesticides growers would have to spray to battle the bugs.

On the east coast, the bugs cost apple growers $37 million. The growers have had to spray pesticides that don’t just target certain pests. Bush says they kill the beneficial insects, too.

He calls it a pesticide treadmill.

Bush: “We use one pesticide to control a stink bug, and then months later we have to use another insecticide to control aphid outbreaks or mite outbreaks that had been normally controlled by a beneficial insect.”

So far the brown marmorated stink bugs have made it to 40 states. Northwest researchers estimate the bugs will become a bigger problem here in the next three to four years.

They hope they can find a solution first.

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