News / Science & Technology

Spread of Asian Stink Bug Threatens US Crops

Invasive stink bug on an olive branch in Oregon's Willamette Valley. (Vaughn Walton, OSU)
Invasive stink bug on an olive branch in Oregon's Willamette Valley. (Vaughn Walton, OSU)
Tom Banse
A smelly invasive bug continues to spread across the United States, alarming both farmers and scientists.

The name of this insect is a mouthful: the brown marmorated stink bug. Native to East Asia, the insect is causing crop losses from coast to coast in America.  Researchers are working on control measures, but some of those come with their own worries.  

One way scientists are following the spread of the brown marmorated stink bug is by setting traps. There are four traps at the edge of a blueberry field at Oregon State University's North Willamette research farm.

OSU entomologist Vaughn Walton points to a brown bug with a body shaped like a medieval shield and distinctive white stripes on its antennae. It's about the size of the fingernail on your ring finger.

It's called a stink bug for good reason. Many people say it's like a cilantro flavor," said Walton. "Some of the people in my lab used to like cilantro. Now they hate cilantro."

The brown marmorated stink bug is 1-2 centimeters in length (VOA/T. Banse)The brown marmorated stink bug is 1-2 centimeters in length (VOA/T. Banse)
The brown marmorated stink bug is 1-2 centimeters in length (VOA/T. Banse)
The brown marmorated stink bug is 1-2 centimeters in length (VOA/T. Banse)
Here's why this bug invasion raises alarms. A stink bug can transmit that flavor into berries and fruit when it feeds. It can hide in wine grape clusters and then taint the juice when the grapes are crushed. 

Early season attacks cause berries and nuts to shrivel. Stink bug bites leave blemishes on vegetables. U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist Tracy Leskey, who works on fruit trees in West Virginia, says the greatest crop damage has been reported in the mid-Atlantic region.

"Left untreated it would be a substantial loss," Leskey said. "In places where we are not controlling the insect for experimental purposes, we easily see 100 percent injury in those fruit."

North America has more than 200 native stink bug species, but farmers don't worry about most of them. They are focused on the more voracious variety that comes from East Asia.  Scientists first detected it in the United States in Pennsylvania, in the late 1990's. 

Vaughn Walton says the invasive species has multiplied and spread in all directions from there. "They are really good hitchhikers. They move on cars, on cargo, on trains and stuff like that."

The Asian stink bug has now been detected in 40 U.S. states and several Canadian provinces.

Back in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the bug is showing up in commercial crops for the first time this year.

"Hopefully we'll learn how to control this pest," said farmer Michelle Armstrong, who grows sweet corn and vegetables. "We definitely see it as a major threat."

The U.S. Agriculture Department is funding a number of university studies looking into control measures, but Armstrong says nothing has come on the market yet that specifically targets the brown marmorated stink bug.

"That's part of the worries for the growers," she said. "As a grower myself, what will I do when this pest gets in my field? I don't have a lot of options. We don't want to spray more than we have to."

Powerful insecticides do kill the bug, but also take out beneficial insects farmers want to keep around. So other options are getting a look. One is mass trapping using pheromone lures. The Oregon State science team says the long term solution probably involves bringing in the stink bug's natural predators which exist in East Asia.

"There's a wide range of parasitoids and predators from there," Walton said. "We've imported them. They're in quarantine. You can't release them because they can potentially affect other good bugs that we don't want to be affected."

The Agriculture Department says it will take several more years of research before scientists are more certain there won't be unintended consequences from introducing another non-native species onto U.S. farms.

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Comment Sorting
by: unknown from: United States
November 15, 2013 1:43 PM
I saw these at a customers house I was at. They had a lot of these things. They had 37 windows in the house and those bugs kept falling from the windows when I had to open each window.

by: Markt from: Virginia
November 13, 2013 9:56 PM
I hate those bugs. They have been around my house now for over two years when before I had not seen a single one, now I get several in the house throughout the summer. I used to smack them with a fly swatter, but they left a major stink that would take hours to clear out (just squashing one, that is). Now I have to capture them in a paper towel and crush them, then throw them into the trash. It lessens the smell considerably, but they are still a menace and I hate seeing them in the house, but there is no way to keep them out. Invasive, is right...I'm glad its now winter and cold outside, no bugs in the house now, but I dread the coming spring and summer when they come back
In Response

by: Fritz Wilhelm from: Corvallis
November 14, 2013 4:37 PM
Dust Buster. Seriously. These insects can't adapt to being vacuumed up and bagged. I attached a 1" PVC pipe to a shop vac with a brush on the end and took care of a major infestation of Box Elder Bugs many years ago. This will work with any swarming insect that has formed a colony. Drop the bag in water or a container with an introduced high carbon dioxide atmosphere. You can do this by dumping the bag of bugs into a bucket with a glass of water. Put some alka seltzer in the water and close the lid. Killing them is better because they can escape from a paper or plastic bag.

Good luck,

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