Posted: January 18, 2013
Last year, farmers caught a break from the stink bug, an invasive pest that can cause significant crop damage. The population dropped sharply in 2011, but experts say the insect could come back bigger than ever this year.
If you live along the East Coast, there's a pretty good chance that stink bugs may be lurking in your attic or even behind your curtains. The invasive insects from Asia, which exude a rubber-like stench when you crush them, are a nuisance for you, but a serious pest for farmers.
Crop producers received a reprieve from the bugs in 2012, but the insects may be coming back and with a greater spread of attack.
Bob Black says he was not in a good place in 2010.
"This thing is really gonna put a big chapter in my book of life," he said. "I've never had anything affect me like this."
Black runs Catoctin Mountain Orchards in Thurmont, Md., and like other farmers across the region, he was being assaulted by brown marmorated stink bugs. They disfigure all kinds of crops, ranging from corn to peaches. One year they hit Black's apples.
"One of my late varieties, Pink Lady — which a lot of people like — that's the latest apple," he says. "We had 50 percent damage on that."
That was more than a year ago. In 2012, things improved a little.
"Unfortunately they're still around here," Black says. "We do have some damage again, but nothing like ... 2010."
He says he never wants to go through that again.
Stink bug attacks can be impossible to predict. They can come out of nowhere because they can live just about anywhere — a wheat field or a patch of woods.
Overall, last year wasn't so bad. There are two reasons for that: One, an early spring season gave crops a head start against the bugs; and two, a plethora of bugs died in 2011.
"For some reason that we don't fully understand, there was high nymphal mortality in the fall of 2011, so that translated into fewer adult bugs in spring 2012," Chris Bergh, an entomologist at Virginia Tech, explains.
That gives farmers little comfort though because experts are unsure why they all died.
Tracy Leskey, an entomologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service, says the insect populations have recovered and in larger numbers — six times more than in the previous year.
For now, they're hibernating in barns, fields and people's attics. When they emerge this spring, farmers will have a few weapons ready: new pheromone traps to give an early warning and some EPA-approved pesticides to use on an emergency basis.
Researchers are still considering bringing the bugs' natural parasites over from China. But until a more permanent solution is found, farmers will be keeping their eyes on their fields and their spray tanks full.
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