USDA working to fight stink bug infestation

Thursday - 3/31/2011, 9:31am EDT

Dr. Tracy Leskey, Research Entomologist, ARS, USDA

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(Stink bug shown larger than actual size.)

By Suzanne Kubota
Senior Internet Editor
FederalNewsRadio.com

If stink bugs annoyed you last year...just wait! This year is expected to be even worse. Agriculture Department entomologists say stink bugs are now considered out-of-control pests.

If, however, you're in one of the few remaining states that hasn't been infested, Dr. Tracy Leskey, a Research Entomologist at USDA-ARS at the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, described the brown marmorated stink bug, Halyomorpha halys Stål, for Federal News Radio.

"They have piercing sucking mouth parts. It's sort of like a straw that they insert to suck up the fluids they feed on. They have a marbled appearance on the sides of their abdomen. That's one of the really good characters that you can use to identify a brown marmorated stink bug, as well as white stripes on their antennae that are very distinctive."

Since it was first collected in Pennsylvania in 1998, the stink bug has now spread to 33 states and D.C., and it's bringing trouble with it, said Leskey. "We've had incredible problems in terms of just the nuisance aspects for homeowners and businesses as well as agricultural issues."

Those issues have made Leskey's work station in Kearneysville, West Virginia nearly ground zero for stink bug research. "This is where apples, peaches, nectarines, as well as asian pears were attacked by this insect. It seems to like tree fruit very much."

Currently, there are have high hopes for what Leskey called "classical biological control" for the pungent pest. She said her colleague, Dr. Kim Hoelmer, "has gone to Asia and done a lot of foreign exploration and brought back candidate species for release. These are particularly parasitic wasps. These are non-stinging wasps and what they do is they insert their eggs into the eggs of the brown marmorated stink bug and the larvae of this wasp then devour the brown marmorated stink bug eggs, but before they can be released they must go through a rigorous series of tests evaluating their specificity. And so that is what is going on right now, and will continue to go on until all of the information is gathered to petition for release."

At the same time, chemical warfare is being researched to fight the massive invasion.

In Beltsville, said Leskey, another colleague, Dr. Aijun Zhang, "is working to identify the true pheromone of this bug and this could provide us with an excellent lure to use in these traps to really attract the bug, you know, first for monitoring then potentially for things like attract and kill where we can sort of aggregate them within a particular area and control them in a precise location. So there's a lot of research. It's still unfolding, the types of strategies we'll use against brown marmorated stink bug, but typically it's a lot of different approaches that come together to create what we describe as an integrated pest management system.

While many of us would literally wrinkle our noses at the thought of wrangling stink bugs for a living, Leskey enthused, "I love my position! I get to work with growers, I do a lot of field ecology. We study the fine scale behaviors of insects trying to develop strategies for their management based on visual cues and olfactory cues that they're attracted to, and so this is how we develop, for example, this monitoring track that we're working with right now."