Lawmakers, scientists are focused on the growing threat to crops from stink bugs

January 29

Although this month’s frigid temperatures might make spring seem very far off, Virginia lawmakers, scientists and farmers are already focusing on the upcoming growing season and the potential effects of the dreaded brown marmorated stink bug on crops.

This week, Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) announced that Congress has again directed the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency to ramp up efforts to combat the mounting threat of stink bugs, which have devastated apples, peaches, corn, grapes and other local crops in recent years.

In a statement, Wolf’s office said the House’s recently approved 2014 omnibus spending bill would continue to prioritize stink bug control research at the USDA, as part of a five-year plan to solve the problem.

The bill requires USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to help states implement biological control technology — once it is developed — to blunt the damage done by the bugs. The legislation also directs the EPA to quickly approve any research recommendations so that pest-control products can be sold on the open market, Wolf said in the statement.

There is currently only a limited number of products that growers and homeowners can use against the bug, with varying degrees of success.

“Whether you have a home herb garden or acres of farmland, we can all agree that the pervasive problem of stink bug infestation needs to be tackled head-on,” Wolf said in the statement. “These pests are an annoyance that not only affect everyday life in people’s homes, but also vital American industries that have a broader impact on the economy.”

Last year, experts cautioned that the shield-shaped bugs, known for emitting an unpleasant smell when they are threatened or crushed, were likely to make a strong reappearance in the Washington area in the spring. The population that was observed at the end of last year’s harvest season appeared far more robust than it had in previous months, according to entomologists, who predicted there could be a 60 percent jump in population this year.

About $21 billion worth of crops could be at risk from the bugs across the country, according to USDA estimates. The insects, which are known to feed on hundreds of varieties of host plants, caused about $37 million in losses from damage to apple crops alone in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania in 2010, officials said.

As lawmakers focus on funding for research, Virginia scientists report that the large population of bugs currently hibernating in trees, barns, sheds and homes across the region appears to be doing fine, despite the record-setting cold temperatures that have affected mid-Atlantic states in recent weeks.

“It’s difficult to say what the 2014 population will bring, but there’s no indication yet that there will be any adverse effect from weather on the size of that population,” said Christopher Bergh, a Virginia Tech associate professor of entomology.

Experts say they are working to understand the rapid spread of the bug, which is native to China and made its U.S. debut in Allentown, Pa., in 1998.

Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist with the Agriculture Department, said stink bugs have been detected in 40 states and the District — an increase of 15 states in the past several years.

“The other thing that has changed is the increase in crop injury — not to the same devastating levels reported in the mid-Atlantic, but in new states like North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Oregon and Washington state,” Leskey said.

Although it’s difficult to estimate how many stink bugs might be in the region, Leskey said, a pheromone trap has been developed to help track their population numbers.

“We feel like now we have a really good, sensitive tool to detect their populations and get a handle on it,” she said. “We’re really going to be able to do that over the next couple of years, to capture the up-and-down of the size of their populations.”

She said entomologists are also hoping to understand more about what affects the stink bug’s mortality rate. In the past, low populations were sometimes thought to result from weather phenomena such as hurricanes, but with many variables at play, scientists have said it’s difficult to know what helps or hinders the stink bug population.

It appears clear that the recent bitter cold will do little to thwart the brown insects in the months ahead.

“They have the capacity to tolerate cold temperatures, unfortunately,” Leskey said. “We pulled some out just the other day from a shed, and it was cold as anything, and the bugs were just fine.”

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