As it turned out, the Agriculture Deparment had no such list. An apologetic spokesman said he misunderstood a scientist in the department and passed faulty information to reporters. But that doesn’t mean the agency isn’t out to kill this crop-munching pest from Asia that recently expanded to 40 states since it was first spotted in Pennsylvania 15 years ago.
To the contrary, entomologists are zeroing in on stink bugs, unlocking the mysteries of their behaviors, DNA and even scent, and preparing for an all-out war.
True to their nature, stink bugs — heavily concentrated in Maryland and West Virginia, as well as Pennsylvania — aren’t expected to go down easily, certainly not this summer. “The expectation is high infestation this year,” said Ames Herbert, an extension entomologist at Virginia Tech.
How do researchers know? “What we can use as a rough guide is the size of the population from year to year that overwintered,” said Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist for the Agriculture Department. “In 2012, the population was 60 percent higher than 2011. If they survived the winter, we will have many bugs starting in 2013.”
Unlike previous years, when scientists and farmers “kind of got caught with our pants down,” said Robert Shenot — who watched stink bugs damage more than half of his apple crop at Shenot Farm Market, a few miles north of Pittsburgh, in 2010 and 2011 — they will face an array of new weapons developed especially for them.
Last year, USDA scientists and researchers pinpointed a pheromone that male brown marmorated stink bugs emit while feeding; it attracts other males, females and even babies called nymphs to the meal.
They re-created the scent in a laboratory, built a trap and tested it along tree lines, on the edge of farms and in the middle of crop fields. Sure enough, the bugs crept to it and were exterminated.
The triangle-shaped device is a temple of doom, luring the creatures into grooves leading to the synthetic smell that calls them to dinner. Instead of food there is a pest strip, and a pesticide vapor puts them to sleep for good, said Christopher Bergh, a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.
The traps aren’t killing enough stink bugs to make a sizable dent in the population, Bergh said, but they do give researchers and farmers an indication of how many are lurking and whether they should initiate search-and-destroy missions.
Farmers have to resist “the first knee-jerk reaction . . . to get out there and spray them with chemicals,” Shenot said. “Certain chemicals they tend to take a bath in and laugh at you. They feed a quarter-inch below the surface of the fruit, and you can’t get an insecticide in there. You can spray the stink bug there on your crop, and if another set of stink bugs fly in, they’re not going to be affected at all.”