Invasion of stink bugs has homeowners, farmers seeking relief

By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 11:59 PM

Shaped like shields and armed with an odor, dime-size brown bugs are crawling into area homes over windowsills, through door crevices and between attic vents in such numbers that homeowners talk about drowning them in jars of soapy water, suffocating them in plastic bags or even burning them with propane torches. In the process, some people are unwittingly creating another problem: When squashed or irritated, the bugs release the distinctive smell of sweaty feet.

Get used to it, experts say - the invasion is only going to get worse.

"This is the vanguard," said Mike Raupp, a University of Maryland entomologist and extension specialist. "I think this is going to be biblical this year," he said. "You're going to hear a collective wail in the Washington area, up through Frederick and Allegany counties, like you've never heard before. The [bug] populations are just through the ceiling."

The change in season, as days shorten and nighttime temperatures start to dip, is nature's call to the brown marmorated stink bug - pest extraordinaire - to leave its summer gorging grounds and seek refuge inside. What's happening now is a massive population shift from orchards, cornfields and gardens to suburban homes, office buildings and hotels - the urban U.S. equivalents of rocky outcroppings in the stink bug's native Asia.

Stink bugs are harmless to people and their possessions. They don't bite. They don't sting. They're not known to transmit disease. But their population has grown so tremendously that they are not only causing vexation to homeowners but also, for the first time, wreaking damage to peaches and apples, soybeans and corn, and even ornamental shrubs and trees.

There is no easy way to kill lots of the bugs at once. They have no natural predators in the United States. Pesticides don't work effectively. The insects travel easily - hitching rides on buses and construction material - and adapt to winter in homes. As a result, they have flourished, spreading to 29 states since they arrived in Allentown, Pa., in 2001, likely stowaways in a shipping container from Asia. They are native to Japan, Korea and China, where they are known as "stinky big sisters."

And now they are causing a stink in the mid-Atlantic region.

Experts say homeowners should prevent them from coming indoors by sealing cracks and openings around doors and windows. Once the bugs are inside, residents can vacuum them up, remove the bag and put it in the garbage outside. (Beware: The smell may linger in the vacuum cleaner.) Experts warn against using outdoor pesticides.

It's true: 'They smell'

"I'm looking out my window here, and I bet I have 30 of them on the screen," said longtime Middleburg resident Margo Tate. "My husband smushes them and throws them in the trash. They're a mess. They smell when you squish them."

Lori Rice, 48, runs an organic farm in Middleton, in Frederick County. She finds them indoors and outside. Indoor bugs she traps in "death jars" - pint jars containing soapy water. The soap, she said, dissolves the exoskeleton. Twice a day, she flushes the bugs down the toilet.

On Rice's farm, Asian pears, raspberries and tomatoes have all suffered.

"If all our vegetables hadn't already [been] withered by the heat and drought this year, the bugs would likely have broken our hearts there as well," she wrote in an e-mail.

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