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Stink bug invasion puts entomologist in demand

The winged invaders from Asia are at their peskiest in the mid-Atlantic region, where they infiltrate homes and damage crops. It's a good time to be a bug behavior specialist.

August 01, 2011|By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times
  • The brown marmorated stink bug has been found in 33 states, but is peskiest in the mid-Atlantic. It has been seen in California but is not believed to pose an immediate threat to the state's crops.
The brown marmorated stink bug has been found in 33 states, but is peskiest… (Matt Rourke, Associated…)

Reporting from Kearneysville, W.Va. — Tracy Leskey's job stinks.

Whether working at her Department of Agriculture lab, in orchards or at home, she's a leader of a kind of federal SWAT team fighting what a rural Maryland congressman calls the "bug from hell," the brown marmorated stink bug that is all the buzz in the mid-Atlantic region.

Thousands of the winged, six-legged invaders from Asia inhabit Leskey's West Virginia lab, as specimens trapped in a jar and as pests flying and crawling around. The insect is aptly named for its self-defense mechanism — a pungent odor that some liken, perhaps too kindly, to cilantro.

"I don't think it's quite that pleasant," said Leskey, a specialist in bug behavior.

With her traveling slide show — call it Stink Bug 101 — she has drawn crowds at community meetings.

"Typically, people don't really care about what we do," the career entomologist told a packed auditorium in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "You know it's a big deal if you're competing with bed bugs for press."

Among the questions she was asked: Squash or don't squash?

Answer: Don't! Unless you want to find out why they're called stink bugs.

"I've had 26,205 in my home since the first of the year," said Doug Inkley, who admitted to counting carcasses. A scientist who lives near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., Inkley said he keeps a "dedicated stink bug vacuum cleaner" to gather the pests. "As they go in the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner, it makes a little thump. It's a very satisfying sound."

Leskey says the shield-shaped insect is the most serious pest she's encountered, feeding on more than 300 plants. It has no natural enemy in the U.S. that can keep its population in check, and pesticides have limited effect.

The bug has been found in 33 states. But its maddening infestation is worst in the mid-Atlantic, where thousands of bugs invade homes, buzz around reading lamps at night, stroll across TV screens, land on dinner tables and become lodged by the hundreds in window sills.

The infestation is so widely discussed in the mid-Atlantic region that it has become a conversational ice-breaker.

"Somebody told me that if you're having a dinner party and perhaps guests don't know each other very well, just bring up stink bugs," Leskey said.

The Swedenburg Estate Vineyard in Middleburg, Va., has scrambled to keep the pests from stinking up the wine-tasting room. "When you have a tasting, you shouldn't even be wearing perfume or aftershave because it impacts your senses," Marc Swedenburg said. "Well, you can imagine what a stink bug does to your tasting experience."

So pervasive is the problem that a West Virginia hotel placed a notice in rooms: "Please excuse our uninvited guests…. They are harmless, but an extreme nuisance." The hosts of a Pittsburgh radio show wrote a rap song with the line, "Stink bugs run this town."

A West Virginia school cut recess short because a cloud of stink bugs was swarming students. It's not unusual for Leskey to talk to homeowners who report sweeping up what amounts to a coffee can a day full of stink bugs.

"We've had [harvesters] who had to turn on the windshield wipers because there were so many bugs within the crop," Leskey said.

Though annoying to homeowners, the bugs pose a serious problem to agriculture, piercing fruits and vegetables and sucking out the juices, scarring the fruit skin and leaving corky, brown areas beneath. The bug caused $37 million in losses to mid-Atlantic apple growers alone last year.

Although the insect — first identified in the United States in Allentown, Pa., a decade ago — has been found in the Pasadena area, it doesn't yet pose an immediate threat to California's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry. It is believed to have entered the country through a cargo shipment from Asia.

In the quest to eradicate the infestation, an entomologist in the Department of Agriculture's Beneficial Insect Introduction Research Unit in Delaware is trying to determine whether a tiny wasp from Asia — one of the stink bugs' natural enemies — could be released against the pest.

The wasp lays eggs inside stink bug eggs and the wasp larvae devour them. It's like the creature in the movie "Alien" that "feeds on the inside of its host, killing it in the process, and then bursting out to search for more prey," said Kim Hoelmer, one of Leskey's colleagues.

The 43-year-old Leskey, who launched her career in kindergarten with a show-and-tell of pupating monarch butterfly caterpillars, now has far more dramatic presentations at her disposal.

On a recent day at her lab in West Virginia's eastern panhandle, she displayed a photo of about 1 million stink bugs that had inexplicably congregated on the wall outside a bank. If researchers can figure out a way to attract similar numbers, it could help efforts to combat the pest.

Leskey and her staff are frequently called in like bug 911 responders to examine extreme infestations, like a sawmill site where they found millions of stink bugs "between every layer of stacked boards."

Between research and community meetings Leskey often takes to the airwaves. Asked during an appearance on NPR which she prefers, bed bugs or stink bugs, she doesn't hesitate:

"Oh, I'll take the stink bugs…. They're not going to suck my blood."

richard.simon@latimes.com

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