Bugged out: Albemarle swarming with stink bugs
There's no electronic security system that can prevent this home invasion, and once they get inside, calling 911 won't get you anywhere. Fortunately, these invaders are non-violent, but that doesn't mean they're welcome guests.
Known as Halyomorpha halys– or more commonly, the brown marmorated stink bug– these recent entomological arrivals from Asia have likely already come knocking on your door, looking for a warm, dry home for winter, and keeping them out is easier said than done.
"It's horrible," says Maryann Altman, who lives off Route 20 South about two miles from downtown and who says this is the second year the brown bugs have swarmed her house. This year, however, seems decidedly worse, and Altman now uses a broom to sweep piles of them away from her door when she takes her three young children outside. While she's managed to keep the numbers down to a couple dozen inside, she says she can no longer even open screened windows to let in a breeze.
"There's probably 30 between each screen and window," she notes, and more are constantly trying to squeeze their way inside through a slim gap at the top of her front door.
Altman's not imagining things.
"The numbers are higher this year," agrees Peter Warren with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, explaining that the shield-shaped pests were first officially documented in the U.S. in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 2001–- having likely stowed away in shipping crates–- and have since spread up and down the East Coast, increasing in number each year since they have no native predators. He says the usual bug-eaters–- of the insect and animal variety–- aren't attracted to them.
"It's hard to know whether predators haven't discovered them yet or whether they're not very tasty," says Warren, noting the pungent odor the bugs emit when stressed (or squished) likely contributes to their undesirability as prey.
If stink bugs are a nuisance for homeowners, they can be even more detrimental to those in agribusiness, as they lay eggs on leaves and dine on fruit, leaving small bruises and puncture marks that one orchard owner likens to hail damage.
"Orchards have been a family business since 1912, and I've been doing it since 1954, and this is the worst thing I've seen," says Henry Chiles, owner of Crown Orchards, which operates half a dozen local orchards including Carter Mountain and Chiles Peach Orchard.
"Usually, when you find something, you got a solution," says Chiles. "Right now, we don't have any solutions for this problem."
Among the solutions being considered by insect experts is the importation of the stink bug's natural predator, the Asian parasitic wasp, which kills stink bugs by invading their eggs.
However, importing predators, says naturalist Marlene Condon, is "never, ever a good idea," as it can create other unforeseeable problems that then also must be dealt with.
One such situation occurred in the late 19th century when a Hawaiian plantation owner imported some Indian mongoose to control rats. More than 100 years later, the mongoose has proliferated and is still causing problems by decimating populations of Hawaii's other native animals, particularly birds–- but not rats.
In fact, Condon says, if we're patient, our own ecosystem will adapt to the insect-erlopers in just a few years.
"It takes a bit of time for natural things to get into place," says Condon, who says that both gypsy moths and ladybugs–- both problems in years past–- have been controlled thanks to native predators.
As for the orchards, Condon says managing stink bugs is no different from managing any other insect.
"The way to farm is the way they used to do it in the old days," she says, "where you had hedge rows, where animals could exist. You need to have things so that it's not one huge area of one crop, but several areas of different crops interspersed. That's how you have organisms that serve as natural control."
Condon, who has lived in a rural area of Albemarle County for 24 years, says she has never used pesticides. "I don't have problems," she says, noting that thanks to the way her yard is landscaped, she saw only six stink bugs this summer, and she welcomed them. "They're small, they don't eat much, they take a few fruits– it's not a big deal."
She wishes crop growers and consumers would stop using pesticides and focus more on the flavor and health of their fruits, accepting a few dings or other superficial damage as just part of nature.
"Everything's made to look beautiful at the expense of taste," she says, complaining, for instance, that many strawberries now are white inside. "It's a sin, a real shame," she says. "We've destroyed our quality of life."
Over at the organic Wayland Orchard in Crozet, owners David and Ginny Wayland are living by Condon's advice and not complaining about the stink bugs, which they say haven't caused more damage than many of the other insects that dine on apples.
"We tell our customers that our fruits won't look perfect, so they don't expect them to," says David Wayland, who says he has stink bugs all over his house but hasn't noticed them in the adjacent apple orchard. If there are stink bug puncture marks on the fruit, "It would look normal to me," he says. "I wouldn't even spot it."
This variety of stink bug, fortunately, does not bite people or animals, says Warren. "They're vegetarians and fruitarians," he says. "They don't have any interest in a blood meal at all, so they're not going to try that." But living amicably with stink bugs doesn't have to mean living amicably in a house filled with them.
Those looking for a way to say adieu to the bugs–- who are apt to fly suddenly into your hair, face, or food–- can employ a few techniques: sweeping them outside or vacuuming them up are popular methods of indoor control, although the vacuum treatment causes them to release the stink (and "it's cruel," cautions Condon.) There's also the pesticide approach, another method Condon condemns.
"You kill other kinds of insects that are innocently walking around that area," she says, adding that drought, nighttime lighting, bug zappers, and pesticides are leading to the loss of numerous insect species.
"Insects run the world because they perform so many vital services that make the environment habitable for us," says Condon. "People need to stop thinking of insects as pests. They are only pestiferous when people aren’t doing things in a nature-friendly manner."
All that is not to say Condon thinks you should simply accept stink bugs in your bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and clothes. And they may bring valuable information.
"The stink bugs are giving you the message," says Condon, "that you need to stop letting all of your air conditioned or heated air slip out the cracks, which causes you to use more energy which pollutes our environment and wastes your money."
So instead of complaining about the new arrivals, perhaps we should try thanking them?
–Story updated 10:06am Monday, September 27. (Added Warren's quote on biting.)