Stink bugged These exotics threaten some crops, but just smelly to us

Contributed photo

The exotic brown marmorated stink bug seemingly is showing up around area residences in higher numbers than native stink bugs ever have.

With seeming suddenness, we're up to our eyeballs in stink bugs.

We've always had stink bugs about, of course. There are two or three species that have been common and have communed with us forever. We've never seemed to give them much thought because they've never been especially prominent nor numerous.

Now, however, lots of people are experiencing stink bugs in substantial numbers. Consequently, they've got stink bugs on their mind, which probably ought to be a song title.

So, what's different presently? Well, these aren't the same old stink bugs. There's a new stink bug in town, which should be a line out of an entomologist's movie.

We are seeing the results of another exotic species' influx. Most the insects being noted in this case are non-native -- brown marmorated stink bugs, Halyomorpha halys, which hail from China. These are practically the same size (about one-half-inch long) and very similar to insects that are standard equipment here, namely the brown stink bug and the dusky stink bug.

The Chinese invader, the brown marmorated stink bug, might fly under the radar because of these similarities except that the exotics are appearing in much greater numbers than that to which people are accustomed. Hence, a minor alarm of sorts is rising, and greater scrutiny is going to these insects.

But, hey, don't make me type brown marmorated stink bug every time. Let's call the invasive bug the BMSB.

The Chinese interloper apparently made its move into North America by accidental transport of eggs or adult insects in the late 1990s. It's taken about two decades for the bugs to become established and flourish in large numbers over a wide area.

The BMSB has now been documented in 44 states, including Kentucky, and four Canadian provinces.

In appearance, the BMSB has got that standard shield-like stink bug body shape and is colored with multiple shades of brown in a mottled pattern. It is a six-legged flying bug, but at rest or as a pedestrian its folded wings are hidden.

Keys to identification of the BMSB take a close look: This Chinese bug has rounded "shoulders" on its abdomen (not pointy, like some natives) and its legs and antennae have white bands on them.

Stink bugs, including the BMSB, cannot bite or sting. What they might do to defend themselves, however, is what gives them their name. When stressed, a stink bug can excrete a fluid from thorax glands between its first and second pairs of legs. The fluid doesn't seem to be toxic to humans, but it is smelly.

The BMSB is noted for exuding a scent harkening dirty socks and stinky feet. It's not exactly skunk territory, but the bug perfume is regarded at least as unpleasant.

In fairness to the brown marmorateds, I caught a few by hand earlier this week to examine them closely and confirm that they were the exotic species. Indeed, they were the Chinese invasives. Yet, none of those that I grabbed cut loose with any sweaty sock aromas. Perhaps I was too gentle with them, but none of the captive stinkers actually stank.

There may be strength -- and strength of scent -- in numbers, however. And that may be the concern for the BMSB ranks presently. The reason that people have been noticing the insects lately is that they are concentrating around buildings, including homes, where they are naturally driven to seek hidey-holes in which to take shelter from the winter coming weeks from now.

Much like the exotic Asian lady beetles that show up around homes each fall, the Chinese stink bugs are gathering looking for crevices in which to escape cold temperatures and essentially hibernate for the winter. For whatever reason, the BMSB shows up at homes and other manmade structures in greater numbers than native stink bugs ever have.

Some of the BMSB inevitably will find their way into the living quarters with human residents. That doesn't endanger anybody, because the insects can't and won't sting, bite or otherwise injure the people therein. They can't even do any damage to the structure. It's strictly an aesthetic problem.

That is, people can be a little touchy about stink bugs rattling around in their abodes. But if several come indoors, the effort to get rid of them well could trigger some to exude their defensive fluid, rendering the whole indoors to smell a little like a huge unwashed sweat sock.

Where infestations have been heavy, it is advisable to acquire a small handheld vacuum specifically to capture stink bugs, then to put the filled vacuum bags in the garbage. Some say BMSBs imperiled in numbers smell bad enough as to ruin regular vacuums.

Our risks of the exotic stink bugs are minimal to non-existent. Yet, in the field of agriculture, the exotics are harder to endure.

Agriculture sources note that the BMSBs in high numbers can bring devastation to some crops, particularly fruits grown in orchards. They also can be highly damaging to vegetables like tomatoes, sweet corn and even monocrops like soybeans. Some farming operations in mid-Atlantic states have reported total crop losses where brown marmorateds are especially thick.

For most of us, brown marmorated stink bugs may be a growing annoyance, but nothing that is going to represent a significant threat. But most people don't want their parlor smelling like a pair of rotten sneakers, either.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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