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Bugs threaten crops

October 24, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

A brown Asian stink bug that has been spotted in Washington County emits an unpleasant odor and can hurt crops, an entomologist said Thursday.

"This is not the end of life as we know it, but it is not just another bug on the wall. It is something in between," United States Department of Agriculture entomologist Gary Bernon said.

Like a mosquito sucking blood from humans, stink bugs drink the juices from plants, mostly those that bear fruit, Bernon said.

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"It has all the earmarking of an emerging pest, a new invasive species," Bernon said.

The species, which is being tracked by the USDA, can damage peaches, apples, raspberries and other fruits badly enough that they are not edible or marketable, he said.

Washington County has a large number of fruit crops.

When killed, even accidentally when people are vacuuming, the stink bug produces a nasty smell, Bernon said.

"They give off an odor that many people consider offensive and noxious," he said.

The brown Asian stink bug looks like a regular stink bug normally found around the Tri-State area, but it is distinguishable by a white segment on its antennae, Bernon said.

Bernon asked that anyone who spots the invasive species or any other brown stink bug call the Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County at 301-791-1604 weekdays to help officials track the bug's spread.

More than 50 people have called the agency's office this week, Extension Agency officials said.

The species became established in the Allentown, Pa., area over the past four years and some of the bugs have spread into parts of nearby New Jersey, Bernon said.

Allentown residents are well aware of the bug's smell, and Bernon said he suspects that residents of the Hagerstown area soon will be familiar with the odor.

The bugs normally live in trees but are making their way into houses to find a sheltered place to spend the winter, Eric LeMasters, horticulture consultant for Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County, said Thursday.

Nobody knows how the bugs got from Allentown to Hagerstown, LeMasters said.

The bugs normally are dormant during the winter, but in some cases, Allentown residents have disturbed them in attics, prompting them to become temporarily active, Bernon said.

While the bugs pose no harm to residents, they can damage local crops, he said.

The extent of the problem remains to be seen. Bernon is providing Washington County officials with information about the experiences of Allentown officials and what they've learned about the bug.

Eradication of the bug is not an option, Bernon said. Officials are trying to figure out how best to minimize the problems it can cause, he said.

The Asian stink bug normally is found in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. An investigation is under way to see how it wound up in Allentown and Hagerstown, he said.

Bernon suspects the bug got to Allentown and Hagerstown by "hitchhiking," living in an object shipped from Asia.

As trade between nations becomes more common, he said he expects the number of bugs from other nations that appear outside their normal areas to increase, regardless of how careful inspectors are.

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