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Nearly 400 jam into auditorium to learn more about stink bugs

USDA entomologist says, 'They're a threat to the environment and the economy'

February 09, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Jefferson County vegetable grower Bill Grantham wanted to learn how to stop the stink bug devastation that's ruining his crops and his livelihood.

"My field corn was destroyed. My green and lima beans were wiped out. Wiped out. Zero. So I came here tonight to learn what I can do," said Grantham, owner of Tudor Hall Farm.

Grantham and nearly 400 other homeowners, gardeners, commercial fruit and vegetable growers and orchardists from the Tri-State Area jammed the Byrd Auditorium at the National Conservation Training Center Wednesday night.

They came to hear Tracy Leskey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist, talk about the threat to the region's agriculture by the voracious and ubiquitous brown marmorated stink bug, or BMSB.

"They could put the growers out of business," warned Leskey, whose research in the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va., is leading the effort to eradicate or control the insect that did enough damage last year to wipe out a quarter of the area's crops.

Home gardeners also felt the devastation.

Among the more than 300 species that stink bugs feed on are corn, soy beans, tomatoes, peppers, apples, peaches, berries and grapes. They also attack grown trees and ornamentals.

The bugs are so prolific that they hatch two generations in a single season. Their gestation period from egg to adult is 50 days.

"They even reproduce in orchards," Leskey said.

Stink bugs bore into crops with a proboscis, much like a mosquito bores into flesh, and suck out the juice, damaging the cops they feed on.

Apple crops are damaged to the point where they can't be sold on the retail market, only to juice and sauce processors, and sometimes not even there, Leskey said.

She spoke of one peach grower whose early crop was so damaged by the bugs that he simply stripped them from the trees and let them rot on the ground.

"They're a threat to the environment and the economy," she said.

Rusty Morgan, a Jefferson County crop and beef farmer, has his own stink bug horror tales.

"They're incredible, insidious. There were swarms in August. They get into machinery, computers, power tools, air conditioning and filters on the tractors."

Morgan said — and Leskey reiterated — that stink bugs ruin soy beans from the outside in, usually between 50 feet and 60 feet in from the edge of the crop line.

"There were thousands around my house," master gardener Lillian Potter-Saum of Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., said before Leskey spoke. "People are getting angry. Every time I turn around somebody is asking me about stink bugs. I'm here tonight to get answers for when people ask me about them. I really get angry when I hear people say they don't want to kill them."

"They climb up my walls like cockroaches," said Emma Fleming of Mount Pleasant in Frederick County, Md. "I can't eradicate them, and my chickens won't eat them."

Brown marmorated stink bugs were officially confirmed in the mid-Atlantic Area in Allentown, Pa., in 2001. The next year they officially showed up in New Jersey.

Leskey takes credit for making the first official sighting of one sitting on a Shell gasoline pump south of Hagerstown in 2003.

They were confirmed in Falling Waters, W.Va., in 2004, she said.

Their populations began to accelerate between 2007 and 2009. We began to see problems in the late season (fruit) harvest in 2008," she said.

One theory is that the heavy snow in 2010 served as an insulator for the overwintering bugs, Leskey said. That began the impact on the 2010 growing season, which started an early season feeding frenzy by nymph and adult stink bugs, she said.

"There were incredible numbers in the commercial orchards by late July," she said.

In early August they hit the field corn. The numbers were so heavy in places that farmers had to turn on the windshield wipers on their tractors, she said.

The BMSB is native to China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan, countries where natural enemies control their populations.

Scientists like Leskey are studying ways to develop biological controls like indigenous parasites, predators and pathogens.

 "We have formed a nationwide team of over 50 research and extension professionals representing 14 institutions in 10 states," Leskey said.

Earlier this week she said the bugs have been confirmed in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Wednesday night she added a 30th state.

"They were found in Alabama yesterday," she said.

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