Nationally recognized stink bug expert: They're on their way

Tracy Leskey is a research entomologist who works at the USDA's Appalachian Fruit Research Station

September 06, 2011|By RICHARD F. BELISLE |
  • Tracy Leskey is a research entomologist who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Appalachian Fruit Research Station on Wiltshire Road in Kearneysville, W.Va.
By Richard F. Belisle, Staff Writer

KEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. — It was Tracy Leskey's "bug zoo" when she was a kid that turned the nationally recognized expert on brown marmorated stink bugs to a lifelong study of insects.

Today, Leskey, 42, is a research entomologist who works at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Appalachian Fruit Research Station on Wiltshire Road.

Her interest in bugs piqued when she was 4 years old and collected fireflies in her bug zoo, a store-bought, clear plastic kid's toy that held her daily collections, Leskey said.

It wasn't until much later that she realized why there were often fewer fireflies in her zoo in the morning than there were the night before. Females in some firefly species lure males of other species so they can kill and eat them, she said.

She remembers while growing up in Somerset, Pa., that she was fascinated by caterpillars, butterflies and beetles.

Those early interests led to four years at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa., and a bachelor's degree in biology in 1990.

"I thought at first of medical school, but after I took a lot of (science and biology) courses I knew I wanted to come back to my childhood interests."

Her master's thesis at Penn State University was on pear thrips, a tiny boring insect attracted to emerging maple leaves in the spring. Her doctoral dissertation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was on the plum weevil, which lays its eggs under the skin of the fruit so its larvae can eat the pulp.

But it's the pesky, destructive brown marmorated stink bug taking up most of Leskey's time these days. She is credited for finding the first one in Hagerstown in 2003.

Since then, it has been causing major damage to fruit, vegetable and grain crops throughout the Tri-State region. It has also become near impossible to eradicate as homeowners will find out once again in a few weeks when the weather turns colder and hordes of stinkbugs come in to keep warm for the winter.

Leskey has;been discovered by the media to be an expert on stink bugs. She has been and continues to be interviewed by television, radio and print reporters. She has talked about stink bugs in the New York Times, Washington Post and other national publications. Fox News brought her to Washington, D.C., where she was featured on a network news story.

Leskey, who is bubbly with an infectious smile, has eased comfortably into her celebrity status. It's important to get the word out on the havoc the destructive insect is wreaking on the agricultural community, she said.

"It's good for the public to understand the problems of the grower community caused by stink bugs. It's also good for people to know the background of the stinkbug, and the progress being made against it."

Stink bugs, immigrants from the Far East, have been found in 33 states, with large populations already established in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia.

Crop devastation surprised many area growers in 2010, Leskey said. This year the damage was not as bad because growers were able to use insecticides against the bugs.

One problem is that "there is no specific stinkbug killer, and the controls are expensive," she said.

Residents are reported seeing few stink bugs in their homes so far this late in the summer season, but Leskey said they are on their way.

"There are plenty of bugs out there," she said. "We've learned from our own observations and monitoring that they're just now starting to move indoors. They're still gorging themselves in the fields and gardens, but come mid-September, they'll be heading for the house and a warm place to spend the winter."

Leskey's small crowded office at the end of a hall in the fruit station building looks like a scientist's haven. There are more books than a wall of bookcases can hold. Scientific papers and reports lie around within easy reach. It's a small space, but large windows let the outside in.

The only thing out of place — yet representative of Leskey's sense of whimsy — is her big office clock, a replica of a Swatch watch that hangs behind her desk chair.

Leskey has a collection of the plastic case watches with their colorful plastic bands and cutesy images.

"I've been collecting swatch watches since high school," she said.

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