Stink Bugs 2013: Mid-Atlantic Hit Worst As Cool Weather Drives Insect Invasion Into Homes

By Josh Lieberman on October 4, 2013 10:27 AM EDT

stink bug
Stink bugs are swarming Mid-Atlantic states in one of the worst invasions in recent years. (Photo: zimpow.deviantart.com)

Stink bugs have invaded the United States, flooding into homes and destroying crops in 40 states, with heavy concentrations in the Mid-Atlantic. With cooler weather bringing stink bugs indoors, this season is expected to one of the among the worst ever. And once stink bugs get into homes, getting rid of them can be not only a full time job, but a thankless one too: when threatened, stink bugs let off a foul, cilantro-like odor that can last for days.    

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"This is like being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie, only it's stink bugs instead of birds," described one frustrated Pennsylvania resident. "When you step outside they jump on you. This is like a plague or something!"

Officially called the brown marmorated stink bug, or Halyomorpha halys (if you want to get technical), the insect eats any fruit or vegetable in its path. In 2010, stink bugs rotted so many apples that the invasive insect accounted for a $37 million loss for Mid-Atlantic apple growers. 

The United States Department of Agriculture calls stink bugs the number one "invasive insect of interest." The USDA has asked people to report the number of stink bugs they've encountered as part of the Great Stink Bug Count. The USDA has created a map using that data, but as of this writing the Great Stink Bug Count site is unavailable due to the government shutdown.  

Stink bugs are believed to have come to the U.S. from a shipment of Asian goods in the 1990s, and as such the invasive species has no predators here, leading to an explosive growth of their population. The Environmental Protection Agency has approved two insecticides to deal with stink bugs, but no solutions for indoor use exist. Some have reported success using a spray bottle filled with hot water and Dawn dishwashing liquid, but the only surefire way to get rid of stink bugs is to keep them out in the first place by sealing every conceivable crack through which the bugs can get in, which can be a difficult task. 

One approach in dealing with stink bugs which the USDA Agricultural Research Service has considered is introducing one of the insect's natural predators to America: Asian trissolcus wasps. The non-stinging wasps eat nothing but stink bug eggs. If they can't find any delicious stink bugs to dine on, they die. The wasps lay eggs inside stink bug egg clusters, with the wasp larvae consuming stink bugs from within their own eggs.

"By the time the young wasp is mature and ready to come out, it's eaten everything inside the brown marmorated egg except for the shell," USDA researcher Kim Hoelmer told PBS, comparing the wasp's method to the movie "Alien." "Then it chews a hole in the shell and pops out."

Another approach to dealing with stink bugs is to eat them. The insects, which are rich in nutrients like protein and iron, are eaten in Asia, South America and Africa. The stink bugs' heads are first removed, which gets rid of their unpleasant odor, before being roasted or sun-dried. Yum.

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