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Scientists wage war on stink bugs

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By The Washington Post
Sunday, May 26, 2013, 7:54 p.m.
 

It was a false claim, but believable.

Early this year, a few news organizations reported that the brown marmorated stink bug was at the top of an Agriculture Department most unwanted list, the nation's No. 1 invasive species of interest, the most wanted fugitive among bugs.

As it turned out, the Agriculture Department had no such list. An apologetic spokesman said he misunderstood a scientist in the department and passed faulty information to reporters. But that doesn't mean the agency isn't out to kill this crop-munching pest from Asia that recently expanded to 40 states since it was first spotted in Pennsylvania 15 years ago.

To the contrary, entomologists are zeroing in on stink bugs, unlocking the mysteries of their behaviors, DNA and even scent, and are preparing for an all-out war.

“The expectation is high infestation this year,” said Ames Herbert, an extension entomologist at Virginia Tech.

How do researchers know?

“What we can use as a rough guide is the size of the population from year to year that overwintered,” said Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist for the Agriculture Department. “In 2012, the population was 60 percent higher than 2011. If they survived the winter, we will have many bugs starting in 2013.”

Last year, USDA scientists and researchers pinpointed a pheromone that male brown marmorated stink bugs emit while feeding; it attracts other males, females and even babies called nymphs to the meal.

They re-created the scent in a laboratory, built a trap, and tested it along tree lines, on the edge of farms and in the middle of crop fields. Sure enough, the bugs crept to it and were exterminated.

The triangle-shaped device is a temple of doom, luring the creatures into grooves leading to the synthetic smell that calls them to dinner. Instead of food there is a pest strip, and a pesticide vapor puts them to sleep for good, said Christopher Bergh, a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.

The traps are not killing enough stink bugs to make a sizable dent in the population, Bergh said, but they do give researchers and farmers an indication of how many are lurking and whether they should initiate search-and-destroy missions.

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