Transcripts

Scientists, Farmers Continue Battle Against Stinkbugs

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next story is about the people who grow some of the nice, fresh produce that Alli Sosna likes to cook and the challenges those people face from a certain invasive critter, the stinkbug. These pesky, smelly intruders are notorious for turning up everywhere in your house, from the laundry hamper to the curtains. For years they've been the bane of many a local farmer's existence. Sabri Ben-Achour reported on the problem back in 2011 and brings us this update.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:31
A year and a half ago, Bob Black was not in a good place

MR. BOB BLACK

00:00:34
This thing is really going to put a big chapter in my book of life. I've never had anything affect me like this.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:00:41
Black runs Catoctin Mountain Orchards in Thurmont, Md., and like farmers across the region, he was being assaulted by Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs. They are invasive beetles from Asia, beetles that disfigure crops by piercing the flesh of fruits and vegetables with their long needle-like mouthpieces.

BLACK

00:00:57
One of my late varieties, Pink Lady, which a lot of people like, that's the latest apple, we had up to 50 percent damage on that. I can handle a few percent, but, you know, it gets up to 25 to 50 percent, that's pretty devastating for me.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:10
This year has been better, but…

BLACK

00:01:12
Yeah, unfortunately they're still around here. And we do have some damage again, but nothing like the 2010, which I never want to go through that again. But we had a big apple crop so we were able to, I guess you could say, that made up for a little bit of a loss we had.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:01:30
Black has found some pesticides that work, but they require regular spraying and constant vigilance. Stinkbug attacks are impossible to predict because the creatures can come out of nowhere, lying in wait in a neighbor's field or some woods up on the mountain side. Black says one time he was saved just by luck after his neighbor cleared a wheat field where swarms were hiding.

BLACK

00:01:49
When they combine the wheat, one of the field folks called me immediately and says, Bob, I'm not sure what happened here, but your count went up to 300. And it had been at 20. And. luckily, I happened to be spraying over that weekend.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:05
And that's really one of the big problems with these bugs. They can do massive damage. The population is enormous and they can come out of nowhere because they can survive everywhere. In 2010 growers lost $37 million to insect damage to apples alone. And while 2012 was horrible for a few farmers, overall it hasn't been so bad. But that's little comfort because nobody is entirely sure why. Chris Bergh is an entomologist at Virginia Tech.

MR. CHRIS BERGH

00:02:33
For some reason that we don't fully understand, there was high nympho-mortality in the fall of 2011. So that translated into fewer adult bugs in spring 2012.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:02:43
Basically, a bunch of bugs mysteriously died in 2011. But if that meant 2012 was an off year, 2013 looks like it'll be a big year one. Tracy Leskey is an entomologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service.

MS. TRACY LESKEY

00:02:56
Those populations have essentially recovered and we're seeing populations that are about six times larger than they were the previous year.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:04
One of the most anticipated lines of research has been going on in an agricultural research service lab in Newark, Del.

MR. KIM HOELMER

00:03:11
Use this special electronic key to go in.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:14
When we visited Kim Hoelmer's lab in the spring of 2011, he was trying to figure out if it was safe to introduce an Asian parasitoid wasp into the U.S. to attack Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs, basically to reunite the stinkbug with its ancient evolutionary nemesis.

HOELMER

00:03:29
These small wasps will deposit their eggs inside the stinkbug eggs. And then the parasite egg hatches and it's immature stage feeds on the inside of the stinkbug egg.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:41
The tiny, non-stinging Trissolcus wasps that evolved in Asia to like Brown Marmorated Stinkbug eggs and only Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs, in fact it had evolved to depend on them.

HOELMER

00:03:51
If they can't find stinkbug eggs to lay their own eggs in, they'll die. They can't survive on anything else.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:03:57
But Hoelmer needs to make sure of that because there are 300 species of native stinkbug eggs, some of which are good for us because they eat pests. So he basically locks the wasps in a container with native stinkbugs and watches to see does the wasp attack them.

HOELMER

00:04:12
We've been through about 20 species of non-target stinkbugs in North America, 30 actually, and about half are unambiguous, the Chinese Trissolcus that we've been testing will not attack the native stinkbugs in those cases. So we know there will be no impact against those. In the other ones we see some sign of attack. That doesn't mean that the level of attack is the same.

BEN-ACHOUR

00:04:36
So Hoelmer's doing more tests. He and his colleagues have 14 new species of Chinese wasps they're going to look at it in search of the ones that might be a perfect match for the invasive stinkbug. At the earliest, Hoelmer might get clearance to start releasing approved wasps next fall. Meanwhile, farmers across the mid-Atlantic are gearing up for a big year of war with airborne armies of stinkbugs in their fields. I’m Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

00:05:08
Up next, we'll kick back in Ward 8's living room, as part of our monthly series, D.C. Dives.

MR. NICK JOHNSON

00:05:14
Through all of those years of strife elsewhere, it has never lost the friendliness. It's never lost the appeal of being a friendly neighborhood bar.

SHEIR

00:05:25
It's coming your way on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5.
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