MS. REBECCA SHEIR
For this next story in our Feeling the Heat show, we'll head from the heart of D.C. to a rural corner of southern Virginia, not too far from the North Carolina border. You'll find a bunch of soybean farmers out there. And as temperatures rise, the farmers are entering the most important part of their growing season. But this summer, there's an eensie-weensie little problem, an invasive species commonly known as the Asian kudzu bug. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson talked with a man who may be watching this bug more closely than anyone else in the Commonwealth.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
Virginia Tech entomologist Ames Herbert is leading me into a soybean field outside the small town of Emporia. He reaches down to examine the stems of the 2-foot-tall plants, looking for clusters of the Asian kudzu bug. But at the moment, it's another insect that has him regretting his decision to wear shorts.
MR. AMES HERBERT
I'll tell you what, you've got some healthy mosquitoes out here.
We get about 20 rows into the field and spot the kudzu bugs, about 10 or 15 huddled about halfway up each plant. Each one is only about half the size of a pencil eraser, shiny, and the color of coffee or caramel. Herbert says the Asian kudzu bug eats like the smaller sap-sucking insects known as aphids, a type of bug gardeners know all too well. Both aphids and kudzu bugs latch onto plants and slowly drain them of moisture. The kudzu bug looks like a cross between a beetle and a stinkbug, but comes from the plataspid family of insects. Herbert says it's something local soybean farmers have never encountered.
It's the first pest that we've seen in the U.S. in this group. It's not a stinkbug. It's a completely new insect.
Researchers don't know exactly how it got into the States, but the kudzu bug was first spotted in Georgia four years ago. It quickly spread, proving that it would eat much more than its namesake weed, and had a taste for soybeans, reducing crop yields in some places by more than 20 percent. The past few years have seen the bug move into South Carolina and North Carolina as well, but this summer marks the first time the invasive species has been spotted in Virginia soybean fields.
It is changing the economics of soybean production, which is a big crop in Virginia. We have almost 600,000 acres of soybeans in Virginia. It's spreading very rapidly, both north and west, from the original introduction site in Georgia.
Herbert says luckily, researchers in other states have established a bit of a track record in dealing with the kudzu bugs, so growers in Virginia can learn from past mistakes. One risk is over-using pesticides, killing the insects that might have eaten Asian kudzu bugs and creating a fertile atmosphere for more pests to move in.
Those natural enemies can go a long way towards holding pest populations down. They're predators. So you take those out of the system and you can sometimes have blowback from that. You can have the pest populations explode when that natural enemy pressure is sort of released, if you will.
So Virginia soybean growers won't be the first to deal with the invasion of Asian kudzu bugs, but they may be the first in the nation to deal with the collision of two different invasive insects. Another unintended import from Asia, the brown marmorated stinkbug, landed in Allentown, Pa. in 1998, and has been wreaking havoc on fruit and vegetable crops for the past decade. It also, unfortunately, has a taste for soybeans, and that, Herbert says, puts Virginia in a unique position.
This will likely be the first state in the U.S. where we may be dealing with both kudzu bug invasive from the south and brown marmorated stink bug invasive from the north in the same fields. Nobody's dealt with that before.
For now, coping with the kudzu bugs mainly involves surveillance. Herbert says the Virginia Tech extension office has agricultural agents across the state who'll be monitoring soybean fields and communicating with farmers through the state pest advisory, published by Virginia Tech each week.
We can't tell them it's necessarily in their field or not, but what we can do is say it's in their county. And this is the stage of the beans that they're in. If you're in that county and have beans in that particular growth stage, you better get out and look.
Luckily for growers, even though the bugs reach is spreading rapidly, the damage it does to soybean plants occurs fairly slowly. Herbert says that means farmers often have a few weeks to save their crops, even after the bugs are discovered in their fields. That said, Herbert isn't optimistic about reversing the northern march of the Asian kudzu bug anytime soon.
We're not going to stop this. This may not be our worst year. Let's hope it doesn't go as far as it has in the epicenter states, but right now there's no reason to think it's not going to continue to go that direction.
Maryland and Delaware also have thriving soybean crops. Herbert says he expects growers to spot the bugs in those states by the end of the summer. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
To see pictures of the Asian kudzu bug and the brown marmorated stink bug, visit our website, metroconnection.org. And if you're a farmer or a gardener dealing with invasive pests, we want to know, how are they affecting your garden. Send a note to email@example.com or send us a tweet. Our handle is @wamumetro.
Time for a break now, but when we get back, why Virginia officials are feeling a lot of heat over plans for a new road.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1
Someone is smoking the wacky weed. Time's come to fess up.
Plus, honoring the memory of a woman who started a special summer camp to lift up young girls.
MR. JOHN MURRAY
You hear people talking about "Lean In" now and sort of if women can have it all. And I believe Kelly, you know, had it all.
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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