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Virginia Farmers Worry Over New Invasive Insect

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An invasive species is spreading into Virginia. It's a relative of the stinkbug, but is commonly known as the Asian kudzu bug, because of its predilection for kudzu.
Jonathan Wilson
An invasive species is spreading into Virginia. It's a relative of the stinkbug, but is commonly known as the Asian kudzu bug, because of its predilection for kudzu.

Virginia Tech entomologist Ames Herbert is leading me into a soybean field outside the tiny 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.

"I tell you what, you got some healthy mosquitoes out here," he says.

We get about 20 rows in 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 caramel.

Herbert says the Asian kudzu bug feeds 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. He says it's something local soybean farmers have never encountered.

"It's the first pest we've seen in the U.S. that's in this group," he says. "It's not a stinkbug. It's a completely new insect."

Researchers don't know exactly how it got into the U.S., 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.

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.

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 the kudzu bug invasive from the south, and brown marmorated stink bug from the north," he says. "Nobody's dealt with that before."


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Photos: Asian Kudzu Bugs

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