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This Week’s Creature Feature: Stink Bugs

Leaving our homes, they're heading for our gardens

The much-discussed invasion of the stink bugs — known to entomologists as the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) — is expected to cause quite a stink in our gardens.
    With spring’s warmer weather, the heat-seeking insect is leaving its comfy winter lodgings — our homes and other heated structures — for the great outdoors. Gathering on sunny windows and doors, they’re begging, let me out.
    Once outside, the little stinkers find our freshly planted gardens to be the perfect buffet. The bugs are especially attracted to tomato and pepper plants. They also love apples, peaches, pears and raspberries.
    The leaves and stems are safe from harm. It’s the fruit the bugs seek. They feed on fluids, sucking out the juice through their proboscis, straw-like appendages attached to their ugly heads. When the proboscis punctures the fruit, it releases digestive enzymes that kill the surrounding area. These dead areas appear as dry brown spots on the fruit.
    What, if anything, can be done to save our gardens?
    “Last year we found that early ripening tomatoes had fewer problems with the bugs,” says Mike Raupp, entomologist at the University of Maryland. “As did cherry tomatoes. So we advise planting those varieties.”
    You might also try keeping the plants covered to keep the buggers at bay. “Use floating row covers and cover plants early,” Raupp advises. “But be sure to remove the covers when the plants blossom so they can be pollinated.”
    Once fruit forms, replace the cover.
    If the stink bugs manage to get in?
    “We have very little data on how to control them in a garden,” Raupp says.
    They don’t respond to organic pest control, and over-the-counter pesticides probably do more damage to the garden than the stinkbugs do. But if you insist on spraying, Raupp advises using a pesticide that specifically lists stinkbugs on the label.
    There’s always handpicking them off plants, as we do Japanese beetles. Then kill the bugs, which is about the best thing gardeners can do to control their population. As they bumble about, the stinkbugs leave their odor on everything they land and crawl on. The accumulation of this odor serves as a powerful chemical beacon, calling other stinkbugs to a great place to live. So it’s a good bet that they’ll be back.