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Dublin: 14 °C Monday 25 May, 2020
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US farmers fear plague of 'stink bugs'

The voracious insects have already decimated millions of dollars of crops in the States – and show no signs of stopping.

The brown marmorated stink bug
The brown marmorated stink bug
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke

FARMERS IN THE US are concerned that an insect with a voracious appetite, no domestic natural predators and a taste for everything from apples to lima beans, will decimate crops across the States.

The brown marmorated stink bug, a three-quarter-inch invader native to Asia, has already caused millions of dollars in crop damage and may just be getting started.

The insect is believed to have been brought first to the Allentown, Pennsylvania area in 1998. The bug began appearing in mid-Atlantic orchards in 2003-04 and exploded in number last year.

This spring, stink bugs have been seen in 33 states, including every one east of the Mississippi River and as far west as California, Oregon and Washington.

“All that we do know for certain is that a tremendously large population went into overwintering in fall 2010. So, if they survived, there could be a very large population emerging in the spring,” said Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist at the US Agriculture Department’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, West Virginia.

Growers in the mid-Atlantic region have reported the worst problems, and the apple industry appears hit hardest, with $37 million in damage to growers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the US Apple Association. That’s about 18 per cent of the Mid-Atlantic crop.

Mark Seetin, the association’s director of regulatory and industry affairs, called it the worst threat to farmers he’s see in his 40 years in agriculture.

The bug, named for the foul smell it gives off when crushed, will feed on nearly anything, including cherries, tomatoes, grapes, lima beans, soybeans, green peppers, apples and peaches. It uses a needle-like mouth to pierce the skin of its host fruit or vegetable, leaving behind a spot that is disfigured and discoloured.

US Representative Roscoe Bartlett began demanding federal action last year after hearing from orchard growers in his western Maryland district. He said:

If I was a mad scientist doing gene splicing and putting together a bug that would really be nasty and I was turning it loose on my enemy, I probably couldn’t do a better job. One might define this thing as the bug from hell.

Researchers are considering long-term solutions, such as finding chemicals that can attract stink bugs to traps before they can feed on fruit — a strategy that has worked in controlling Japanese beetles. Some also are researching the importation of the stink bug’s main Asian predator, the parasitic wasp, though that work could take years to ensure the wasps wouldn’t cause their own set of problems.

For growers seeking immediate help, the best hope is an insecticide called dinotefuran, the active ingredient in the commercial products Venom and Scorpion. The chemical compound is labeled by the Environmental Protection Agency for use on vegetables, grapes and cotton, but not in orchards, as it is in Japan and other Asian countries.

The EPA said manufacturer Mitsui Chemicals Inc. didn’t seek to have dinotefuran licensed for tree fruit applications when the agency approved the insecticide in 2004. Now the EPA is reviewing an emergency-exemption petition from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services that could allow the compound’s use in orchards in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia starting in mid-July.

- AP

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