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Allentown neighborhoods facing infestation of Asian stink bugs

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Dan Lewerenz, The Associated Press

An insect pest identified in Allentown, Lehigh County, smells like trouble for area farmers -- literally.

A scientist from Cornell University has identified the first infestation in the United States of an Asian stink bug in residential neighborhoods on the city's West End.

"I was shocked to see so many of these stink bugs in and around the houses, on the siding, on the screens, on the door frames, inside windows in the garage -- they were all over the place," said Richard Hoebeke, assistant curator of Cornell University Insect Collection, who helped identify the bugs last week.

"In fact, they were so numerous in one area we went that I had to brush them off my vehicle before I went back to New York state," Hoebeke said.

What Hoebeke found was the brown marmorated stink bug, named for its marbled shell (marmorated means marbled).

The insect is native to China, Japan and South Korea.

Researchers still don't know how the bug might have gotten to the Lehigh Valley, but Hoebeke said they might have been accidentally packed into shipping containers.

Like other stink bugs -- a generic name that includes several species native to North America -- the brown marmorated stink bug has glands on its abdomen and under its wings that secrete a smelly substance when the insect is disturbed.

Karen Bernhard, a horticulture and entomology specialist with the county extension service, said the smell was "very difficult to describe -- we were describing it as kind of sweet. I find it unpleasant, but many people calling say they never notice it. It's something like you've never smelled before, except that most stink bugs do smell similar."

In the summer, the bugs disperse and often aren't noticed.

But as temperatures drop in the fall, the insects congregate where it's warm, often creeping into homes.

Like other insects that tend to cluster around homes in the fall, such as the box elder bug and the western conifer seed bug, the brown marmorated stink bug is little more than a nuisance in the home.

They won't eat food in the pantry or damage houseplants. They aren't poisonous if the dog should decide to eat one. And they don't breed until spring, after they've already left the house.

But they can be hard to kill.

Pesticides lose their effectiveness in the winter, when the insect's metabolism slows. And while stepping on them might be the obvious choice for many, "There is the smush factor," Bernhard said, adding that the stink bug's shell is harder than that of a cockroach, but not as tough as a tick's.

That's why Bernhard recommends homeowners just vacuum up the invaders.

"Except I caution people about picking up big bunches of something squishy with their regular vacuum cleaner.

"I think perhaps a Shop-Vac might be a little bit more like it," Bernhard said, "but you have to make sure that they're not alive in that Shop-Vac and come crawling out while you've got it sitting upstairs."

The stink bugs pose more of a danger to farmers.

In Asia, the species is known as a crop pest, feeding on tree fruits -- with a particular affinity for Fuji apples -- and some vegetables.

"At times, they have been serious pests in various kinds of fruits and in vegetables, in soybeans in particular," Hoebeke said. "But that's not to say they're going to be here. The working adjective here is 'potential' -- they have the potential to do the same sorts of damage here in the United States."

Bernhard said most of the reports have come from Allentown, but that people in nearby Emmaus and Bethlehem have called to report the bugs.

"I'm trying, especially from the farther reaches, to ask people to send in a specimen, because we don't know exactly what they've got right now."

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