They’re not dangerous to humans, though they are gross. And they stink when squished or threatened.
A recent issue of the New Yorker magazine has a grimly entertaining article on the brown marmorated stinkbug, an invasive pest that “has made a name for itself by simultaneously threatening millions of acres of American farmland and grossing out the occupants of millions of American homes.”
The story features a couple in South Carolina whose house was overwhelmed by "hundreds upon hundreds" of the smelly things, which had gotten in through open French doors. The residents got rid of most of them, but not all — and stinkbugs have infested their house ever since, showing up in the hood of a hoodie, in books, jewelry cases and kitchen cutting boards.
It seems that when the weather gets chilly, brown marmorated stinkbugs go looking for warm places. And they take along their friends: A wildlife biologist in Maryland found 26,205 stinkbugs in his house before he stopped counting; a shed in Virginia was overtaken by 30,000 of them; and employees of a West Virginia bank found an estimated million of the bugs climbing over an exterior wall.
But don’t dare squish them: There’s a reason they’re called stinkbugs.
Twenty years after showing up in Allentown, Penn., the brown marmorated stinkbug has spread to more than 40 states, including Florida. But luckily for Floridians, it doesn’t seem as if they're established here — yet.
That’s an unexpected relief to those who keep eyes out for pests such as these.
“We’re somewhat surprised that it hasn’t shown up more than it has,” said Eric Rohrig, of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who calls the brown marmorated stinkbug “a notorious hitchhiker” that can travel in cars, RVs, trucks and ships. “We were expecting years ago that it would be here.“
Rohrig said several have been caught in traps scattered around the central and northern part of the state. Once was even spotted at a medieval fair in Gainesville after it landed on someone’s shirt. Luckily a sharp-eyed entomologist was there to spot it and catch it.
In East Asia, their native home, stinkbugs have coexisted relatively peaceful with the rest of nature, humans included, just as Florida’s native stinkbugs have in their home state. But in a new setting, without natural predators, they can go wild.
For the past seven years, Amanda Hodges and her students at the University of Florida have studied the brown marmorated stink bug in a quarantined lab in Gainesville, trying to learn more about the potential invader. They’ve been trying to figure out what it likes to eat, how the state’s weather might affect it and what might kill it.
There’s some possible good news.
Hodges, an extension scientist at UF, says it looks as if this stinkbug might not react too well to the state’s crushing humidity. She thinks the state’s generally warm weather would mean far less of a chance of the bugs invading Floridians’ homes seeking a warm spot to ride out the winter.
The brown marmorated stinkbug is big, she said, as far as stinkbugs go, about an inch in length. You can spot one by its rounded shoulders, its antenna with white and brown bands, and its mottled — or marmorated — brown body.
They’re not dangerous to humans, though they are gross, especially when they arrive by the thousands. And they stink when squished or threatened.
“They smell, they have a very distinctive odor,” Hodges said. “I understand it can even cause problems when they’re vacuuming up the bugs.”
The main threat in Florida, as it has been elsewhere, is to crops.
Hodges said the brown marmorated stinkbug likes legumes and a couple of emerging crops in North Florida, peaches and satsuma oranges. They’ve already done damage to Georgia’s peach crop with what Hodges calls their “piercing sucking mouth part,” which can easily ruin the fruit as it dives in for a taste.
The state is warily eyeing the stinkbug — and staying ready just in case, said Rohrig, who is chief of a state agriculture department bureau in Gainesville that works on invasive pests.
“It’s a big one. We’re keeping an eye out, but the fact that it hasn’t established yet is interesting,” he said. “We’re not letting our guard down on it — it’s still a serious threat, but it’s one of many. Not to be a downer, but it’s a matter of time."
Matt Soergel writes for the Florida Times-Union.