Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stink bugs taking area homes by swarm

A researcher says there are more of the pests this year than last year.

Diane DiNardo, with Perdue Exterminators, sprays the frame of a sliding door to fend off stink bugs.


Diane DiNardo, with Perdue Exterminators, sprays the frame of a sliding door to fend off stink bugs.

Joyce Burdette uses a feather duster Tuesday to clear stink bugs from her house in Roanoke County. Stink bugs have swarmed her house in recent days, and she has removed hundreds of them with the feather duster and then flicked them into a 5-gallon bucket.

KYLE GREEN The Roanoke Times

Joyce Burdette uses a feather duster Tuesday to clear stink bugs from her house in Roanoke County. Stink bugs have swarmed her house in recent days, and she has removed hundreds of them with the feather duster and then flicked them into a 5-gallon bucket.

Homeowner Joyce Burdette recently reached her limit. Now, the Roanoke County resident is waging war.

At Burdette's house and the homes of many in the Roanoke Valley, brown marmorated stink bugs cling to window screens and walls, seeking entry and a cozy winter home. Those that make it inside buzz around rooms and lit lamps before tucking in somewhere for a visit of several months.

It's September. And the seasonal invasion of this deeply annoying, accidentally imported Asian species, is in full swing.

Make that fuller swing.

"They are worse this year than last year," said Tim McCoy, a research specialist for Virginia Tech's urban entomology lab. "There seems to have been a bumper crop."

Tech's urban entomology lab focuses on household pests such as termites, cockroaches and, "most recently, bed bugs," he said.

Which might offer this comfort to homeowners -- things could be a lot worse.

Meanwhile, perhaps another consolation could be: "They're not a structural pest," said Sheri Dorn, a Roanoke County-based agriculture and natural resources agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension.

"They're not damaging your house," she said. "They're just a pest."

Indeed they are. And not just for homeowners.


Crop damage

Brown marmorated stink bugs damaged many fruit crops this year, Dorn said, and also seemed to have favored nonfruit crops such as squash.

The insect's nymphal stage wreaks the most havoc and is also more vulnerable to spraying, she said. The bugs emerge from eggs in "incomplete metamorphosis," resembling adults but without wings.

With tiny, piercing mouth parts, the bugs puncture fruits -- apples, peaches, pears, tomatoes and more -- and suck out their juice. They leave behind a needle-point injection site and hard knots or soft rot.

Not a health risk

Burdette said a man with a federal agency told her that adult stink bugs are not a health hazard and thus not subject to government control.

"He told me they can't do that because stink bugs don't hurt you," she said. "He said, 'They don't bite. They don't sting. They are not a detriment to your health.' "

Burdette begs to differ.

"I told him those stink bugs sure are a detriment to my health because they're giving me very high blood pressure," she said.

Figuratively speaking, Burdette is not alone. As a topic of regional conversation and frustration, stink bugs rule the moment.

And, of course, they stink. When threatened, the insects emit a pungent odor from glands in the thorax. The stink seems to discourage potential predators, such as birds. Some experts believe the smell warns other stinkers that trouble's brewing.

The big guns

Doris Higginbotham and her husband, Jerry, live in a brick home in an open setting in the Bent Mountain area.

On Tuesday, as the afternoon sun warmed the house, the insects ranged everywhere. A few fortunate ones were inside looking out. The rest tiptoed around, hunting for a way in.

Some were already cozying up around the patio -- "aggregating" in little brown bunches inside the folds of cinched patio umbrellas or clustered beneath the cushions of wicker furniture.

Diane DiNardo, an exterminator for Perdue Exterminators, arrived in a small pickup at 3:15 p.m.

"Stink bugs are 90 percent of our calls right now," she said. "I had a customer the other day tell me she was spraying them with oven cleaner. People are desperate."

Certain insecticides kill brown marmorated stink bugs. But insecticide safety experts strongly advise homeowners against venturing into territory professionals know best.

"Stink bugs don't bite. They don't carry disease," said Pat Hipkins, a pesticides safety expert at Virginia Tech. "Yes, they're an annoyance, but I would not get the big guns out against them."

On Tuesday, both DiNardo and Higginbotham knew spraying could never eliminate every bug creeping about. DiNardo focused on the home's eaves, doors and windows.

"We tell everybody, 'We can't guarantee [getting rid of] stink bugs,' " she said.

And Doris Higginbotham realized DiNardo might need to visit again before the worst was over.

Jerry Higginbotham said the couple paid less than $225 for Perdue's services. DiNardo sprayed both inside and out of the comparatively large home.

Hipkins said even useful insecticides sprayed on the exterior of homes do not remain effective for long, perhaps lasting "only a couple of days in hot, sunny weather."

She added, "And you can't keep spraying the outside of your house. It's not cost effective."

Back to Burdette

The brown marmorated stink bug, first collected in this country in Pennsylvania in 1998 and spreading since, has no natural enemies in the United States.

But Burdette is a formidable human foe.

She's attacked the bugs with many strategies and tactics, including whacking them with a long-handled duster into a 5-gallon bucket half-filled with water. Stink bugs don't swim.

She tried wasp and hornet spray but said that didn't work even after she'd buried the bugs in foam. She employed a "home defense" insecticide to no avail.

Finally, her daughter found online what seemed to be a promising insecticide and arranged for its quick shipment to her mother. Burdette said she carefully followed application instructions. She sprayed her house Monday and Tuesday.

On Wednesday afternoon, she reported back.

"Today, when I went out, I saw probably 50 dead ones laying around," Burdette said. "I've got quite a few swarms around again and some of them are getting in. I may have to spray every three or four days."

Hipkins reiterated concerns about homeowners spraying insecticides intended for professional use. And rookies can invite real trouble if they spray insecticide inside the house, she said.

But Burdette, who sprayed only her home's exterior, said she had been about one stink bug shy of unconditional surrender early this week and had to try something else.

"My house looked like it had the measles. I told my daughter, 'If I could pick up and leave this house today, I would just open the windows and doors and let those bugs take it."

What is the brown marmorated stink bug?

The Asian species, accidentally imported, was “first collected in September 1998 in Allentown, Pa., but probably arrived several years earlier,” according to Penn State’s department of entomology. The insect’s spread reached Southwest Virginia a few years ago. The bugs’ numbers seem especially high this year.

Exterminators and extension agents have been inundated this month with calls from homeowners desperate for methods to kill or control stink bugs — even though entomologists emphasize the bugs do not damage structures or pose health threats as they seek warm places to stay until spring.

What to do when the stink bugs are outside the home

-- Pat Hipkins is a pesticide safety expert at Virginia Tech. She said some insecticides can be effective when sprayed on home exteriors but emphasized that most should be applied by professionals, are not long-lasting and are especially troublesome if sprayed inside homes by nonprofessionals.  (For one thing, the dead insects’ carcasses can draw other bothersome bugs for feeding.)

-- A homeowner can knock the bugs into buckets of water with a broom, she said.

How about inside?

-- Again, the bugs can be quickly flicked into a jar of water to drown without triggering their secreted stink.
-- They can be escorted outside, which might be a temporary fix.

-- But the safest bet might be a vacuum, with a few caveats. Hipkins, citing fact sheets from Virginia Tech and Penn State, said, “Once inside, vacuuming is the way to go. Yes, the vacuum might smell [afterward], but a person can and should change the bag after each stink bug collection” and can “suck up some odor neutralizer” like those used for pet odors.  Hipkins and others say the best bet might be a cheap shop vac and not the Dyson.

What’s the best long-term strategy for home protection?

“The most effective control measures are caulking and sealing before they come in,” said Tim McCoy, a research specialist in the urban entomology lab at Virginia Tech. “And that window has closed for this year,” he said. So to speak.




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