Stink bugs swarm over and feed on a nectarine.(Photo: Ralph Scorza, U.S.D.A.)
Doyle Rice -- USA TODAY
The stink bugs are back with a vengeance, and the USA could be heading for the worst season for the pests on record, even surpassing the watershed year of 2010.
These smelly pests that first hitched a boat ride to the USA from Asia in the late 1990s have now been spotted in 40 states: "Their range has expanded dramatically recently, from coast to coast and from border to border," says University of Maryland entomologist Mike Raupp.
Though the bugs seemed to be everywhere in 2010, Raupp says this year will be "as bad or worse." Just two years ago, in 2011, they had only been seen in 33 states.
With the weather turning cooler, the bugs (officially known as the "brown marmorated stink bug") are looking for a warm place to stay for the winter, which is why homeowners are starting to see more of the odiferous insects inside.
"We're getting a significant increase in calls in the past week," says Kim Reynolds, an entomologist with HomeTeam Pest Defense in Raleigh, N.C.
In general, according to Reynolds, the bugs are mainly in the Mid-Atlantic states, since that's where they were first introduced from Asia - landing in Pennsylvania.
"Although they are a significant agricultural problem and concern for farmers," said Missy Henriksen, a spokeswoman with the National Pest Management Association, "they are also quite a nuisance to homeowners."
Stink bugs are named for the pungent smell they emit when frightened, disturbed or squashed - the fate many are certain to meet this fall.
The bugs are most harmful to fruit growers but are also a pest for crops like soybeans, corn and peppers, Raupp said. In 2010, fruit growers alone lost $37 million in crops because of stink bugs.
"You'll often find them near windows and buzzing about lights, TVs or computer monitors that throw off light and warmth," Henriksen said.
The best thing to do, she said, is to seal or caulk around windows and doors; keeping branches and shrubs trimmed; and keep firewood at least 20 feet away from the home.
Although they're not harmful in homes, Reynolds says it's a visual thing: "Homeowners don't care what type of bug it is - they don't like lots of bugs and don't want them in their houses."
If they're in your home, vacuuming works best, but empty the vacuum bag into plastic bag and dispose of it immediately so they don't escape.
Stink bugs do not have a natural predator here in the USA, but things are starting to change, Reynolds said. At first, birds wouldn't eat them, but they are starting to now. Lizards, too, have been seen munching on them, Henriksen reported.
As for what type of weather will lead to an unusually active season, "That's the million-dollar question," Raupp said, adding that there's not enough data yet to know if the stink bugs prefer a hot or cool, or wet or dry, summer, to spur breeding.
And wouldn't you know it: The stink bugs are one of the rare constituencies directly benefiting from the federal government shutdown: Research into finding a pest - namely a tiny parasitic wasp from Asia that mainly eats stink bug eggs - has been put on hold while the government is closed.
The "Great Stink Bug Count," a project of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is on hold, too. The project asks homeowners to count the number of stink bugs in their homes. However, the USDA website to submit the data remains down.