Stink bugs pose threat to Va. farms

PURCELLVILLE—Brown marmorated stink bugs are more than just smelly little insects.

The pests feed on fruits and vegetables, as well as corn, cotton and soybeans, damaging the crops and putting a dent in producers’ pockets.

"We’ve had native stink bugs, but this particular type is a lot more resistant to pest control methods that have been effective in controlling the native species," said Spencer Neale, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation senior assistant director of commodity marketing. "This type is more aggressive and resistant than other stink bugs, and we have challenges controlling them because the EPA keeps limiting effective chemicals."

Agricultural crop damages in mid-Atlantic states were first observed in 2008, Neale said, and by 2010 the bugs had caused serious damage. As much as 40 percent of Virginia’s fruit, vegetable and row crops could be ruined by stink bugs this year, he said.

"These stink bugs are a real threat," said Cordell Watt, owner of Timber Ridge Fruit Farm in Frederick County. "Every year the damage has gotten worse, and it’s really escalated in the last two years."

When stink bugs suck the juice from fruit, vegetables and plants, the resulting brown spots and shriveled appearance leave them unsellable.

"In our society, everyone wants perfect apples and peaches," said Watt, who chairs the VFBF Apple Marketing Committee. "Every year these insects affect whole fruit more and more."

Brown marmorated stink bugs have no natural predators, and findings from a Georgia study credit them with a $27 million crop loss in a single year in that state.

Part of the reason the stink bugs are so hard to eradicate is that they winter over and don’t congregate solely on the fruit, vegetables or plants on which they feed, Neale said. So if a farmer sprays a field to control the bugs, others can show up from trees surrounding the field.

"We really need to find a natural predator to help control these things," Watt said. "If we don’t find a solution, we may not last another four years."

To help find solutions, informational meetings are being held in Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states. An upcoming meeting is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. on April 18 at Woodgrove High School in Purcelleville in Loudoun County. It is open to the public and is being sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th.

"Though some may think of the stink bug as only an annoying household nuisance, I am well aware of the devastating impact that this invasive species is having on all crops," Wolf said. "I encourage all local apple and grape growers, farmers and nursery owners to attend and participate in the discussion."

Speakers include Dr. Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Dr. Christopher Bergh, a Virginia Tech professor of entomology at the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester.

Contact Neale at 804-290-1153 or Watt at 540-858-3207.

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