Stink bugs ruining crops across state; community gardens in Silver Spring and Germantown hard hit
Asian invaders are a resilient foe
They're here, and they stink.
The brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive pest with no natural predators to keep its numbers in check, has begun to invade Maryland gardens after a summer of gorging through orchards and cornfields.
The shield-shaped bugs have taken up residence in many of Montgomery County's community gardens, said Ursula Sabia Sukinik, community garden program coordinator for the Department of Parks.
"In a couple of our gardens you can't put your hand on a plant without stink bugs," Sabia Sukinik said.
The Briggs Chaney Community Garden in Silver Spring and the South Germantown Recreational Park in Germantown have been hit the hardest by the stink bugs, she said. Because all the gardens are organic, the only thing she can tell gardeners to do to get rid of the bugs is squish them.
"It's tedious, time consuming and disgusting," Sabia Sukinik said. "So it's not a fun activity and when you have a couple hundred of them in your plot."
Chris Giannascoli had to throw away most of her tomato crop at South Germantown community garden because of damage from the bugs.
"It's discouraging when you work so hard and you watch something grow for 60 or 80 days, and you're waiting to harvest it and these bugs come around and there is no way to control it," said Giannascoli, 45, of Germantown.
She battles the bugs using organic methods such as draping cheese cloth over plants or using diatomaceous earth, a fine powder made from rock that feels sharp to bugs.
"It seems like even inorganically they don't really have a way of treating them," Giannascoli said.
Standard pesticide applications do not work because the offending bug does not live in the plants and fruit it attacks. Instead, it flies in for a meal, exposing only its feet and straw-like mouth to any residual poison, forcing farmers to lie in wait for an attack so they can spray it directly.
"The spray will kill what's there, but the moment it's dry, it's as if you never sprayed," said Michael Glenn, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There is a concern that because the bugs are so overwhelming, some people may overreact and use harmful pesticides, said Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance.
"I hope people are thoughtful in the way people choose to deal with them," Taylor said.
At this point in the season the stink bugs are moving from crops and seeking warmth. Taylor has to battle them out of her home in Poolesville every day.
"There are certain doors we cannot open in our house without having hordes of them come in," Taylor said. "After a while it's no longer funny."
The invasive pest, which emits a foul odor even when it has not been squashed and a fouler one still when it has, arrived in Allentown, Pa., a decade ago from east Asia. Its population grew explosively this year, leaving growers and scientists in a race against time to control it.
"We're now several years behind in research because we didn't recognize the danger," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Dist. 6) of Buckeystown, who is asking Congress for $3 million to fund USDA research efforts to control the pest that has the potential to spread and destroy crops nationwide.
Bartlett's office said Friday that he held meetings on getting coordination from the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to battle the stink bug problem. A letter dated Sept. 4, a copy of which was e-mailed to The Gazette, signed by Bartlett and 14 other House members, was sent to those agencies, according to Bartlett's office, and urges action on research programs and control and eradication programs, indicating "time is of the essence."
The bug caused some harm to farmers' late summer produce, said Bernadine Prince, co-director of FreshFarm Markets, which operates 11 farmers' markets in the Chesapeake Bay region. She has seen the bug hiding in the goods brought to area markets.
"It certainly had an impact. They're traveling to markets along with the food," Prince said.
At the Bethesda Central Farm Market, co-founder Ann Cove hasn't seen any impact from the bug.
"I haven't had any vendors mention it specifically," Cove said. "Nobody has changed any pricing or said they're having any major problems."
Although its population still is largely confined to the mid-Atlantic states, the stink bug has been found living as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Mississippi. It also has been spotted in California and Oregon.
The brownish-gray Asian variety is not to be confused with the green domestic stink bug, which has natural predators that control its population.
Some Maryland fruit farmers, thinking damage to their orchards was being caused by low calcium, treated their soil for several years to no avail. Others thought the bruised and misshapen fruit was the result of hail damage.
This summer has seen the wholesale devastation of Maryland peach and nectarine crops; some growers have lost their entire crop.
"They started early and went after the green peaches. As the fruit ripened, we started seeing little bumps," said Joe Fiola, a small-fruit specialist with the University of Maryland Extension.