Garden Guru: Don't raise a stink over smelly pests
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every fall, as the leaves start to change, phone calls and questions start to roll in concerning one topic in particular. Almost invariably, I can complete the sentence coming from the other end of the phone before it is finished. "Can you help me get rid of ... stink bugs?"
The brown marmorated stink bug (friends call them BMSBs) is the Johnny-Come-Lately of the insect pestilence world. As the overpopulation of Asian lady beetles is waning, the BMSB is poised to take its place as Enemy No. 1 in the home. What's more frightening is, whereas Asian lady beetles were beneficial to gardeners, the BMSB is an enemy.
Asian lady beetles spend their summers in the garden, munching on aphids and other undesirables, while BMSBs spend their summers in the garden -- eating your garden. Their preferred nourishment involves sucking juice from fruits using their strawlike mouth, but they also will feed on other parts of plants.
They enjoy peaches, apples, tomatoes and a bunch of other things you also enjoy. The damage they leave behind is mottled fruit, often with brown damage spots, making them unmarketable as Grade A produce. Uncontrolled, the BMSB could potentially destroy the fruit industry in the state's Eastern Panhandle.
And the fact remains that there hasn't really been good chemical control measures found for BMSBs in the field. Researchers at both the university and federal level are researching feverishly to find an answer to this pest problem.
Even if there were a good chemical control for the home, I would always recommend that the best offense against the BMSB is a good defense. Keeping them out of the house is the best way to avoid the problem. Of course, this means there will be some work to be done around the house. When I make these suggestions to people, there's a long silence or a blank stare before I hear, "Isn't there some other way?" Short answer: Sure, but my way is the best way.
First, make sure that any cracks around doors and windows are sealed with caulk. You should also check to make sure the weather stripping is in working order. Another common point of entry is through cracks in the soffit or between the soffit and the wall or roof. You should also check utility (wires, cables, pipes etc.) entry areas around your house. You should seal any of these cracks with caulk or foam sealant.
BMSBs also like to enter the comfy warm attic, so make sure that attic vents are covered with window screen to exclude the smelly pests. Be sure to seal any cracks around window or wall air conditioning units.
If all else fails, there has been some thought that doing a perimeter spray around the home and around common areas of entry on the exterior of the house could assist in deterring stink bugs from entering the home. However, sealing up those areas is much more effective than chemical treatments.
In lab studies, stink bugs have shown susceptibility to the common insecticides cyfluthrin and bifenthrin; however, studies have been incomplete as to whether these work out in the environment. These pesticides can be applied by homeowners or by pest control companies. As is always the recommendation, please read and follow all label directions and wear appropriate protective equipment when applying pesticides.
Once the insects make their way into the house, the best way to remove them is by hand or with a vacuum. For every BMSB you remove from your home, there are more waiting in your walls and attic to take its place. Performing chemical treatments once your home is invaded is not recommended.
Not only are there issues of effectiveness and safety, but creating large numbers of dead stink bugs can cause other problems. Carpet beetles are a common pest that will invade the home to feast upon the dead bodies of other insects. They aren't very desirable house guests either, so I would suggest avoiding setting out a stink bug buffet for them.
Good control in the garden is harder, though the current most effective means is through exclusion. For small plants, use row cover and insect netting to keep the stink bugs away. Cyfluthrin and bifenthrin can be used on ornamental plants but can be used only on select produce plants. You'll have to read the directions of each label to see what you can treat.
In the meantime, homeowners can pass the time by volunteering for the USDA study from the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in the Eastern Panhandle by counting the number of stink bugs in your house daily. If you are interested, call 304-725-3451.
John Porter is the WVU Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources in Kanawha County. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 304-720-9573. Twitter: @WVgardenguru.