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WVU helps search for organic response to smelly, destructive bug

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To homeowners, they're a pest that invades houses during the fall and winter. For farmers, though, stinkbugs can have devastating effects on crops.

And to organic farmers, who don't use many of the conventional pesticides to deal with the insects, the economic impact can be far greater.

"Especially in the Eastern Panhandle, I know a couple of growers that had to shut down their farm because of the insect," said Dr. Yong-Lak Park, an associate professor of entomology at West Virginia University.

That's why Park and his colleagues are joining a multi-state effort to find an organic solution to the pest.

WVU is one of 11 universities joining the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the project. The school received around $300,000 for their research. The total grant is worth about $2.6 million.

Along with Park, James Kotson, a WVU associate professor and leader of the school's Organic Research Project, is working on the stinkbug project.

The brown marmorated stinkbug is not native to the United States. The bugs were first found in the United States in Allentown, Pa., in 2001, according to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. The bugs are thought to have come over from Asia in packing crates, said Buddy Davidson, a spokesman for the department.

"It is an issue as the pace of commerce picks up and things are crossing oceans a lot more rapidly," Davidson said. "The problem is when they land somewhere that may not have the predators that they had in their home countries."

The insect eats a wide range of crops, but they have caused problems especially for fruit growers in the state's Eastern Panhandle, Davidson said.

"One of the problems with them is they do feed on a wide variety of stuff but they really love fruit," Davidson said. "They pierce the fruit on the tree and suck the juice out and effectively what that does is blemish the fruit so it's not suitable for table fruit," he said. 

Farmers can still sell the fruit after a stinkbug pierces its skin, but that fruit can only be processed for juice or cider or other fruit products, Davidson said. Processed fruit only brings in about 10 percent of what the farmers would have earned for table fruit, he said.

In 2010, the state saw its first major outbreak of the insects in the Eastern Panhandle. Some farmers lost as much as much as 80 percent of their crops, he said.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency approved the emergency use of a pesticide in orchards to help address the stinkbug problem. Organic farmers have more limited options, though.

"It's very difficult for someone to be in the orchard business and for them not to take advantage of the conventional pesticides," Davidson said.

WVU started stinkbug projects in 2009 with a West Virginia Specialty Crop Block Grant and a research grant from the State Horticulture Association of Pennsylvania, Park said.

"With these grants, we surveyed stinkbugs in West Virginia and found them in 29 counties so far," Park said. But Park believes the insects are in all 55 counties, he said.

With the latest grant, WVU's part in the research will be to look for natural enemies of the stinkbug. WVU researchers will look into trap crops, which are plants that attract the bug and then can be burned to destroy the insect, Park said. They'll try to track the movements of the stinkbugs, Park said.

If they can predict the insect's movements, they can stop it, Park said.

One of the stinkbug's natural enemies is a soldier bug, which is very similar to the stinkbug.

"It's a stinkbug too, but one is eating plants and the other is eating bugs," Park said.

The project involves 25 researchers, three organic organizations, and 12 organic farms.

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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