Stink bug peril threatens Hamilton

The stink bug has devastated farm land in the U.S. and now it's been spotted in homes in the Hamilton area.

The map shows the path the stink bug has taken to Hamilton. Last year, stink bugs ate $37 million worth of apples in the mid-Atlantic U.S. states.

Last year, stink bugs ate their way through $37 million worth of apples in the mid-Atlantic U.S. states alone. And now, the stink bug has been spotted in Canada.

Today, we introduce you to the newest threat to Canadian agriculture. And if you dislike the combined smell of burnt rubber, rotten cheese and cilantro and you dislike paying more for local produce chances are you'll also dislike the hungry little pests. CBC's The Current took a good look at a nasty little visitor from the south.

You can listen to the story on this page.

The CBC's Jim Brown interviewed Amy Stewart, the author of Wicked Bugs and Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here's an edited and paraphrased transcript of those interviews.

Amy Stewart, the author of Wicked Bugs

What does it look like?

It's brown, obviously, and shaped like a shield. There are a lot of stink bugs you might find around the house. The way you can tell this one apart is that it has very distinctive white bands along the antenna and legs. They get to about the size of your thumbnail.

Does it really stink?

They do. They release a little cyanide. Cyanide has a bitter almond smell. Sickly, sweet, almondy smell but with something else nasty in it that I can't quite come up with the words for.

Is the stink bug wicked?

Yes. The brown marmorated stink bug is an invader — an Asian invasive pest. It can feed on so many different agricultural crops. It hurts fruit and vegetable growers.

What does it do to crops?

It lays eggs. The eggs hatch and go through five stages before adulthood. The young bugs take small bites but the adults can eat holes large enough to really ruin a piece of fruit or a vegetable. The first time we saw them was 2001. We're still figuring out the scale of the damage. They have been quick to adapt to pesticides.

Brown marmorated stink bug eggs. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

Why should homeowners be concerned?

The adults want to come indoors over winter. The can't harm you and won't lay eggs in your house. They smell bad if you crush them. People can seal the house well. Weatherstripping is important. They can get in through the tiniest crack and through the window air conditioner units. If you've got one you've probably got a bunch. The chemical they secrete when you crush them may call other stink bugs to the area.

What can be done to limit their damage to agriculture?

Insecticide programs have been tried but with limited effectiveness. They're working on pheromone studies to disrupt their reproductive cycle and ways to trap them in the field. There are natural predators that could be imported. We're always reluctant to do that. It can work.

Do we stand a chance against the stink bug?

No. I think the bugs will always win in the end. They outnumber us so significantly they just retool and come back. We have been good at wiping out certain populations of pests but if it's not the stink bug it will be something else.

Tracy Leskey a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Are we doomed?

We probably won't eliminate the species. Our goal is to learn to live with and manage this bug so growers can produce their crops.

What do you think our best plan is now?

There's not a single tool. We're looking at biological control agents. We're looking both at native natural enemies as well as Asian parasites that evolved with the stink bug. We know there are some that will feed on it like the praying mantis, wheel bugs and native parasites. A wheel bug is a prehistoric looking bug. Very distinct. Wheel bugs won't go after fruits and vegetable crops.

Farmer Tom Haas stands in his Cherry Hill Orchards in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Which Asian predators are being considered?

There's a parasitic wasp that doesn't sting. It's about the size of a comma. They lay their eggs in the eggs of the stink bug and have been reported to wipe out 80 per cent of the population. We would screen it to make sure it only attacks the brown marmorated stink bug and not our native stink bugs.

What chemical solutions are there?

A grower would want a chemical that could kill the stink bug but minimize the effect on natural predators and native species. It's such a challenge for our organic growers. We're trying to develop solutions for the organic community.

What advice do you have for Canada?

You mentioned the bug presence is known in Hamilton, Ontario. The problem is that it's such an incredible hitchhiker. This is the time of the year it is on the move.