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Bugged Out

Entomology Researchers Turn to Public for Help Collecting Stink Bugs

By Karen Shih ’09

Stink Bugs

If the stink bug population of your house took a nosedive, you’d hardly complain. But for entomology Professor Emeritus Galen Dively and graduate student Chris Taylor, the sudden crash of their lab’s 13,000-strong stink bug collection in March presented a crisis.

With experiments prepped and no good way to collect new bugs during winter hibernation, they asked the public to trap any emerging insects in attics, cellars and dark corners and send them to College Park.

“We did it on a whim,” says Taylor, who expected few responses. But The Washington Post, WTOP-AM and other media outlets picked up the story, and Dively was bombarded with calls from as far away as New York, Ohio and Georgia.

They ended up with about 1,000 stink bugs, limiting their reach to places within about an hour’s drive and collections of 50 bugs or more. One woman even met them in an IKEA parking lot to deliver a box, which Dively jokes must have looked like a drug deal.

But this invasive species, the brown marmorated stink bug, is no laughing matter. Originally from Southeast Asia, these “good hitchhikers” first arrived in the United States in the mid-1990s, Dively says. Finding the mid-Atlantic climate suitable, no natural predators and ample crops to feed on, the bugs multiplied dramatically.

They threaten every aspect of crop production, shriveling leaves, stopping some fruits and vegetables from forming, and creating hard, dry patches in others.

Dively and his team need a healthy colony to research methods to control the pest. Taylor, for example, studies how nymphs depend on their symbiotic gut bacteria that the mothers secrete on the eggs, a possible weak link to exploit in the hardy bug’s life cycle.

They expect to collect several thousand more bugs on their own this fall, but it’s possible a parasite, like the sneaky microsporidia that invaded this spring, or a virus could hit again (the bugs’ close quarters allow otherwise uncommon infections to flourish quickly).

“It’s nice to know if we have a problem, people are willing to help out,” Taylor says.

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