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Stink Bugs Rejoice at Government Shutdown

Just as a mass movement of stink bugs into homes begins, scientists working on controlling the problem are furloughed.

By Andrew Metcalf

As millions of stink bugs begin to creep into American homes, searching for a place to winter, the government scientists who are leading research in how to manage the pests are not allowed to work.

The director of the project team that is studying how to control America's top invasive insect—the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug—has been furloughed due to the federal government shutdown.

Tracy Leskey, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia, heads up a team of over 50 entomologists working across the country to figure out how to manage the booming population of stink bugs. However, during a key research period—the time of the year when stink bugs begin to overwinter, often in homes—she's not allowed to work.

"I am not in the office at this time," reads Leskey's automatic email reply from her government account. "I am on furlough without access to email, due to the lapse in federal government funding.  I will return your message as soon as possible once funding has been restored."

Other scientists studying the bug at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville have also been furloughed, according to ARS's website.

Chris Bergh, an entomologist working at Virginia Tech, is researching the movement of stink bugs into various shelters with Leskey. It's a key time for that study, said Bergh, because now is when stink bugs are looking for protection from the cold.

"This is the only time you can do that work," said Bergh. "In the last few days we've seen a mass movement of the bugs."

The sheer number of the bugs on buildings, crops and in woods are challenging scientists. Bergh estimates there are billions.

"I have not in my career faced this kind of challenge," said Bergh. "The same is likely true for many of my colleagues. The scale and scope of this is significant in its impact."

Bergh said that on Monday entomologists counted the most bugs on their building in Winchester, VA, than they've counted on any one day so far this year—500. 

To generate data for their study, the scientists enlisted residents throughout the Mid-Atlantic to report stink bug counts at their homes between Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. (The website for the study is currently being redirected to a USDA page that tells visitors the department's funding lapsed.)

Leskey, Bergh and others will use the data to analyze factors such as home colors, elevation levels and host plants surrounding a home to determine why stink bugs are attracted to certain residences.

Earlier this year Leskey was quoted in an Associated Press report about the study. "The question we have is why particular houses or particular locations have such large infestations and why other houses and other structures may not."

The spread of stink bugs since their initial appearance in 2010 has resulted in quality of life issues for homeowners affected by the bugs creeping into residences, according to Bergh.

"If your home is one of those homes that's particularly attractive to the stink bug, [this research] is huge," said Bergh.

He said this year's temperate summer resulted in ideal conditions for the bugs.

"Host plants that Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs use were in good shape," said Bergh.

The bugs eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including ornamental plants, according to StopBMSB.org, the website of the working group headed up by Leskey.

"As an entomologist who deals with crop protection, many of the pests we address are confined to the crop," said Bergh. He used Kudzu bugs on soybeans as an example. "[Stink bugs] utilize many different hosts."

Bergh said the best way to keep the bugs out of your home is to seal off any access points and, if they get inside, use a vacuum to suck them up.

"We're not in the business of recommending widespread use of insecticides inside the home," said Bergh.

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