Stink Bugs

UNC-TV Science: April 24, 2014
Meet the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

You’ve probably met before. These little brown and black spotted guys live in 41 states, including North Carolina. They’re two-thirds of an inch long with a back that looks like a shield, and they’ve come a long way to make the USA their home.

Brown marmorated stink bugs* are an invasive species, native to Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan. And after that long journey, they’re hungry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture named the brown marmorated stink bug their top invasive insect of interest because these tiny bugs multiply very quickly and have an appetite for fruits, vegetables, corn, soybeans and nuts. These stink bugs cost U.S. farmers tens of millions of dollars every year.

The trouble is that outside of a few pesticides the EPA has approved, or is in the process of approving, to fight the stink bugs, we don’t know a ton about how best to fight them. Research on brown marmorated stink bugs is in its infancy, but even at this stage, scientists are taking baby steps towards a way to fight the stink bugs.

Beatrice Dingha and Louis Jackai, agricultural researchers a North Carolina A&T State University, are responsible for one of those baby steps. That step is a process for breeding the stink bugs for research, a feat that had never before been accomplished in a laboratory.

It turns out the secret recipe for keeping stink bugs alive and reproducing is to pamper them. Dingha and Jackai provided the stink bugs with a smorgasbord: carrots, green beans, tomatoes, squash, corn, cucumbers and the leaves of butterfly bushes and princess trees. They also precisely controlled the climate to a pleasant 77 to 80.6 degrees Fahrenheit and 70% humidity.

As prolific as the brown marmorated stink bugs are, they’re picky about when they reproduce. If the conditions aren’t just right, they slip into a dormant state called diapause in which the bugs won’t reproduce. And a short supply of stink bugs makes it difficult for researchers to do really good experiments with the bugs.

Dingha and Jackai’s research should provide a more ample supply of stink bugs for research. While this work is a baby step on the road to finding an environmentally-friendly way to combat stink bugs, it provides the basis on which all future brown marmorated stink bug research can be built. Discoveries like Dingha and Jackai’s are not as widely lauded as the final experiments are, but are no less important to the field of science.

*They’re called stink bugs because they smell when you crush them. The chemicals that provide the odor are trans-2-decanal and trans-2-octenal. Those two organic compounds are in the same broad family as formaldehyde but smell like coriander.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.