In 1998, Karen Bernhard, a part-time entomologist with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lehigh County, Pa., began getting calls from residents who were creeped-out by a foul-smelling, tank-like bug that had decided that the warm confines of a residential home was an ideal place to escape the cold Northeastern winter.
She quickly deduced that it was a species of stink bug, which she figured migrated into the area from another region. Its identity, however, remained a mystery for three more years until Cornell University entomologist E. Richard Hoebke identified the insect as the brown marmorated stink bug, native to Asia.
Since then, stink bugs have morphed from scientific curiosity to a full-on nuisance. The bugs -- which have no natural enemies -- have been wreaking havoc on farmers around the country, decimating fruit and vegetable crops, including corn, soybeans and tomatoes, as well as organic crops without chemical pesticides.
The stink bug gets its name because it emits a vile order through its abdomen as a defense mechanism. People who try to rid themselves of the bugs often need to hold their noses. Squishing them is an especially bad idea.
Penn State's website describes the bug as " a serious pests of fruit, vegetables and farm crops in the Mid-Atlantic region and it is probable that it will become a pest of these commodities in other areas in the United States."
The pests certainly haven't helped the economic recovery. They've reportedly already ruined 40% of some fruit orchards' crops in parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia this year, and experts believe stink bug populations are likely to boom this fall.
From Florida to California
They also may be spreading: Officials in Iowa recently found a dead stink bug in Cedar Rapids, prompting officials to investigate whether a breeding population has been established, according to the Associated Press.
So far, state officials have found only the one stink bug, says Laura Jesse, an extension entomologist at Iowa State University. But, she adds, "We presume from what we have seen out East that we we will have a problem."
Scientists are not sure how the brown marmorated stink bug --- also known as Halyomorpha halys -- got to the U.S., although most figure it was probably via a ship container. When they arrived also is a mystery. The critters have been spotted in 30 states throughout the Northeast, as far south as Florida and even have wound up in California.
Scientists are trying to figure out where they might strike next. "We have a huge list of questions and a very, very short list of answers," Greg Krawczyk, an entomologist with the Penn State University Fruit Research Center in Biglerville, told The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa.
The Scurge of Suburbia
But while the agricultural industry is suffering from these pests, at least one type of business might be benefiting -- exterminators.
Over the past few years, stink bugs have increasingly become a scurge of suburbia, as well as of farmland. And many people are turning to exterminators for help, says Ron Harrison, director of technical services for pest-control company Orkin.
"In 2009 and 2010, we were just innundated" with requests for help, he says, adding that he expects the trend to continue this year. Treatments range from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars depending on the size of the property and the amount of the infestation. Like bed bugs, they pose no health risk to humans.
The best time for homeowners to attack the bugs is in the fall, when they're looking for a warm place to hunker down, Harrison says. By summertime, there's "very little value" in trying to eradicate the stink bugs, which are active breeders, because their populations will have soared, he adds.
Pesticides rarely last more than 10 days. The best way to fight the bugs, experts say, is to seal cracks and cervices where they might crawl through. That doesn't always work, though, because the bugs are formidable foes.
Some help may be on the way. Scientists at the University of Delaware say that a parasitic wasp is showing promise as a stink-bug assassin. Others, including a New Jersey man, have invented their own homemade traps. So far, though, a solution has proven elusive.