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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Stinkbugs Of Autumn

Brown Stinkbug
Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA
Wikimedia Commons

A friend was telling us about another friend whose bedroom in Kinderhook, NY had become infested with stinkbugs. As she detailed this woman’s valiant efforts to rid herself of these pests I looked around our sunroom, where the conversation was taking place, and noticed for the first time that we had stinkbugs, too.

Perhaps not in biblical quantities, as our mutual friend did, but certainly more than I recall from previous autumns and winters. And they were a different type.

These insects, I was to discover, were Brown marmorated stinkbugs, about the size of a dime and shaped like a shield. According to a helpful handout from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, it’s believed that marmorated stinkbugs arrived in Pennsylvania from Asia during the mid-1990s and have been spreading ever since.

“It’s the call of the month, the call of the year,” reported Maureen Mooney, a volunteer master gardener with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties. “They’re looking to get in for the winter.”

The good news, Ms. Mooney added, “is that they don’t bite. They don’t do any damage in your house.”

However, one’s definition of damage may be in the eye of the beholder. Sure, they’re not as dangerous as termites to property values. And they won’t sting you and cause physical pain.

But the consensus seems to be that they are rather disgusting. And the more of them the more disgusting they become. And if you’re wondering why you suddenly have lots of stinkbugs, in some cases a full-scale invasion, it’s because stinkbug populations have been soaring in the mid-Atlantic states and stinkbugs attract other stinkbugs.

And apparently the best way to rally reinforcements is to crush them, releasing their eponymous scent.

“They’re perfectly harmless,” Ms. Mooney went on in tones that sounded almost encouraging and that she’d probably honed talking callers down off the ledge. She added, “The thing to do is to vacuum them.”

The master gardener contended that the prospect of spending the rest of eternity in the bleak bowels of your vacuum cleaner, or at least until the bag fills to capacity and you empty it, will not prompt the insects to release their odiferous scent. Only murder will.

However, I have my doubts. If not marmorated stinkbugs, we traditionally have another cold weather visitor that I always assumed was a stinkbug but that I now learn is actually a Western conifer seed bug.

“Beware of imposters!” the cooperative extension flyer warns, as if we were discussing knockoff Chanel handbags.

Frankly, I’ve always had a soft spot for Western conifer seed bugs. While my attitude towards many insects is the kneejerk reaction of alarm and disgust, especially when you encounter them indoors, I admired the Western conifer -- its body is longer and dare I say it, more elegant, than the marmorated stinkbug’s -- for its wisdom in seeking shelter indoors during the cold weather months.

I almost regarded them as tiny pets in years past. They showed up in ones and twos rather than a full-scale D-Day invasion, and they were also pathetically lethargic. There was never a problem about picking them up, preferably in a tissue, and gently placing or tossing them outdoors. And when they flew they made an endearing buzzing sound, like a child imitating an airplane propeller.

I also wasn’t repulsed by their scent. According to Wikipedia, “Their primary defense is to spray a bitter, offending smell, though sometimes they can smell pleasantly of apples, bananas or pine sap.”

See, I wasn’t imagining it.

However, I’d also be lying if I suggested that I didn’t harbor the average human’s deep, primal skepticism when it comes to the insect world. So, apparently, does Ms. Mooney.

“I put on slacks this spring,” she confided, “and had one on the inside of my leg and freaked out.”

I had a somewhat similar experience a few days ago, which may be what triggered this commentary: I felt an insect crawling up my back and even releasing its scent as I pursued it. But when I removed my shirt there was nothing there. Apparently there’s reason to be spooked and not just because Halloween is around the corner. A story in The New Yorker in March called “When Twenty-Six Thousand Stinkbugs Invade Your Home,” by Kathryn Schulz painted a rather indelible image of a stinkbug invasion.

This line, in particular, about the victims, a terrorized South Carolina couple named the Zimmermans, captured my imagination as they flailed at the invaders with brooms: “The stinkbugs, attracted to warmth, kept thwacking into their bodies as they worked.”

Ms. Mooney also counseled against insecticides such as Raid. “It’s not going to kill any of the eggs,” she told me.

And the smell of rotting stinkbugs might attract scavengers such as carpet beetles, resulting in a second infestation.

Apparently, stinkbugs are attracted to trees close to structures, finding cracks and then moving in for the winter. So the best long-term solution is to seal gaps in your home with material such as weatherproofing strips.

However, in a 19th century farmhouse such as ours where gaps and cracks are part of its charm, the challenge may be insurmountable.

The ultimate solution may be the same one as with other bugs: get used to them. If not necessarily in your slacks.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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