iPhones needed in NY to track stink bug

CORNELL (US) — A new hobo pest is pigging out on a significant number of North America’s most important crops in what experts say is an unprecedented threat to U.S. agriculture.

“There’s been nothing like this in several decades,” says Peter Jentsch, a researcher at Cornell University‘s Hudson Valley Laboratory and one of about 80 scientists looking for ways to curb the bug that caused catastrophic damage in 2010.

A native of Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) touched down in Allentown, Pa., in 1996 and quickly became a nuisance pest. By 2004 it was showing up on farms and forests, and by 2010 it had destroyed crops in five Mid-Atlantic states. The stink bug has a huge host range, including field crops and ornamentals. It first appeared in Ulster County, New York, in 2011.

“New York is a frontier state for BMSB,” says Agnello. “People are primed to get panicky if this pest shows up in their crops.”

Agnello’s team is looking at the time lag and impact of the bug as it colonizes new habitats, how to distinguish and diagnose signs of injury in different crops, and which plant pathogens are likely to find entry at feeding sites.

The researchers are asking New York residents for help in tracking the stinkbugs through the Citizen Science BMSB project by emailing iPhone images that have embedded GPS locations to pjj@cornell.edu.

The value of susceptible crops in the 33 states where the stink bugs have been established or sighted exceeds $21 billion. In 2010, it cost apple growers alone $37 million, says Tracy Leskey, USDA entomologist and director of the multistate project. In New York, which is a top-five producer in apples, grapes, pears, tart cherries, snap beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, and summer squash, the crops are worth a combined $878 million to growers.

2011 losses haven’t been as severe. Conventional growers are spraying aggressively, and July’s record heat and drought probably played a role. But the pest is devastating corn in some regions and once the rains returned, Jenstch and colleagues found high numbers of BMSB in Hudson Valley, NY woodlots and forests—but none in orchards they bordered.

“I think they got the moisture they needed from leaves of woodland trees and were content to stay,” Jentsch says.

Some say the stink bugs smell like a combination of cilantro and burnt rubber. But not all stink bugs are pests, and some are even beneficial, preying on common garden pests. Because “broad-spectrum” sprays kill beneficials as well as pests, says Jentsch, “we need to keep our hands on the reins and off the trigger.”

Organic growers have few options, but researchers hope to find the right BMSB pheromones—”scents” that lure the bugs into traps—or discover which “natural predators” will safely keep the pests in check. Such integrated pest management (IPM) tactics keep environmental and economic costs as low as possible.

“The best hope for all growers, organic or conventional, is developing these classic IPM tools,” Agnello says.

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