A Look At Just How Invasive The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Is

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 6:51 pm
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Drunken partygoers, the Hummer of insects, the devil's thumbtack - these are just a few of the words used to describe the brown marmorated stink bug in a terrifying piece by Kathryn Schulz in the latest issue of The New Yorker. It's an invasive species that only arrived in the U.S. about 20 years ago, and it has marched across the country ever since. Kathryn Schulz writes about this story. If you have never met its main character, I assure you, you will soon.

Kathryn Schulz, welcome to the program.

KATHRYN SCHULZ: Thanks so much for having me on.

SHAPIRO: The opening anecdote of this story reads like a horror film. It's a cool fall night. A couple is relaxing at their cabin in South Carolina. The woman goes upstairs to close the doors to the raised deck. And what happens next?

SCHULZ: Well, you're right. It is very horror film-like. Specifically, it's like "The Birds" but the wrong species. What happens is she flicks on the light to her bedroom and finds that its walls are just absolutely covered in these bugs. If you've never seen one, they're a little bigger than the size of a dime. And they were just on every surface that she could see. They had only left the doors open a crack. But through that small opening, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of these bugs had poured into their bedroom.

SHAPIRO: And after they dispose of all the ones that they can see, they find them behind picture frames, behind curtains, in the hood of a hoodie. I think everybody knows they're called stink bugs for a reason. Can you describe what the stink actually is?

SCHULZ: You know, I can try. But I'll tell you, it almost stymied me in the piece. The standard definition is they smell like cilantro. I don't like cilantro, so I should be sympathetic to that notion. But I have never caught the remotest whiff of anything like cilantro in a stink bug. They smell, to me, sort of like death. I mean, I don't know how...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Like death.

SCHULZ: ...Else to put it. It's not quite decay, but it is this sort of, you know, thin, high, pervasive, sort of sickly sweet, fetid smell that just sort of coats your nose and mouth. It's quite disgusting.

SHAPIRO: The smell of a stink bug is profound. But that's not the reason that they are a real threat. Beyond filling people's homes by the thousands in the winter, they do real damage outdoors in the spring, summer and fall.

SCHULZ: Yes. In fact, truly, indoors they are nothing worse than a nuisance. They don't bite. They don't sting. They just get in your way. But outdoors, they are just incredibly voracious. And they are the unusual insect that can eat virtually anything. So a lot of pests are particularly problematic for a certain crop. The brown marmorated stink bug has the regrettable ability to eat just about anything you put in front of it, from cotton and sweet corn to apples and tomatoes and peppers. I mean, it's pretty close to the you-name-it list of things that it'll eat.

SHAPIRO: And one of the things that's so insidious is that it's really hard to kill it with pesticides because its long legs keep it off the surface of the produce. And it eats by kind of sticking a needle into the produce, so it's not getting the pesticide off the surface.

SCHULZ: Yeah, that's right. One of the most disturbing things I heard in the course of reporting this piece was from an entomologist who described how much progress we'd actually made in this country on cutting back on insecticides. And when these brown marmorated stink bugs reached a kind of critical mass, they really just effectively wiped out all of that progress. And people who had been applying pesticides two or three times a season were suddenly applying them every week to try to get these things under control. So it's not that a pesticide won't kill a stink bug eventually. It will. It's that it takes a shocking quantity of it to be effective.

SHAPIRO: On this program, we're interested in providing multiple points of view. And I don't want to just trash the brown marmorated stink bug.

SCHULZ: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Is there anything you can say in defense of this animal?

SCHULZ: Sure. I can say something in defense of all animals. First of all, in its native terrain, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a brown marmorated stink bug. It has natural predators that it co-evolved with. And it goes about life as we all do.

And, you know, I think at a certain point - this is going to sound nuts. But when you live with a lot of them - and I have lived with a lot of them - it is hard not to acquire a kind of grudging affection for them. They are so dumb seeming, to be blunt.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SCHULZ: They are so slow and sluggish and absolutely indifferent to everything around them, including, you know, mortal threats. And as a result, they have this kind of admirable insouciance.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Insouciance.

SCHULZ: So yes, I think I could, when really pressed, say a few things in praise of the brown marmorated stink bug (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Kathryn Schulz, thank you so much.

SCHULZ: It's absolutely my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Her terrifying New Yorker article about the brown marmorated stink bug is called "Home Invasion." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.