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Md. farmers brace for stink bugs

THURMONT — Farmers cope with unpredictable weather patterns that often affect their bottom lines, but the people whose job it is to feed Americans and, in some cases, the world, also must contend with pests.

Orchardist Robert Black is hoping the brown marmorated stink bugs will not appear this year in numbers farmers experienced in 2010.

“I just wish we don’t get anything like we had in 2010,” when the winged creatures severely damaged crops and gardens, said Black, president of Catoctin Mountain Orchard in Thurmont. “Everybody had a little damage last year, but it was nothing like 2010.”

Stink bugs are so mobile that scientists can’t accurately predict where they will show up, or in what amounts, Black said.

Local farmers have a reason to be concerned.

The population of the brown marmorated stink bugs was 60 percent higher in the Frederick County region in October than it was a year before, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture research entomologist Tracy Leskey, a lead scientist studying the bugs and working to find ways to keep them at bay.

In 2010, the critters showed up in extremely high numbers in the mid-Atlantic region, causing major economic damage to fruits and vegetables on a number of farms, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The onslaught of the gray-brown, triangular-shaped insects came as a surprise to local farmers, said Black, whose farm is being used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a test case for stink bugs. Traps are set up in the orchard to monitor and capture the invasive species.

They pierce fruit, suck out juice and leave a scar, Black said. The damaged fruit changes in value. It goes from a more valuable No. 1 fruit to a second-grade fruit, the farmer said.

Frederick County Master Gardener David Muns experienced up close stink bugs’ unpredictability last year.

A trap provided to Muns as part of a University of Maryland Extension experiment to monitor the critters in the Frederick News-Post community garden caught only two bugs, Muns said. But about 200 feet away, the stink bugs tore up his corn.

“The buggers would pierce the ear of corn through the husk and suck the milk of the kernel out, leaving about 20 brown and dried kernels on the cob when it was husked,” Muns said. “When I could, I just pinched them, but they have a way of anticipating your approach and skedaddle away.”

Tree fruits are the primary crops of concern, but the EPA said the species has also been observed to feed successfully on numerous crops including apples, apricots, Asian pears, cherries, corn, grapes, lima beans, nectarines and peaches, peppers, tomatoes and soybeans.

Maryland is one of seven states identified for the return of the 17-year cicadas this spring, and except for the males’ loud singing during the day to attract females, farmers don’t have to be concerned that the winged creatures will cause a lot of harm, said University of Maryland Extension Dairy Science Agent Stanley W. Fultz.

Crop farmers or livestock producers won’t be affected by cicadas, Fultz said, adding that the only farmers to be possibly impacted by a cicada emergence will be nursery stock growers and homeowners with young trees.

Adult periodical cicadas begin emerging from the ground in mid-May and will last through mid-June, according to the University of Maryland Extension. Shortly after adult transformation, cicadas move or fly to nearby shrubs and trees and start their droning mating song. Male cicadas “sing” by vibrating membranes located beneath the wings.

The critters live between two and six weeks after they emerge. Other states on tap to get the cicadas include Connecticut, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

“By coming out en masse, periodical cicadas are able to avoid or overwhelm enemies, and their chances of individual reproduction and survival increase,” a University of Maryland Extension flier states. “No predator can possibly eat that many cicadas.”