Technically, it's possible that I'm throwing the same stink bug out of the house over and over again this winter.
Maybe I should place a tracking band on one of their six legs, like in a National Geographic documentary.
In reality, the problem isn't one persistent, lightning-fast stink bug. The insects emerge in homes throughout the Midwest and Eastern U.S. when heat from furnace or fireplace kicks on. "That's when they become active again," said Tim Gibb, a senior insect diagnostician at Purdue University in West Lafayette. Gibb, his 30th year at Purdue, specializes in urban pests.
And stink bugs — specifically, brown marmorated stink bugs — are indeed pests, for two prime reasons.
First, because they stink. Hence their name. That's why I don't just squash them in the house. That would be like trying to physically kick a skunk out the door — the odor they emit will make you regret it. The bugs excrete a "foul-smelling, putrid odor," as Gibb puts it, through their abdomens.
Second, brown marmorated stink bugs are an invasive species. They're invasive not just because they crawl across TV screens while you're watching a baseball game or fly into your coffee cup. These stink bugs have invaded Indiana and almost every other state in the Lower 48. Other forms of stink bugs existed in America long before the brown marmorated kind entered the country accidentally in Pennsylvania in 1998 and then spread, Gibb said Tuesday. Unlike the others, brown marmorated stink bugs break into suburban homes in fall, like tiny Houdinis, hang out all winter, and then creep back outside in spring to feast on farmers' and gardeners' fruit trees and grain crops.
Unfortunately, these stink bugs linger so long through cold-weather months — like John Belushi's "The Thing That Wouldn't Leave" character on "Saturday Night Live" — that "they forget how to get out of the house," Gibb explained. Rather than picking them up or smashing them with a fly swatter or shoe, it's best to gently scoot brown marmorateds out an opened door with a broom, Gibb said, to prevent them from releasing their foul odor. Better yet, they can be swept into a pan of soapy water, where they drown and the smell is mitigated by the soap.
It's tempting to suck them up in vacuum cleaner, but that just leaves the stench in the machine for a long time, Gibb said.
Here's another fun fact about the bugs — they have no predators in middle America. Most critters aren't crazy enough to eat the smelly things. It's possible that by researching their origin territory, Asia, parasites could be detected that might consume the stink bugs, Gibb said. Also, brown marmorateds already had been exposed in Asia to farmers' pesticides before the bugs got transported to the U.S.
"When these things showed up in America, they were already resistant to some of the chemicals we can use against them," Gibb said.
Invasive species discombobulate ecosystems, and the Terre Haute area is no stranger to those situations. Asian carp have overrun native species in the Wabash River. Japanese honeysuckle chokes native plants in woods, tree rows and gardens throughout the Wabash Valley. Emerald ash borers have been destroying Hoosier ash trees for nearly 15 years. Asian beetles, those ladybug lookalikes, were introduced into the U.S. to consume and control aphids long ago, but became a problem themselves because they bite, invade homes, harm dogs and, yes, stink.
"Nobody knew [the Asian beetles] wanted to come inside people's homes in the winter," Gibb said.
Just a few years ago, the Asian beetles crawled in swarms around doorways and windows in Vigo County, but since have moderated. Now, it's the brown marmorated stink bugs' turn.
"I probably get one call every two weeks" about stink bugs, said Dana Gadeken, agricultural and natural resources educator for the Purdue Extension Vigo County office. People also bring up stink bugs when she's attending public programs for the extension. "It's a common issue."
Brown marmorateds stink, eat crops, resist pesticides and invade homes. They're also likely to remain a problem for several years. "They're just beginning," Gibb said. "So, we're going to see much more of this problem before it gets under control." But things could be worse. "They don't bite people. They don't sting. They don't reproduce in your house," Gibb added. They don't eat inside homes, either.
And, they're not invincible. Sealing doors and windows, and checking screens for holes can limit the number of stink bugs trying to join your household, according to instructions from Purdue that Gadeken offers people through the extension office. Applying insecticides on exterior surfaces of a house, when the bugs appear, can help, too.
With all of those tactics, persistence is important, Gadeken pointed out. Rome wasn't built in a day, and pests aren't conquered in a day, she said.
Obviously, the Roman empire's many conquests didn't include stink bugs.