Little insect creates big problems

Best anyone can tell, the scourge began in Hoschton in 2009. A pest-control guy had samples from a house a-crawl with odd little bugs. They were brown and ugly and smelled bad, sort of like ladybugs dipped in something a dog would roll in.

The pest-control guy had never seen anything like them, so he slipped a few dead ones in a vial of alcohol. He gave them to an entomologist at the University of Georgia, who was equally perplexed.

He showed the mystery insects to Joe Eger, another entomologist who stopped by the UGA professor’s office to say hello. Eger is an expert on stinkbugs.

Intrigued, Eger visited the Hoschton house where the bugs turned up. He traced the hordes of unwanted visitors to a nearby tangle of kudzu.

Thus did Megacopta cribaria officially debut. Since its discovery four years ago, it's been discussed and cussed, researched and reviled. It's the object of inquiry in laboratories from Griffin to Missoula, Mont. It's the kudzu bug. With spring on the horizon, swarms of them ought to be out in force soon.

Like its namesake, the bug – also known as bean plataspid – is thriving, spreading and irritating everyone. It destroys kudzu, sure, but it also likes soybeans and ornamental flowers. If you have a white house, look out: the kudzu bug is inexplicably attracted to light colors and may try to burrow into your attic for the winter. And if you upset one …

Dr. Eger, we need an expert opinion.

"They do have a smell,'" said Eger, "and it's fairly offensive."

Like kudzu, the bugs came from Asia, probably Japan. Scientists theorize they hopped a flight to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Atlanta, which loosed “Real Housewives” on the world, also is responsible for a new species of stinkbug.

A word in defense of insects: Some are pretty; the praying mantis looks like living origami, a series of elegant angles in motion. Some are colorful; to gaze upon a dragonfly is to admire a winged palette. And some add immensely to our quality of life; remember that the next time you put honey on your toast.

Then there’s the kudzu bug, which the federal government lists as an invasive species, now found in eight states. Researchers are hard-pressed to say anything nice about it.

Ask Tracie Jenkins, an associate professor of entomology at UGA’s Griffin campus, who is working with specialists at Emory and the University of Montana to learn more about the bug. You cannot talk with her about the kudzu bug without a dictionary nearby. Kudzu bugs, she said, have an “obligate symbiosis.” (Google that at your own peril.)

Kudzu bugs, she said, have a bacteria in their gut, and each — bacteria and bug — has evolved to the point that one relies on the other.

Another oddity: Nearly every kudzu bug that has gone under a microscope appears to have descended from the same female. Conventional wisdom dictates that an invasive species, in order to thrive, needs to have a diverse gene pool. In America, the kudzu bug’s gene pool is as shallow as a milk spill on a table top.

Could that be the bug’s Achille’s heel? Despite the formidable intellectual firepower aimed at the kudzu bug, researchers aren’t sure. All they know for certain is that the insect poses a potential threat to farmers, especially those who grow soybeans.

“We take that very seriously,” said Jenkins.

So do farmers. UGA tests indicate that the bug can cut soybean yields by 20 to 25 percent. In 2012, Georgia farmers grew nearly 8 million bushels of soybeans worth about $120 million. A 25 percent reduction would equal $30 million.

Tests at Clemson University produced even more dire results, said Jeremy Greene, a Clemson professor. At one test site, kudzu bugs destroyed 77 percent of the crop, he said.

“It’s a costly little critter,” he said.

Prolific, too. Two generations of the stinky little crawlers can infest a soybean field in a single growing season. The insect is susceptible to traditional pestidices, but if it can reproduce that quickly, who’s to say it won’t develop immunities to whatever poisons we throw at it?

That worries Mark Adams of Gay, a pleasant little little town in Meriwether County about 50 miles south of Atlanta. Gay might be even nicer, Adams thinks, if it could rid itself of kudzu bugs. His yard is infested with them. His house is light yellow with white trim, too. It’s a bug magnet. He also has a half-acre of kudzu. It’s a bug buffet.

He first saw a few flying in his yard two years ago. “I didn’t even know what they were,” said Adams, a landscaper who knows his bugs. “I do now.”

As winter makes way for spring, said Adams, the insects will emerge from under stepping stones, the woodpile, rocks in his yard and just about anywhere else. They’ll form swarms, mating. “You can’t even see out the window,” he said. And, until kudzu begins growing again, usually in April, the bugs will dine on whatever else they can find.

“These bugs are good for three things,” said Adams. “Mating. Eating. And bedding down for the winter.”

Why not paint the house? “Can’t. It’s got vinyl covering.”

Well, why not cut back the kudzu? Adams laughed. “If I do that,” he said, “they might come eat my plants.”

What’s a homeowner to do? Adams, whose brother in Tennessee recently told him about the arrival of some ugly little bugs in his back yard, sighed.

“Live with it,” he said. “You’ve got to deal with it.”

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