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All About Stink Bugs

In the immortal words of Beetlejuice, "You hate 'em, right? I hate 'em myself!" (Of course, he was referring to Sandworms, but there's a case to be made for stink bugs being just as horrifying.) They find their way into our homes in increasing numbers, buzz around like tiny, annoying airplanes, eat our fruit and vegetable crops, and of course...stink, stink, stink. Stink bugs are pretty much everywhere throughout the United States (as of May 2011, they were reported in 33 states), and they don't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. So what is the stink bug? Where'd it come from? And why can't we seem to get rid of it?

image via Art Cushman, USDA; Property of the Smithsonian Institution, Department of Entomology, Bugwood.org

What are they? True bugs? You lying?

Stink bugs, also known as shield bugs, belong to the family of insects known as pentatomidae ("penta" being Greek for 5, the bug's number of antenna segments). The insect most people call a "stink bug" is technically the "brown marmorated" stink bug, or Halymorpha halys, which is native to Southeast Asia. The brown marmorated stink bug has quite a few relatives in its order, Hemiptera, including the green stink bug (aka a green soldier bug), the southern green stink bug (or green vegetable bug), the forest bug, the orange shield bug, the European stink bug, the cicada, the assassin bug, the water bug, the aphid, planthoppers and leafhoppers.

Stink bugs, and all insects in the Hemiptera order are referred to as "true bugs," or those insects with a proboscis (instead of mandibles or maxillae) which is used to pierce their food of choice, then suck out the fluids. For stink bugs, this tends to be fruit and vegetables. It is believed this order of bug has been around for about 248 million years (since the Permian period). While all of the aforementioned relatives can be a nuisance (most damage crops and remain resistant to pesticides), none have caused such a recent -- stink -- as the brown marmorated stink bug.

How'd they get here?

The brown marmorated stink bug isn't indigenous to the United States. It is, however, native to parts of Southeast China and Japan, so it's speculated that the insect hitched a ride on some imported products sometime in the mid-nineties. Most of the earliest stateside infestations occurred in Pennsylvania, but in less than a decade, the bug has spread to most of the continental US.

Blech. What's that smell?

When a stink bug is disturbed it emits a noxious odor as a defense mechanism. The stink comes from two chemical compounds known as trans-2-octenal and trans-2-decenal, the latter being the same compound that gives cilantro its distinctive aroma. While the odor is typically bothersome and unpleasant to most, it's not toxic. However, some people have recently reported mild allergic reactions to the brown marmorated's stink. Believe it or not, in some cultures the odor produced by stink bugs is considered appealing, even appetizing, soughtafter for seasoning stews and delicacies. (Note: the variety of stink bug typically sought for cuisine is likely not the brown marmorated, but rather a close relative such as the Encosternum delegorguei.) David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation proposes eating stink bugs as a potential means of population control and offers some modified recipes (via wusa9.com):

Can we get rid of them?

Unfortunately, it appears this insect is here to stay...at least for the next few years. The brown marmorated stink bug has very few natural predators, though, one of particular interest to farmers and scientists, is a parasitic wasp. This wasp, which attacks and eats the stink bug eggs, may prove to be beneficial, but their populations are not large enough to mediate the brown marmorated stink bug's propagation.

Commercial insecticides have proven only mildly-effective in farmers' battle against stink bugs. While various insecticides do, in fact, kill most stink bugs upon application, these insecticides do not have the same effect on stink bug eggs. The hope, naturally, is that the aforementioned parasitic wasp might pick up where the insecticides leave off. Recently, scientists in Japan may have discovered a highly effective stink bug repellent derived from a fungus that grows in the green foxtail weed. For more on this, read our Green Foxtail Fungus article.

Is there no hope?

Sure there's hope! There's always hope. And while the brown marmorated stink bug might be around for a while, that doesn't mean you can't get the upper hand on these pesky invaders in and around your own home. In fact, over the last few years, a number of homespun, affordable and clever solutions have become available. This site, as a point-in-fact, exists to provide resources, tips and solutions in the ongoing battle against stink bugs. The best approach, it seems, is a multi-pronged approach. Because the bug tends to be very resilient, several treatments and techniques must be employed, but with the right tools, (and a positive attitude) you can fight the stink bug...and win.

See the next article, "5 Ways to Fight Stink Bugs" »

Sources used in the research for this article:
Image: Art Cushman, USDA; Property of the Smithsonian Institution, Dept. of Entomology, Bugwood.org
Video: http://www.wusa9.com/news/local/story.aspx?storyid=136847&catid=158
http://pestworld.org/stink-bug
http://www.ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/brownMarmoratedstinkbug.htm
http://entomology.ifas.ufl.edu/creatures/beneficial/a_grandis.htm
http://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2011/02/17/stink-bugs-invade-maryland-again/
http://southeastfarmpress.com/management/natural-predators-tested-stink-bug-control

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At a glance

Key points from this article:

  • Stink bugs stink
  • They've spread across the United States
  • Not toxic, but very smelly
  • Been around for millions of years
  • They're known as true bugs.
  • Edible, if that's your bag
  • Parasitic wasps kill their eggs
  • Use multiple methods to fight them