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Let's Reminisce: Coping with invasive insects
By Jerry Lincecum
Apr 4, 2018
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While digging in our backyard vegetable garden recently, I encountered some fire ants and received two stings, which festered and bothered me for several days.  This experience coincided with my reading an article about a new species of stinkbug that is invading a number of US states from Asia.  So I did some thinking and a little research about notable examples of invasive bugs and how to deal with them.

In my childhood I had plenty of encounters and a few stings from red harvester ants, but their bites were far less troublesome that those of the red imported fire ant (RIFA), now considered a major pest in many parts of the world.  In this country the Food and Drug Administration estimates that more than US$5 billion is spent annually on medical treatment, damage, and control in RIFA-infested areas. In addition, the ants cause approximately $750 million in damage annually to agriculture.  Over 40 million people live in RIFA-infested areas in the southern US and about 60% of them are stung each year.

 

I found an interesting discussion of the invasion by the imported fire ant in E. O. Wilsonís autobiography entitled Naturalist.  He first observed it in 1942 in the port city of Mobile, AL, where it had arrived by boat from South America.  By 1948 it had spread outside Mobile sufficiently to be recognized as a threat to Alabama crops and wildlife.  At the age of 19, Wilson began his career as a professional scientist by taking a four-month leave from his studies at the University of Alabama in order to study this invasive ant and assess the threat it posed for the Alabama Department of Conservation.  His work on fire ants eventually became a cornerstone in the career of this noted scientist and Harvard professor who won two Pulitzer Prizes and became a champion of biodiversity.  Thus it might be said that some good came from this invasive insect that has caused us so much harm.

 

Our stinkbug problem is just beginning, according to a recent article in the New Yorker magazine.  Worldwide there are approximately 5,000 species of stinkbug, named for the unpleasant scent they release from pores in the thorax when disturbed.  The brown marmorated kind has only recently come to the US as an unintended import from East Asia.  However, it has quickly become infamous because it both invades peopleís homes in large numbers and threatens millions of acres of crops, having already spread into 43 states from the various ports of entry where it first arrived.

 

If any show up at your house, the best remedy is to drop them in soapy water.  If large numbers show up on your window screens, use a wide paintbrush to sweep them into a container of water with a teaspoon of dish liquid detergent.  They will sink below the surface and drown without raising a stink.  Perhaps with more time and research, we can pursue the time-honored biological solution of finding another species which preys on the stinkbug, or even learn how to process the pests for food, as they do in Laos, where the bugs are regarded as delicious due to their extremely strong odor. The insects are sometimes pounded together with spices and a seasoning to prepare cheo, a paste mixed with chili peppers and herbs.  Sounds like an interesting variation on salsa, for chips and dip.

 

As another approach, I remember well the successful attack on screwworm infestations of Texas cattle in the 1960s. The technique centered on a unique reproductive handicap that prevented female screwworm flies from mating more than once. Scientists figured out that by clinically sterilizing and releasing huge numbers of males as breeding time approached, fertile males would be outcompeted and the majority of female flies would lay sterile eggs. Irradiating the males was used for sterilization, and as a result the screwworm was almost completely eradicated from the US in 1966 and from Mexico in 1991.  We just need to discover what the vulnerabilities of the brown marmorated stinkbug are.

 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories.  Email him at jlincecum@me.com.