“The assassin bug’s preference for feeding around the mouth of its victim has earned it the nickname ‘kissing bug’; unfortunately, it can be the kiss of death.”
— Amy Stewart, “Wicked Bugs”
The most interesting, amazing and alarming lecture I attended at the Washington State Master Gardener Conference in Ocean Shores a year ago, was Amy Stewart’s talk on her book, “Wicked Bugs.”
Amy explained the ways in which insects benefit our lives: pollinating the plants that feed us, carrying on the vital work of decomposition, returning everything from fallen leaves to fallen heroes back to the earth, helping us keep pests in check by preying on one another.
However, her main interest is in the dark side of the relationship between nature and humans. I was fascinated by her humorous, and informative lecture and then by her book. There were indeed a few “spine-tingling thrills along the way” as I read “Wicked Bugs.”
A few of the stories, including the one about the mating habits of the hermaphroditic banana slug, found all along the Pacific West Coast, were so gross that I don’t think the newspaper would print it. So I will recommend the book to you, and you can look it up at wickedbugs.com if you are intrigued.
There are 138 members of the bloodsucking Triatoma genus or assassin bugs, and half of them are known to transmit Chagas disease. This is important to know as travel in jungle areas of South America can bring people into contact with bugs that can transmit this ultimately fatal disease. Chagas also exists in southern areas of North America, but it is less common there.
The last few years have seen a resurgence of bed bug problems due to a reduction in the use of broad-spectrum pesticides in favor of targeted baits, and alarmingly, the bed bugs’ own resistance to chemical controls, according to Ms. Stewart. I’ve read recently that the bed bugs in New York are mutating so they are resistant to the neurotoxic ingredients in bug sprays.
The disturbing news this week from the University of Washington in Seattle is that bed bugs have been spreading into dormitories and homes via library books that provide a temporary hideout in their binding. Librarians have been freezing or microwaving infested books in an attempt to control the outbreak. This is a little too close to home for my peace of mind.
Wicked bugs are no laughing matter. In the past two years, Eastern Washington has begun to see the destructive effects of a new pest, the Spotted Wing Drosophilia, a small fly that lays its eggs inside soft fruits like strawberries, blueberries, grapes, raspberries and cherries. The eggs develop into worms that destroy the commercial value of the crop. No effective control has been found yet although scientists are working feverishly on the problem.
A non-native pest first introduced to North America in the late 1990s, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, has spread to 38 states and has become a significant pest in the eastern U.S. It feeds on a wide range of plants, including tree fruit, grapes, berries, vegetables, corn, soybeans and ornamental plants. According to Washington State University Extension, it has shown high adaptability to different climates and appears to resist commonly used pesticides. Several were found in 2010 in the Vancouver area and this year the first one was found in Yakima. This is the worst nightmare possible for agriculture in our state, and it has risen to the top of the research list.
This stink bug shares the same shape and smell characteristic of all stink bugs, but the body is colored a mottled brown and gray. The antennae and legs have dark and light bands. The underside is white, sometimes with dark markings.
If you suspect you have seen Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs, please collect the samples in a container and place in a freezer until you can take them to your local WSU Extension office or local Master Gardener clinic at 404 Washington St. in Wenatchee. You can reach the Extension office by phone at 667-6540.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Gloria Kupferman is one of three columnists featured.