Stink bug alert warns Portugal of new scourge for agriculture

Investigators are sounding the alert over a new bug that threatens over 300 plant species, many of them agricultural crops.

Halyomorpha halys – or the Brown marmorated stink bug – appears to have travelled the world ‘by accident’, and is already in Portugal.

The damage it wreaks on fruit trees of all kinds and other crops has caused millions of dollars worth of losses to farmers in various parts of the United States.

Investigators at FCTUC, the Faculty of Science and Technology of Coimbra University, are seriously concerned, saying harvest losses “can reach 90% of production”.

Particularly vulnerable are tomatoes, corn, pear trees, vines, citrus and stone-fruits.

At a time when the country is grappling with the advance of Asian Hornets (click here), the existence of yet another ‘foreign scourge’ for traditional agriculture “must be publicised”, says Hugo Gaspar of FCTUC’s centre for functional ecology, known as FLOWer Lab.

Publicity is the best way of getting people’s help in tracking the bug, and dealing with it.

FLOWer Lab has a Facebook page, encouraging people to advise them of all locations where they notice the presence of the bug. A recent post alludes to an area in Oeiras, on the outskirts of Lisbon, while the constant message online is “share this information as widely as you can”.

Says Gaspar, we have to try and avoid a situation of the bug’s “silent expansion”.

Producers in Switzerland have reportedly seen this year’s pear harvest affected twice as badly as the year before.

“If this continues we can forget about pear production here”, one grower told trade online FreshPlaza which says Swiss authorities are meeting this month to try and devise a plan of combat.

But in Portugal so far there is no mass-awareness nor a national plan. FLOWer Lab is concerned that many small producers may not even know about the Brown marmorated stink bug.

Native to China, Taiwan, Japan and the Korean Peninsula – the insect has a peculiar way of destroying fruit.

With corn, for example, it goes through the husk before eating the kernels.

Explains Wikipedia, this means the damage is “hidden until the husks are removed during harvesting”.

With pears, the bugs feeding leaves them “scarred, pitted, discoloured and deformed”.

Fruit and vegetables attacked by the bug have a mealy texture. In short, ‘they can’t be commercialised’.

To make matters worse, there are very few effective pesticides on the market.

One good bit of news is that birds and wasps have started seeing these bugs as an alternative food source – but not voraciously enough to stem their spread.

Regarding the word ‘stink’, this comes from the odour the bug emits when threatened (apparently smelling a bit like coriander).

Stresses FLOWer Lab’s João Loureiro, these bugs don’t simply threaten plant life, they pose a danger to public health during their winter sleep period (between December and March).

During these months they seek shelter inside houses, barns, sheds etc., and congregate in large numbers.

If disturbed, they “liberate disgusting odours” en-masse.

Thus the word is getting out. FLOWer Lab has posted an online leafleft to help people identify the bug from others vaguely like it and the message is ‘please share news of any sightings through the Facebook page (click here), or via email: [email protected], if possible with photographs.

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