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Professor takes on stinkbugs

By Candace Nelson

Hate those stinkbugs, the weirdly armoured critters that cling to your lampshades and windowsills?

A West Virginia Wesleyan professor might take them off your hands. 

The marmorated stinkbug is more than just a pesky house insect. They destroy crops and cause severe economic damage across Mid-Atlantic states.

Dr. Jeanne Sullivan, an associate professor and chairwoman of the biology department at West Virginia Wesleyan College, is soliciting them for her research.

The mobile bug, which is thought to have stowed away in a shipment from Asia in the 1990s and landed near Allentown, Pa., moves between crops and wild hosts, increasing the use of insecticide, which has both economic and environmental costs.

"Coping with stinkbugs is economically important to growers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and surrounding states," Sullivan said.

"Stinkbugs feed on trees and other fruit, damaging the fruit and making it unsellable as fresh fruit. And stinkbugs also feed on many other crops, including sweet corn, soybeans and home-garden favorites such as tomatoes."

Although she has about 1,500 specimens in her lab, she will need a few thousand males and females to complete her research.

To donate live stinkbugs for research, contact Sullivan at

The post office accepts small, nonpoisonous insects as live animals that can be mailed.

That might be more trouble than squashing or flushing them, however. 

The stinkbugs need to be in an air-filled container, like an inflated plastic zipper bag or plastic food container at least three or four times the volume of the enclosed bugs. A damp paper towel should be placed inside.

The container should then go in a shipping box with cushioning so the bugs aren't tossed about. Stinkbugs can be mailed to Sullivan at West Virginia Wesleyan College, 59 College Ave., Buckhannon, WV 26201.

While they are annoying to homeowners, they're not particularly hazardous. However, their multiplication and proclivity for feeding on crops is causing concern.

Sullivan received a one-year, $7,000 grant to study the effects of sub-lethal exposure to insecticides on mobility, feeding and reproduction in the brown marmorated stinkbug, or Halyomorpha halys.

The State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania grant will help Sullivan determine how long after being sprayed on a crop that an insecticide can still incapacitate, either by killing the stinkbugs or keeping them from reproducing.

"The problem is they're multiplying," she said. "A grower doesn't want to spray insecticide unless they need to. It's not cost-effective.

"So say you sprayed an insecticide, and it's getting old and dried up and leaving residue on plants. Does it still affect the bugs in some way? We want to see if it causes the bugs damage - that way growers can wait a little longer to spray."

Sullivan became interested in stinkbugs because her academic research involves reproduction, and she enjoys the practical benefits the research can provide.

"Right now, there are no good tools besides insecticides to protect crops from stinkbugs," she said. "The only viable option for non-organic growers is to spray insecticides.

"This research could potentially show whether insecticides that do not kill the bugs incapacitate them in ways that protect crops. This way growers may be able to use less insecticide and still protect crops from stinkbug damage."

Sullivan partnered with Dr. Tracy Leskey at the USDA Appalachian Fruit Research Lab in Kearneysville to do preliminary studies of the sub-lethal effects of a pesticide.

Leskey suggested the grant to Sullivan, and the two are working jointly to study effects of four more insecticides.

"We became interested in the stinkbug as related to agriculture back in 2009. We had many growers in the Eastern Panhandle in West Virginia that were starting to incur significant injury in their orchards," Leskey said.

"To understand what happens to the bugs after they're exposed to an insecticide is important. This bug is hard to kill."

The research also includes an undergraduate student who will begin working on the project with Sullivan. The grant will fund one full-time student in the summer and one part-time student during the academic year. It also will pay for travel expense to Leskey's lab in Kearneysville for use of specialized equipment.

The student chosen to help says the research fits his interests.

"My biggest goal with this project is to gain knowledge that would be beneficial for my career path," said Kristopher Sarver, 20.

"My career goal is to become a field researcher for any number of the nation's national forests or the national parks, particularly in West Virginia."

Research projects on stinkbugs are underway around the country. Sullivan said other researchers are looking into natural enemies, determining the bug's future patterns and studying how farmers can manage it.

"There is a role for small institutions to contribute to scientific research. Much of this money in the grant is paying for a student to work on the project," Sullivan said.

"You get more bang for your buck. Not only do you get a research project, but you're training the next generation of scientists."

Contact writer Candace Nelson at or 304-348-5148. Follow her at


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