Blue Ridge Naturalist: Is Nature Bothering You?

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Newly hatched Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs are more colorful (and cuter!) than older nymphs and adults.

Should gardeners think of native plants as thugs when they grow well in their yards? A Kansas butterfly enthusiast wrote an article recounting her experience with Woolly Pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa), a native Midwestern host plant for the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar. She wrote that the plant remained limited until its fifteenth year, “when suddenly it began suckering like that other fearsome thug, passion vine.” 

This situation exemplifies how folks do not tend to see nature as it is, but rather as they want or expect it to be. Their subjective view typically leads to poor outcomes for the natural world, which matters because nature is our life-support system. Rather than badmouth organisms, people need to accept that they can’t dictate how organisms should behave.

Consider the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) and the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys), both of which bother people inside their homes come late summer and fall. These insect species overwinter as adults in their Asian homeland, which means they need to find shelter to get through freezing weather. Transplanted to America (intentionally and unintentionally, respectively), they enter buildings in fall via cracks and crevices around doors, windows, siding, chimneys, etc.

What is the proper way to view these insects that are not here of their own accord, but rather because of humans? It would help people’s psyches immensely if they stopped regarding these bugs as “pests,” as if their intent is to bother humans. Instead, you should learn about these animals and your house—the only way you can figure out how best to deal with the situation logically.

The insects that enter your house in fall are but a few months old, but they will likely discover more about your home than you have taken time to notice during your residency. This situation must change.

You need to seal interior openings around doors and windows, and inspect any location on walls, ceilings, or floors that has been breached for the purposes of electrical, plumbing, or HVAC needs. These places provide a pathway for animals to get in, as well as hot and cold air, which results in higher cooling and heating bills.

(Note: It’s amazing how much cold air you can feel in the winter entering the house from outer-wall outlets! You should put safety plugs into them.) 

If your windows are old, you might consider getting new ones that are better sealed (and more energy efficient). The expense of well-made windows will be offset somewhat by lower energy bills. Using screens on windows, doors, and over vents, and checking the seal around window air conditioner units, is also important.

Yet, no matter how hard you try to seal openings, some of these insects will manage to get inside. You need to accept that this is just the way life is now. It’s really no different from dealing with dust inside your house. No matter how spick-and-span you make your home, you are going to have to clean it again and again.

So, you should deal with this situation in a prudent manner. Your first thought might be to use pesticides, but applying poisons does not qualify as prudent—particularly in this case.

When these insects first arrived in the U.S., no one advised homeowners to employ pesticides against them inside or outside the house. Apparently that advice has changed, undoubtedly in response to people insisting that something had to be done. But utilizing pesticides for these insects is akin to insisting upon receiving antibiotics for a virus infection. It is not only useless, it is harmful.

Pesticides have never been a solution to controlling organisms because the critters eventually become resistant to them. You end up with superbugs, and then the development of super-pesticides that are evermore deadly to living creatures, including humans.

Pesticide applicators place a perimeter of poison on the ground around the outside of your house, which becomes a killing field for a variety of unintended victims that should not be needlessly harmed. It is completely ineffective and a waste of money using it for Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (the species coming en masse into the house) because they do not crawl around on the ground; they fly to the walls of your home. 

You might have paid for such pesticide applications and thought they were successful because there seemed to be fewer stink bugs this past year. The truth, however, is that Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs had plummeted in number in 2017, thanks to Mother Nature.

These bugs start congregating on home surfaces at the end of August in our area, because that is when nighttime temperatures become cooler. At our house, they tend to start flying into our carport by afternoon. My husband catches them, kills them with a fly swatter, then leaves the carcasses for mammals to eat (all organic matter should be recycled). Gray Squirrels take the stink bugs during the day, and nighttime scavengers clean up bodies left behind.

Ladybugs do not start to enter homes in our area until October. Because they are smaller than stink bugs, they can more easily access your living areas where it’s too warm for them to hibernate. Therefore, you could see them all winter into spring, but you needn’t do anything. With no food and water, the ladybugs die, and you can pick them up as that happens.

Or, if temperatures are above freezing, catch them in a bug box (a small plastic container, which also works for stink bugs) and release the ladybugs outside (just as scientists did back in 1978-1981).

Returning to the Kansas butterfly gardener, she found a substitute for the native pipevine called White-veined Pipevine (Aristolochia fibriata), a plant she considers “really lush and cute!” Native to Argentina and Brazil, it makes seeds, which this Kansas Extension Master Gardener and Native Plant Society member is selling at spring plant sales in her area. Butterfly gardeners “are eager buyers, especially if they’ve not had a spot for its huge sun-loving thuggish cousin.”

I predict this new alien plant species will become yet another addition to the “invasive” plant-species list since it makes viable seeds. Concern about so-called invasive plants has been a huge contributor to herbicide usage in this country, even though herbicides are producing superweeds and killing many, many kinds of animals.

If you feel that nature is bothering you, please deal with the situation in a sensible way. Avoid creating new problems (for example, by bringing in more alien species) and/or use your own muscle power instead of pesticides that do not offer a permanent solution anyway. 

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