Chris Eckert must remain on guard.
A new and relentless airborne invader sleeps in a forest beside his peach orchards and might attack any day.
Eckert, president of Eckert’s Country Store and Farms south of Belleville off Illinois 15, operates a computer-assisted command post in a sparsely-furnished office. On Thursday, while his golden retriever sprawled on the floor, Eckert explained his strategy to defend against what he suspects could be the metro east’s first significant outbreak of a crop-damaging creature — the brown marmorated stink bug.
He said it is the third year that the brown marmorated stink bug has had a known presence in the area, long enough for a possible “radical breakout” in large numbers to occur as the weather warms.
“Thirty or forty years ago, they would just blast everything with pesticide and nothing lived. Today, we use as little pesticide as possible, because we don’t want to kill the good insects that are beneficial,” Eckert said. “The danger is, if you use too much, they will build up resistance and you can’t stop them.”
The brown marmorated stink bug is native to east Asia. These flying insects insert needle-like mouth tubes into juicy fruits such as peaches and apples, then suck out the sweet liquid while leaving traces of their digestive fluids that causes brown rotting. They have devastated orchards in the Atlantic states.
Marmorated means marbeled, and refers to the brown and white mottling of the shield-shaped insect, which is about three-quarters of an inch long. They often gather at night in forests or in buildings where they are sometimes confronted by homeowners. And they give off an offensive odor.
The bug is one of several harmful species that will be discussed during the second Illinois Invasive Species Symposium, planned for Thursday at the University of Illinois. On the agenda with the stink bug is the so-called “crazy worm,” another Asian invader also known as the Alabama jumping worm and maybe best-described as a big earthworm on meth. It destroys forest soils and kills trees. While this worm and another invader — “crazy ants”— are known in the southern United States, they have not yet reached Illinois. The tiny ants, which dine on electrical insulation and sometimes cause electrical fires, do not travel in orderly columns like other ants but disperse in all directions.
Eckert said the best defense against any of the dozens of insects that Illinois farmers face is monitoring. And that’s why the command center features a large computer monitor, and the company’s far flung orchards have two weather stations. Insects hatch when a high enough temperature is reached for a certain number of days. The meteorological tracking gets down to hours. The insects are more vulnerable during certain cycles of their lives.
Cody Gill is paid to travel to orchards in Grafton, Millstadt and the Eckerts’ home base near Belleville to check insect traps that are designed to attract a particular species with specially-designed pheromone bait, a sexual attractant that draws in males. Gill keeps a log book that notes the date and number of trapped bugs.
Eckert enters the data into the computer on spreadsheets that act as a kind of cumulative warning radar to those who know how to interpret the information and decide what pesticide in what amount should be used.
Currently, the command post is tracking the codling moth, an old enemy that bores holes into apples and other fruits.
“We’re always going to have codling moths,” Eckert said. “The trick is to determine the economic threshold, or when it becomes economically unfeasible to allow damage. We do not need one hundred percent control.”
The brown marmorated stink bug, while known in St. Clair and Madison Counties for two years, is not present in another peach-growing area to the north. It has, however, invaded large areas of Kentucky.
Ron Weigel, owner of Weigel’s Orchard and Market in Golden Eagle, Calhoun County, about 90 miles north of Belleville, said he walks among his trees regularly to search for the marmorated stink bug but hasn’t found any.
“The only thing we can do is be vigilant and deal with it when it comes,” he said.
When she was a freshman in high school, Kelly Estes worked as a “crop scout” for her father, who still grows soybeans and corn on thousands of acres in northern Illinois. Her job was to walk the fields searching for black cutworms and corn ear worms and then noting their presence on sheets of paper.
That job prepared her for her role as director of the Illinois Cooperative Agriculture Pest Survey, part of the Illinois Natural History Survey. She is an expert on stink bugs.
As for the brown marmorated version of the species, Estes said it has become widely dispersed because it’s “a good hitchhiker.” The stink bugs “are in people’s homes, in garages and sheds,” she said, and are transported in clothing, cars and even packages that are mailed.
Once they arrive, can they be totally eradicated?
“Probably not,” she said, “but they must be managed.”