KEARNEYSVILLE —Back in 2010, the Brown Marmorated stink bug cost farmers more than $37 million with its invasion and destruction of crops, in addition to populating in huge numbers in area homes. However, the future is a bright one thanks to the work of Tracy Leskey of the Appalachian Fruit Research Station, who just received an award for her team’s research, leading to the development of sustainable long-term management strategies to keep this pest under control.
Leskey was named Area Senior Research Scientist of the Year by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS). The ARS is the principal in-house research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. Leskey is in the ARS northeast region.
Tom Shanower, Leskey’s area director, lauded her efforts.
“Leskey’s scientific research has been a tremendous asset to the ARS and to U.S. agriculture. She is most-deserving of this award, as her research has solved important agricultural challenges, helping the U.S. Department of Agriculture to serve the nation. She is also a great role model for early career scientists,” Shanower said.
Leskey has been with the Appalachian Fruit Research Station since 2000. Scientists nationwide first became aware of the invasive stink bug, who came from Asia in goods being exported to the United States, in the early 2000s. Leskey had her first experience with the bug in 2003.
“I had stopped off to get gas when I saw a stink bug on the handle of the pump I was using. I put it in a bag and brought it back to the lab,” Leskey said.
The stink bug invasion was fast and furious from then on.
“They can fly from one to two miles a day and eat a lot. They had no natural predators here,” Leskey said.
There were constant re-invasions of the bug, destroying crops. Homeowners were also finding themselves inundated with the pest.
“One man who lived just outside of Harpers Ferry had more than 26,000 stink bugs in his attic. We called it the bowl of bugs,” Leskey said.
Part of Leskey’s research involved developing a synthetic pheromone that would attract stink bugs to netting or traps on farmland.
“We wanted to attract and kill the bugs in locations they were prone to go to. This was literally like trying to put out a fire. We showed no mercy,” Leskey said.
Leskey and her team also raised Samurai Wasps in the lab then set them free. Samurai Wasps literally flew to the United States on their own. They deposit eggs into the eggs of the stink bug. As the wasp larvae develop, they kill the stink bug eggs. The wasps don’t sting, Leskey said.
Work continues with farmers to eliminate stink bugs. Farms are monitored. Leskey said the pests like a dry year, and they start early in the season.
She recommended that homeowners put painters’ tape on the top of windows where there may be cracks. Stink bugs shelter in homes during the winter.
Leskey’s award caps a lifelong fascination with insects. Originally from Rockwood, Pa., Leskey earned her PhD in entomology from the University of Massachusetts.
Even as a youngster in kindergarten, her love of bugs was evident.
“My first show and tell was the life cycle of the Monarch Butterfly,” she said.