Columns, Photos

The Literary Bugs

I thought the box elder bugs were kind of cute, the way they hovered around whenever I sat down to write. They were particularly fond of perching upon the wooden pencils I keep in a cup beside my computer.

When I’d shoo them, they’d fly off, a bit annoyed and sounding like miniature helicopters, only to land a more respectful distance away on top of a blue Tiffany’s box in which I store my bills. Naturally, I named them Holly and Fred, after the characters in Capote’s novel.

They even trailed me into the kitchen to watch me cook.

Such behavior isn’t unusual. Large, hairy carpenter bees follow me about the yard like puppy dogs while I cut flowers. A praying mantis once spent an afternoon perched on my shoulder. Some people attract romance, others, danger. I lure insects. I’d like to think they’re drawn to my artistic energy, but probably it’s the carbon dioxide.

I was showing off a few photos of Holly and Fred on my iPhone, when someone more versed in entomology than I said my admirers weren’t box elders. They were stinkbugs — the distinctive shield shape was a dead giveaway. A box elder bug is elliptical and looks more like a lightning bug with a red X pattern on its back.

I was mortified. Box elder bugs were one thing, they sound sort of British and somewhat dignified. But stink bugs?
Stinkbugs get their names because they stink. When threatened, the bug releases a noxious mix of chemicals from special glands located on the dorsal surface of the abdomen and the underside of the thorax.

There are over 250 species of stinkbugs indigenous to North America, including the green sting bug and the great Southern stinkbug. I had neither. What I had, unfortunately, were Halyomorpha halys, more commonly known as brown marmorated stink bugs and also called East Asian stinkbugs. You can identify them by their unique markings: antennae with an alternating dark and light pattern, and black and white markings along the rear edges of the abdomen.

They’re illegal aliens, these stinkbugs, first spotted in this country in 2001, in Allentown, PA, of all places. Scientists think the first few hitchhiked over in cargo containers from China. Since then, they’ve spread throughout the Mid-Atlantic, where they pose some sort of an agricultural threat to apples, pears, peaches, figs, mulberries, soy beans, and tomatoes. But, nobody is quite sure.

People rant and rave about these graceful, slow-moving bugs that don’t bite or sting. Suck them up in vacuum cleaners, they say. Flush them down the toilet, others suggest. Spray ‘em with a strong pesticide. An invasive pest that emits a vile odor is how most people refer to them. Supposedly, they like to get into drapes, and once they get established in your home they’re hard to get rid of.

The thought of dozens of stinkbugs emerging from behind a chintz pillow during a cocktail party just wouldn’t do. I know how vicious these Rehoboth queens can be with their gossip. I scooped up Holly and Fred and tossed them out the window.

After a few days, though, I started to miss their circus antics and buzzing words of encouragement. Writing can be lonely at times. So, despite the pollen and my terrible spring allergies, I opened the windows and set out a little plate of sliced Fuji apples to lure them back. Halyomorpha halys, you see, have a particular affinity for that fruit.

It worked. Within two days they were back and happily sitting on my pencils again where I now observe them with awe and amusement. Let the queens talk. Doesn’t bug me.


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