Mass solon asks for funds to combat invasive bugs

Marmorated stink bug female. — Photo courtesy of Rutgers University

Before combating tiny intruders that are threatening the state’s crops, Massachusetts farmers and policymakers might benefit by knowing their enemy.

“In the old days people sprayed [pesticides] on a schedule because you didn’t know when an insect was there or not there,” said Richard Bonnano, president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau. These days, scientists study pests to figure out how best to keep them off crops, he said.

Aiming to protect local raspberries and strawberries from pernicious pests, the Senate last Wednesday approved a budget amendment filed by Minority Leader Bruce Tarr directing UMass Amherst’s agricultural school to develop a strategy for dealing with two bugs that are new to Massachusetts.

“This is a new problem,” Mr. Tarr said during floor debate.

The two new pests are a type of fruit fly, called the spotted wing drosophila, and a larger specimen called the brown marmorated stink bug.

“Most fruit flies attack fruit that is rotting on the ground … These particular pests attack fruit that’s in its growing stages,” Mr. Tarr said.

While his Senate colleagues laughed at parts of Mr. Tarr’s impromptu entomology lecture, the risk posed by the two bugs are real to farmers.

“It’s a little bit of a nightmare,” Mr. Bonnano told the News Service. There is little known about either bug, and how it would cope with New England seasons, Bonnano said. He said the stink bug has been moving up the East Coast and came up to Massachusetts during a heat wave two or three years ago.

“Was that a freak year that we had, because we basically had Georgia-like weather? That may have been the trigger that brought the insect up here,” Bonnano said. He said he knew less about how the spotted wing fruit fly came to the state.

The bugs have made their way through crops in other states and research has been done, but pest control is a geographically specific endeavor. Mr. Bonnano hopes UMass researchers can learn how the bugs adapt to the Massachusetts climate and how to kill them – by using pesticides, an infection, or a predator that would kill them.

Researchers would also need to determine how effective those methods are in the local climate. Agriculture officials used a wasp to kill the destructive European corn borer, but the wasp needs to be re-introduced every year because it cannot survive the winter.

The spotted wing fruit fly can pierce the relatively thin skin of growing berries but not the tougher skin of apples. The fly lays its eggs in the flesh of the fruit, Mr. Bonnano said.

In the Senate, Mr. Tarr described in detail the capabilities of the new fruit flies before the amendment passed. “The spotted wing drosophila actually has a particular bodily component that resembles a saw, that enables it to be quite effective at tearing into the flesh, particularly of strawberries, so that it can achieve its pest-ful purpose,” he said.