Stink bugs are invading downtown Sacramento, Japanese mosquitoes are moving into Minnesota, and bed bugs are … well, everywhere, horrifyingly enough. And that’s not even including the weeds, supergerms and parasitic wasps.
Farmers and homeowners in the U.S. are waging war against a range of pests -- both homegrown and imported -- that threaten crops and livestock, sicken our children, and generally annoy the heck out of us. They come from several sources: Abuse of pesticides and antibiotics have led to the rise of superweeds and superbugs -- a problem one researcher called “a slow-train wreck” -- while the rise in international trade and tourism has brought with it foreign superpests with no known enemies -- and they’re the ones living the American Dream.
Just look at the brown marmorated stink bug.
“There are reports of people using manure shovels and 5-gallon buckets to dispose of them,” said Chuck Ingels, farm advisor and interim county director with the University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources arm.
'This is the worst invasive pest we’ve ever had.'
- Chuck Ingels, farm advisor and interim county director with the University of California
“This is the worst invasive pest we’ve ever had in California.”
A stinky problem
The nightmarish nuisance of the stink bug, Halyomorpha halys, likely began 15 years ago or so when the bug sneaked into the U.S. from Asia. The inch-or-so long, extra-smelly pest can fly up to half a mile at a pop and feasts on grapes, apples, berries and other crops.
“Whenever you bring a pest over, they can explode, because there’s no parasites,” Ingels told FoxNews.com. They’re trouble for farmers, but lately the bugs have branched out -- Ingels found a hearty colony of the critters living in downtown Sacramento. Stink bugs will creep into houses and breed in sheds; some advise vacuuming up the swarming pests.
The solution sounds even worse than the problem: Scientists aim to import another pest from Asia, a type of parasitic wasp that specifically target the larva of the stink bug, laying its own eggs within them. Currently living in quarantine, the wasps may be released shortly.
The stink bugs have taken over thanks to the rise in agribusiness -- just take a look at the fruits in your fridge for a quick tour of South America. Another factor is the increase in tourism, said Dr. Beth Grafton-Cardwell, who leads the Endemic and Invasive Pest and Disease initiative at the University of California.
“It’s the size of the world population and how much travel is going on and movement of people and products,” she told FoxNews.com.
Minnesota faces a similar imported threat: the Japanese rock pool mosquito, Aedes japonicas, which likely arrived on container ships from Asia and has slowly worked its way from both coasts to Minnesota over the course of a decade, explained Mike McLean, public information officer with Metropolitan Mosquito Control.
“It’s been interesting to watch an exotic species take hold,” he told FoxNews.com. Interesting, but, also potentially dangerous: In its native habitat, the japonicas is a carrier for Japanese encephalitis.
“We don’t have that disease in this country, but because the mosquitoes can spread it, we really keep a close eye on it,” he said.
Non-native species aren’t just an American problem, of course. We export various species from the U.S. to plague other countries as well.
“The prickly pear cactus has taken over in Africa,” he said, “and you see certain diseases decimating crayfish populations in Europe. You see that not just in North America but all over the world.”
Superbugs, superweeds and more
Not all superpests fly and sting, of course. Some are so small you can barely see them. This week, the CDC warned of the rise of a different form of superpest: superbugs, dangerous bacteria that are resistant to the drugs we’ve created to kill them.
And like Lex Luthor or the Joker, this superproblem has a sinister origin: Like a bad science-fiction story, we have inflicted the plague upon ourselves.
“It’s an approaching crisis,” explained Scott Saber, vice president of government affairs for Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization.
The widespread overuse of antibiotics in hospitals and on farms is leading to the rise of superbugs that are resistant to drugs -- antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, a diarrhea-causing superbug, and a class of fast-growing killer bacteria dubbed a "nightmare" among them. The CDC called it an urgent public-health threat on Monday.
As farm animals are continually exposed to antibiotics, which serve to promote growth and prevent disease, a small number of the bacteria living in their guts develop resistance to those antibiotics. Then it’s Darwin’s Law writ large: The drug-resistant bacteria that survive thrive, and make their way into the food system, into supermarkets, and ultimately into us.
“Of [the CDC’s] top 10, at least half of them originally were created on the farm from continuous use of antibiotics in pigs and chicken,” explained Washington State University research Charles Benbrook.
Benbrook, who works at WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, released a study last year showing a second side to the superpest problem: superweeds.
The widespread use of genetically modified seeds specially coded to battle bugs and wilt weeds has led to the rise of superweeds that just won’t die, despite the best poisons available to farmers. Marketed as Roundup, the chemical glyphosate worked extremely well for a few years. But thanks to overspraying, the weeds have woken up and gotten smart.
Now 28 species of weed are resistant to Roundup, on more than 100 million acres of farmland.
“This is probably the most valuable herbicide ever discovered. And in little more than a decade, its efficacy, if not completely eroded, is very substantially reduced,” he told FoxNews.com.
“This is a slow train wreck that’s been happening in agriculture,” he said.
If farmers increase spraying or use harsher chemicals, they put farm workers and other creatures at risk. If they don’t do anything, the weeds and bugs will take over.
“There’s almost no good options that doesn’t place some other organism in the environment at risk,” Benbrook told FoxNews.com.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.