PhotoDon't look now but the stink bug is back. This pest threatens to invade U.S. homes in record numbers as winter approaches, according to agriculture officials.

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) named the brown marmorated stink bug the agency's number one invasive pest. It's been sighted in 39 states and is wreaking havoc in homes and gardens, in addition to being a threat to orchards, vegetables and crops.

The brown marmorated stink bug, formally known as Halyomorpha halys, was likely introduced into the U.S. by accident as recently as 1998. It's widely found in China, Korea and Japan.

You can identify these creatures their distinctive “shield” shape. If you step on one you can identify it by its pungent odor. The adults are approximately two thirds of an inch long and about as wide.

They are various shades of brown on both the top and undersides, with gray, off-white, black, copper, and bluish markings. Markings unique to this species include alternating light bands on the antennae and alternating dark bands on the thin outer edge of the abdomen.

Home invaders

In addition to causing plant damage, these insects can cause discomfort when they invade your home, and as autumn turns to winter that's exactly what they try to do. They can slip into a home through window air-conditioners, small holes in the foundation and along cable television lines. You know you've got a problem if you spot one or two hanging on curtains, lampshades or clothing.

"Once inside walls, stink bugs may be difficult, if not impossible, to totally eliminate," said Stoy Hedges, senior technical professional with Terminix, a pest control company.

Stink bugs were especially problematic in 2010. Experts think they could be as bad, or worse, this year.

Keeping them outside is a homeowner's preferred strategy. Sealing cracks and holes in the home's exterior with silicone or caulk will help. Be sure to check for damaged window or door screens, torn weather-stripping and loose mortar. Equip vents with tight-fitting insect screens.

It's also important to properly ventilate basements, attics, garages and crawl spaces. Keep those areas dry and use a dehumidifier if necessary. It may also be helpful to reduce outdoor light at night.

Traditional pesticides often ineffective

Stink bug trap (Photo: Plow & Hearth)

While traditional pesticides can be effective against the bugs you can see, there are a number of home-made formulas and strategies you can find on the Internet. One we foundsuggests drowning the bugs in a concoction of soapy water. However, it could be tedious and time-consuming, since you have to find the bugs and knock them into the soapy soup one at a time. 

You'll also find a number of commercial stink bug traps. This one can be adapted for use both inside and out. 

The Agriculture Research Service (ARS) in Beltsville, Md., is actively trying to develop a potent weapon with which to wage war on this insect. There's also a multi-state effort with over 50 entomologists trying to track these bugs while looking for ways to control their spread.

While stink bugs are a relentless threat to corn, cotton and soybeans, agriculture experts concede they may be a bigger nuisance to homeowners -- at least over the winter months.

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