Be glad you’re not an Asian Stink Bug, which are dying off in large numbers due to the cold. The invasive insect, commonly called the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, has been plaguing homes and devouring agricultural crops in 38 states for years.
Thomas Kuhar, a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, and his team have been gathering stink bugs for the past three years near his campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, to use in lab experiments. The bugs spend the winter outside in insulated buckets that mimic the walls, shingles, and attics that they inhabit when the temperature drops. That normally works out quite well for the bugs—but this year stink bugs have been, well, dropping like flies.
“In the previous two years, natural mortality averaged about 20-25 percent,” he wrote in an email. In January 2014, however, Kuhar’s team discovered that the subfreezing temperatures had killed off 95 percent of the population.
Normally the bugs have a twofold strategy for dealing with cold weather: first holing up in those walls or attics, and then activating cryoprotectants in their body that act like antifreeze, explained Kuhar Recent observations suggest that in weather this extreme, the stinkbug’s natural defense mechanisms may not be enough—even though they’re generally better adapted to colder climates.
How significant of an impact this year’s unseasonably cold weather will have on stink bug populations at large remains to be seen.
“I wouldn’t say mass die-offs, but temperatures probably reached lethal levels for many insects,” said Kuhar, who added that the biggest threat to insect populations occurs when temperatures fluctuate drastically—for example, a cold snap after a warming trend.
And in case you’re concerned that stink bugs that survive the cold could breed and create a race of super-stink bugs impervious to cold, you probably don’t need to worry. Superbugs don’t arise due to weather events like these: Instead, extreme weather probably helps keep species in check and within their usual ranges, Kuhar said.
“This natural selection has been going on for centuries. The bug is established in its current range based on these types of climate restrictions. So, in a sense, really cold temperatures in borderline climate zones probably help maintain the distributions of species,” he said.