Monday, April 11, 2011

What's a stinkbug taste like? Don't ask!

Two brown marmorated stinkbugs mate on an unripe mulberry

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 11, 2011)

Stinkbugs are a malodorous lot. But, as bad as they smell, they taste even worse. I know this because I have eaten them, though not intentionally.

My experience with stinkbugs involves mulberries and the gluttonous way I pick and eat fresh fruit. When I'm picking, I can't stop eating. I pluck one ripe morsel after another, popping them into my mouth with abandon.

Unfortunately, on numerous occasions, an unobserved insect taints the taste. Stinkbugs like mulberries, too, and because these half-inch-long bugs can quickly move from one side of a berry to another, they are quite easy to overlook when picking fruit.

What's not easy is getting rid of the spit-it-out-immediately sensation that happens as soon as stinkbug meets mouth. In a word: Horrific! Imagine a mouthful of rancid oil mixed with the numbing sensation of Novocain. That description doesn't do justice to the stinkbug's powerful punch.

Indigenous to Asia, the brown marmorated stinkbug slipped into the Western Hemisphere less than 15 years ago. These agricultural pests, which were discovered in Allentown, Pa., wasted no time sucking the juices out of fruit, vegetables, flowers and farm products throughout North America.

I can't remember exactly when stinkbugs began feeding on our mulberries, but we've had them long enough to make their avoidance part of our mulberry-eating experience. When we pick berries at our house, we put on shoes to avoid fire ant bites, wear old clothes in case of stains and do our best not to inadvertently ingest stinkbugs. The trick is to slow down enough in the eating process to examine each berry BEFORE ingestion. That's my undoing. I'm not nearly as careful or patient as I should be.

The oh-so-unpleasant odor is the creature's defense. It's hard to be critical of any animal's desire to protect itself from danger. If I were about to be consumed by a giant predator, I'd do my best to scare my enemy away, too. For a stinkbug, defense comes in the form of a scent gland in its thorax between its first and second pair of legs. When punctured, crushed or in some other way threatened, the gland produces a substance that smells (and tastes) foul.

Although stinkbug infestations are a growing problem for farmers concerned about crop damage, this winged insect poses no threat to humans. Stinkbugs don't sting, bite or harbor diseases. As long as people refrain from handling or eating them, they will never experience the insect's pungent odor.

I accept the existence of this malodorous pest as just another obstacle to overcome in the quest for nature's sweetness. Sometimes in life, we bite into more than we can (or want) to chew. The stinkbug's scent is a gagging reminder that gluttony is not a desirable path in the search for goodness and that sometimes it's best to take things slow, pick cleanly and proceed toward our goals with patience instead of an overwhelming desire for more.

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