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Voracious kudzu bugs spread across South. Are they boon or bane?

The nubbin-sized Japanese invader arrived on American shores somewhere near Atlanta in 2009. Today it’s eating pesky kudzu across at least three states. Unfortunately, it’s chowing on soybean crops, too.

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Somewhere near here, an uninvited guest – a nubbin-size stinkbug, like a tiny drab ladybug – arrived on America’s shores in 2009 and found, like invasive species that had come before, a bounty.

In this case, the so-called kudzu bug found kudzu – another Asian invader that has become the drapery of the South and has withstood all previous attempts, be they goat or chemical, to control “the vine that ate the South.”

But as the invading kudzu bug colony has metastasized across at least three states in a mere three years, the kudzu bug has developed a major downside. Their food preferences controlled, robot-like, by symbiotic bacteria, the bugs have suddenly begun to sink their “piercing-sucking mouthparts” into soybean leaves, as well, reducing yields by as much as half by stressing the plants.

Combined with its reputation as a strong flier and efficient hitchhiker (it likes white cars, especially), the bug has marched from Georgia through the Carolinas. Its movement has quickly drawn comparisons to that of the boll weevil, which nearly destroyed the Southern economy beginning in the 1920s after the insect jumped the border at Brownsville, Texas, in 1892.

“The door is sort of wide open: How far is this insect going to go?” says Dominic Reisig, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh. “If it moves into the Midwest and really likes it there, we’re in big trouble.”

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