RIGHT IN OUR BACKYARD: Some Stinky Smells of Spring

Winter is finally turning to spring, and most of us look forward to getting out to our yards or public gardens and “stop to smell the roses,” as the saying goes.

Published April 5, 2015 6:49 PM
3 min read


BUG-thWinter is finally turning to spring, and most of us look forward to getting out to our yards or public gardens and “stop to smell the roses,” as the saying goes.

By Bill Lawyer    

BugWinter is finally turning to spring, and most of us look forward to getting out to our yards or public gardens and “stop to smell the roses,” as the saying goes.

But along with the sweet-smelling flowers (honeysuckles and lilacs are two of my favorites), we are likely to encounter a fair number of stinky-smelling things, as the days grow longer.

The most obvious and widely known backyard stinker is the skunk. Skunks don’t hibernate, but they do “den up” during the coldest days of winter. As temperatures rise, skunks are mating and having litters.  

In our area, the striped skunk is the most common species. These critters have learned to adapt their lifestyle to the suburban ecosystems. They raid garbage cans and recycle bins where the food hasn’t been thoroughly cleaned off the plastic containers.  

They normally only spray people (or dogs) with their noxious, sulfurous anal gland chemicals if they feel seriously threatened, because it takes several hours before their anal glands can “re-load.” Young skunks have less of the chemical, but they tend to “fire away” more frequently.  

On the vegetative side of Rye’s stinkers are the skunk cabbages. They grow in just about any wet, marshy area — and can easily be seen (and smelled) in such places as the Rye Nature Center and the Marshlands Conservancy.  

While the skunk’s odor is used to ward off would be predators, the skunk cabbage uses its nasty smell to attract insects, particularly the kinds of insects that use rotten flesh as part of their life cycle. In fact, the skunk cabbage flowers look like rotting flesh.

As with skunks, skunk cabbage is most commonly encountered in the late winter and early spring. It produces a substance that causes the soil temperature to increase, so that it is able to flower despite below-freezing conditions. In this way they doesn’t have to compete with any other flowering plants. During this time the nasty odor reaches its peak.  

In late spring and summer, the leaves may smell slightly “skunky,” but nothing like they do in the late winter.

There are several other stinky plants and animals in our region of the country — including some millipedes, bombardier beetles, and the caterpillar of the very beautiful eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly. All of these produce stinky chemicals to repel predators, but they generally mind their own business.   

But there’s one particular non-native insect that in just the twenty years it was discovered in the Northeast has become a more serious problem: the brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB).

Last fall, which I was taking out a room air conditioner, I happened to notice one in the space between the window and the storm window frame. At the time I didn’t know what species of insect it was, but I knew that its shape was similar to stink bugs I have seen over the years. They have two sets of wings and when closed they are shaped like a shield. They’re about 3/4 inch long. This one’s coloring stood out from the native variety. As their common name “marmorated” implies, their wings and antennae have a marbled, brown appearance.  

Thanks to their noxious chemical, they don’t need to worry about being camouflaged.  

Most people wouldn’t have heard about BMSB’s, except for the fact that they like to feed on the juice of apples and other fruit crops, rendering the fruit mottled and unmarketable. Their rapid spread throughout the Eastern U.S. was due to a lack of natural predators.  

Scientists have had little luck with attracting the bugs with pheromone, and insecticides are not good, because they kill the good bugs along with the “bad” ones. But there are signs that some species of native wasps are finding them useful for paralyzing and laying their eggs in them.

So what can we do about these stinkers?  Don’t let them get into your house in the fall, and if you see them, shoo them out — right into your own backyard. Then report them to the Cornell Cooperative Extension.


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