Big stink bug year on the horizon?

I can't figure how they do it.

Just yesterday, one one of the coldest days of the year, I found a stink bug crawling on the stairwell wall.

So, despite a huge attic insulation project, at least a few (I've found others this winter, too) found their way into my home. And this one woke up and wanted food and/or warmth.

Apparently, last year wasn't such a bad one for stink bugs -- good news for farmers, who have been racking up huge losses because of fruits damaged by the bugs. Pennsylvania apple farmers have been hard hit.

But this year the bugs may be making a big comeback, says Tracy Leskey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture's  Research Service entomologist, in an interview with NPR. She's predicting six times more stink bugs than last year.

In another interview, University of Maryland's Michael Raupp also said he expected the stink bug population to be high this year.

Anyone who has lived in the area for a season knows about the nasty, stinky-when-squished things that have a tendency to drop from the chandelier just when the dinner quests have sat down at the table. But newcomers should be assured that as gross as the insects are, they don't bite and are otherwise harmless. (That said, if you should happen to roll over on one in bed -- it happens -- its exoskeleton is kind of prickly.)

Stinkbugs are causing so many problems that they are considered “one of the top priorities” by USDA-ARS based on the level of the perceived threat, a USDA spokesman tells me. It attacks a wide variety of specialty and row crops, it has been detected in 39 states, and it is also a serious nuisance pest for homeowners and businesses.

"In other words, this is a very unique pest in that it can be a severe agricultural pest throughout the growing season on a wide variety of crops, and a challenging nuisance pest for homeowners and businesses throughout the fall, winter and spring – essentially a pest 12 months of the year," he said.

Scientists have been working on ways to control the insect. Chemists at a USDA lab recently identified a pheromone -- a chemical substance -- male stink bugs release when they feed. It attracts females, nymphs and other males.

Pheromone research is big. One of my favorite insect stories is from a guy who did work with moth pheromones. Eventually, the substance permeated his skin, and not even a shower would remove it.  Well, he was at a wedding, and the photographer wanted to include him in an outside photo. "You'd better hurry," he said, as he saw moths suddenly flitting his way.

But I digress. The idea with pheromones as stink bug control is that you can incorporate the substance in a trap. The chemical will lure other stink bugs, and the trap will capture or kill them. Pheromones are used in many insect traps, including ones for Japanese beetles and yellow jackets.

Sterling International, based in Spokane, WA, has produced a household version of a pheromone trap that is odorless to humans. The company recommends putting the trap -- with a light attachment as a further attractant -- in your attic as the bugs begin to wake up.

Later, starting in April, similar traps can go outside. The idea is to snare them before they can breed and create hundreds more little stink bugs.

A Chester County company, Nth Solutions, also makes an indoor stink bug trap.

Now, if I can just figure out what those other insects are that I've found in my house recently, all would be well. They are brown and long-bodied and have long legs. They appear to creep very ... creepily. Hmmm.