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The Stowaway

NOTE: This is a work of speculative creative fiction, imagining how an incursion from serious brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) might occur, and what might be the consequences. This story in no way reflects the competencies of the dedicated biosecurity staff of Aotearoa, but instead hopes to promote understanding of the biosecurity efforts and threats, and how New Zealanders can support these efforts.


A morning in late spring. The year is 2027.

Hārata a biosecurity officer, is checking a shipping container that has arrived in port from the USA. With her flashlight, she scans the interior surfaces of the 33-cubic-metre corrugated box – where she discovers a worrying anomaly. Up the back, an interior panel has partly come away, creating a narrow cavity. Coming closer, she focuses her flashlight to the breach, and is able to pry the panel further from the wall . . . There’s a slight crushing sensation . . . suddenly, a tannic stench envelops Hārata. She doesn’t rattle easily, but what’s clustered behind the panel staggers her.

Hārata gets on her radio, and in no time at all, the yard is in lockdown. The container, and everything else that arrived on the American ship, is treated with a knock-down pesticide.

Later, when the incursion is examined in the lab, it’s revealed that the colony of hibernating brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) totaled 97 adults, including a majority of female bugs. Each insect is brown, shield-shaped, and approaches the size of a ten-cent-piece.

That night, Hārata’s vigilance is celebrated by her colleagues over dinner – and several rounds of drinks!

Hārata feels resounding relief. She understands what’s at stake. Since Aotearoa was first founded, we have witnessed the stresses invasive species can put on our unique ecosystems. Stresses that can snowball into ecological and agricultural catastrophe. At worst, extinctions. Today, Hārata’s vigilance has paid off and she celebrates with her friends.


But what if Hārata hadn’t made this discovery?

Instead, Hārata’s flashlight batteries run dry. When she returns to HQ to replace them, her manager reassigns her. In a misunderstanding, the manifest is signed off, and the container is given the all clear.

Purchased by a tiny house outfitter, the container is then loaded on a truck destined for a small North Island town.

The next evening, the container is delivered to the Gillian's property. Excited to begin renovations on the container, Gillian takes a look inside. On the floor of the container, she notices a scattering of dead, desiccated insects. Examining them, she recognizes the remains as relatives of the green vegetable stink bug, a species which sometimes bothers her vegetable garden. Not understanding the gravity of her discovery, she brushes them aside. That night, and several nights afterwards, Gillian leaves the container open to the elements, to air it out.

Warmed by a balmy climate, the colony of brown marmorated stink bug are roused. Immediately, the females start producing eggs, releasing a hormone to alert the males that they’re receptive. The females then take flight, leaving the container to seek out nesting sites.

The first eggs – in clusters of 20 to 30 – appear on the undersides of leaves.

In Aotearoa, hatchling stink bugs, or nymphs, would have a high rate of survival. Local predator communities (like spiders, parasitic flies and wasps) have been reduced by habitat destruction and the use of pesticide. What predators exist avoid the new arrivals due to the foul-smelling substance they release. To make matters worse, BMSB have developed resistances to the same pesticides that have depleted the predator communities.

Across spring, two generations of BMSB succeed the stowaways. Each bug can live for eight-months, committing 400 eggs to the overall population in their lifetime. By the end of summer, the BMSB population in Aotearoa could number in the millions.

Still in spring, the population steadily grows and spreads. Local gardens are the first to suffer damage, providing an opportunity for the public to report sightings. It’s here, at the eleventh hour of the invasion, that disaster could be averted.


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BMSB prefer to feed on the leaves and stems of trees, as well as mature and immature fruits. However, BMSB are generalists at heart, and can target hundreds of different plant species. In Aotearoa, it’s citruses and roses that are some of the first targeted. BMSBs use their elongated piercing mouthparts (rostrum) to suck the juices from plants. Gardeners begin to notice damage to their plants: discolouration and distortion where BMSB have fed. Additionally, areas of bacterial rot appear where the plants have become vulnerable to infection due to the feeding of BMSB.


In this fictional timeline, poor knowledge of BMSB in Gillian’s hometown means the stink bugs manage to get a foothold and their population explodes before they can be controlled. Air-born, and often travelling by night, they spread far and wide.

Christmas lights decorate the streets, when the Ministry for Primary Industries Manatū Ahu Matua (MPI) hold a public meeting to discuss the situation and the potential management solutions. Federated Farmers, Heinz Wattie's Limited, Sanitarium Health Food Company, among others, all release press statements, imploring for public engagement in the looming fight against BMSB.

With peach, apple, corn, and cherry crops already hobbled by BMSB, Aotearoa is at war. Novel technologies are ultilised alongside traditional methods, right down to seasonal workers handpicking stink bugs from tree stems, where they should be picking fruits.

The financial losses for the North Island mount. By the end of the summer fruit season, it’s estimated BMSB have cost the local food industry millions. MPI, the Department of Conservation, and the public desperately work to keep BMSB from crossing the Cook Strait to Te Waipounamu. The collective effort succeeds in the first year.

It’s once the meager remains of the autumn crops are harvested, that changes in the behaviour of BMSB becomes apparent. Like their stowaway forebears, stink bugs gather together to seek shelter from the cold.

During winter, thousands of bugs enter caves, crevices, houses, even luggage and wardrobes. When their sleep-overs are disturbed, BMSB release a foul-smelling liquid, treating New Zealanders to an additional insult on top of the devastating costs of the invasion.

With spring only months away, New Zealanders across the country activate, scrambling to discover and eradicate BMSM colonies before they wake up and resume their life cycles. One young biosecurity-ranger-in-the-making discovered a colony in her playhouse at the back of the garden, and recognising the insects from a school project, reports it to her parents immediately.

One single excursion can cascade into catastrophe, costing fortunes as well as the integrity of native and endemic biodiversity.

Vigilance is key. Kaitiakitanga is key.

Download Find-a-Pest to help keep Aotearoa free of biosecurity threats.


Article written by Kerry Donovan-Brown for Find-A-Pest


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