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Garden Q&A: How to deal with the little stinkers this winter

Q: The bugs trying to spend the winter in my home aren’t a hazard, right? I’m going to try to seal up where they may be getting in, but there’s already some that have managed to appear inside that would be hard to track down.

A: They don’t bite, aren’t attracted to indoor plants (though might be drawn to grow lights, as they are to any light source), and are generally just a nuisance. If not easy to find, you can let them wander around until they expire, and then just dispose of them. Live bugs can be vacuumed or caught and released outside to meet their fate. Boxelder bugs, brown marmorated stink bugs, and multicolored Asian lady beetles are the trio of common culprits here in Maryland. Crickets, pill bugs, and millipedes come inside too, but at least they don’t fly.

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Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, one of the little stinkers that try to get
into the house in autumn.

Our homes must look like giant boulders to them, basking in the waning sunlight and retaining relative warmth, riddled with inviting crevices in which they can wait out the winter. Our abodes might be especially attractive since our groomed landscapes don’t have as many natural tree cavities, fallen logs, brush piles, or layers of leaf litter to tempt them instead.

If anyone is still puzzled by how they’re getting in, check your door and window weatherstripping for degradation or gaps, look for torn window screening, and inspect vent covers and conduit or pipe entry points on the exterior of the home. Seal any gaps and cracks that you can. If you use a window air conditioner, take it out for the season or plug-up any access points around it.

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Q: It seems like there weren’t nearly as many acorns this year. Are our local oaks having problems?

A: Oaks have masting years, where they synchronize heavy acorn production, presumably for the purposes of overwhelming wildlife that consumes acorns so enough survive to start the next generation. (Similar to how the mass emergence of cicadas last year overwhelmed their predators.) Different oak species and even different local populations of the same species might be on different schedules, and there could be any number of environmental cues trees use to decide, so to speak, when it’s a masting year. Plant fruits and nuts take a lot of resources to produce, so taking a year or two off between production cycles can be fairly common. Perhaps heavy fruiting/bearing in recent years has resulted in the need for those particular trees to rest and recuperate energy reserves.

An alternative but less-likely explanation could be due to weather resulting in poor pollination during their bloom period this past spring. Oaks are wind-pollinated and not insect-pollinated, but rain hampers pollen dispersal and late frosts might have damaged the pollen or flower clusters before they opened or before they were pollinated. Maybe peak bloom coincided with uncooperative weather this year.

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources published an Acorn Production Report for 2022 that you might find interesting. The red oak group (species of oaks more closely related to red oak and to each other than to white oak and its closer kin) had a below-average to poor acorn crop this year in the populations surveyed.

Lack of fruiting on individual trees that are otherwise healthy generally isn’t a concern with regards to long-term health. In fact, for some plants at least, sometimes heavy bloom and seed/fruit production is a sign of stress and decline. If you’re concerned about tree health due to other signs, notably if there is canopy dieback, then we recommend you consult with a certified arborist. While they can’t always intervene to remedy a problem or treat every ailment, they can help make a diagnosis and identify sources of tree stress that could be addressed.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.


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