BLACKVILLE, S.C. (AP) - Kudzu - the "plant that ate the South" - has finally met a pest that's just as voracious. Trouble is, the so-called "kudzu bug" is also fond of another East Asian transplant that we happen to like, and that is big money for American farmers.
"When this insect is feeding on kudzu, it's beneficial," Clemson University entomologist Jeremy Greene says as he stands in a field swarming with the brown, pea-sized critters. "When it's feeding on soybeans, it's a pest."
Like kudzu, which was introduced to the South from Japan in the late 19th century as a fodder and a way to stem erosion on the region's worn-out farmlands, this insect is native to the Far East.
And like the invasive vine, which "Deliverance" author James Dickey famously deemed "a vegetable form of cancer," the kudzu bug is running rampant.
Megacopta cribraria, as this member of the stinkbug family is known in scientific circles, was first identified near Atlanta in late October 2009. Since then, it has spread to most of Georgia and North Carolina, all of South Carolina, and several counties in Alabama.
And it shows no signs of stopping. Kudzu and soybeans are both legumes. The bug - also known as the bean plataspid - breeds and feeds in the kudzu patches until soybean planting time, then crosses over to continue the moveable feast, says Tracie Jenkins, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia.
On a recent sunny day, Greene and doctoral student Nick Seiter visited the 10-acre test field at Clemson's Edisto Research & Education Center in Blackville, about 42 miles east of Augusta, Ga.
Starting in the middle of the field, Seiter walks down a row, sweeping a canvas net back and forth through the bean plants as he goes. Bugs cling to his pants and shirt, dotting his face like moles.
"I feel like I'm wearing a bee beard over here," he says. "It tickles."
At row's end, Seiter pushes his hand up through the net. Bugs cascade over the edge and pool on the sandy soil at his feet.