The Lesson of the Stinkbugs

by Beth

We’ve been looking forward to autumn on our land for 2 years. Now that we finally live here, it’s magnificent.

It’s cool weather and late wildflowers mixed with morning mist and vivid leaves.

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bouquet of fall color maple leaves

Early snows.

driveway with snow on fall color leaves

Leaves giving way to surprise mountain views.

winter mountain view in smoky mountain forestAnd impeccable, fantastic, terrific temperatures for working outside or finding treasure, like giant chestnut oak acorns and bear-scratch trees.

hand holding giant yellow and brown chestnut oak acorn

cedar tree trunk scratched by a black bear

It feels like we earned this awesome season, not only with the hard work to establish a home here, but with the patient plod through a hot summer that brought important lessons about living in the wild.

Because our first full season in the middle of the woods was wild, from blasting hard rain to crazy forest sounds, like falling trees and whinnying tree ponies (“tree pony” is a fun name for screech owls). Here’s audio of that spooky sound.

One morning, we looked outside and saw a bobcat carrying a breakfast rabbit across the yard.

bobcat carrying catch across a green yardAlso wild: the bugs. The BUGS. We expected to share space with creepy crawlies out here, but the sheer numbers of some bugs have been surprising.

A new population arrived every 2 weeks. First, a wave of dainty centipedes wove their way through our new-construction home. We evicted them, and the spiders, with the shopvac only to meet the sweat bees. They won’t sting until you swat them, but they tickle so it’s impossible not to swat.

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Then there were small, square Japanese beetles on the fig trees; then fat June beetles in slow-moving swarms across the lawn; then 2 weeks of enormous but mostly non-biting horseflies bouncing off the barn metal. Tiny, non-biting gnats found their way inside during the hottest summer weeks and had to be trapped in red wine and dish soap.

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Of course there were mosquitoes, luckily not as bad as we had in Charlotte. And voracious, territorial carpenter bees; bald-faced hornets with papery hives; and yellow jackets levitating from holes in the ground. All were evicted or addressed via honey-bee-and-frog-safe measures. We’re here to co-exist but have our limits.

tennis shoes standing next to an excavated yellow jacket ground nest

Sometimes, co-existing was the best pest control. A critter excavated this yellow jacket nest before we had a chance to stumble over it. It’s fascinating how some animals don’t mind being swarmed by bees for a delicious meal of larvae.

bee hive on ground

The most catalyzing of all visiting insects, however, were the stinkbugs.

Enter, Stinkbugs

brown marmorated stinkbug

Brown marmorated stinkbugs are accidental imports from east Asia said to have appeared in the eastern United States in the late 90s. They’re still pretty new to us. We didn’t encounter them en masse until moving to Tennessee a few years ago.

These stinkbugs migrate to enclosed spaces at the mere suggestion of cooler weather. They can wiggle into impossibly small places, like the crevice between door and jamb. While some might be happy to hibernate inconspicuously in your sweater drawer, they’re more likely restlessly buzzing around your house, bouncing off your windows, spritzing stink when startled.

The poor things are only trying to survive a harsh world. Like so many pests before them, they’ve discovered human habitats are a good way to do that. Stinkbugs seem to love new construction materials, too. It’s a double-whammy for barnbungalow. Our new home in the woods, with few other warm homes nearby, is one big stinkbug target.

In September, when brown marmorated stinkbugs made their annual appearance in the Smokies, social media revealed they were showing up in other places, too. A friend in Charlotte posted, “OMG, I killed 16 in my house today!”

We were plucking more than that out of our home every hour from noon to dinner, over 100 a day. As long as the big window was warm, stinkbugs were buzzing to it.

brown marmorated stinkbugs on a large window

TIPThe best way we’ve found to kill stinkbugs is to coax them into a container of soapy water. There may be better ways in the future. Groups like Stop BMSB are actively researching how to manage this pest.

Picture your dream bungalow, a quiet hut deep in the forest, with tall ceilings, aromatic wooden walls, comfy furniture, cookies in the oven, hot coffee brewing…and the smell of stinkbug as hundred of them buzz around the room. Horrifying! After a summer of approaching insects in kinder ways, stinkbugs pushed us to our last resort: exterior spraying by the local pest-control business.

I hate that stuff. While it killed stinkbugs on the outside of the house for a few months, it also offed favorites like katydids and stickbugs. There’s no telling the damage it’ll do the birds who nest around the barn over time. Sorry, good guys.

Worst of all, in the weeks post murder-spray, we had more stinkbugs inside than ever. How was that possible!?

At this point, I’ll ask homebuilder types to take a knee and check your judgment at the door…or sit back and have a laugh at our expense. The stinkbugs revealed what appears to be one of our biggest building gaffes so far. We didn’t fully seal the house.

We thought we did. After all, we insulated with closed-cell sprayfoam, which is insulation, seal, and vapor barrier all in one. In hindsight, though, we weren’t fully aware of the complexity or importance of sealing.

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The Ins and Outs of Home Seals
Backing up for people like me who haven’t thought much about sealing a house before: a home’s seal is essentially what makes living inside your house different from living in your yard. It’s a mixture of materials like house wrap, insulation, caulk, sprayfoam, weatherstripping, and gaskets, anything to close gaps in your walls that let in unconditioned air.

That air can carry unwanted moisture, dust, noise, bugs, and temperature changes. It can cause problems like mold and high energy bills. A home’s seal is important. Energy.gov has good resources if you want to learn more.

It’s incredibly easy to overlook little holes – and to make more holes – in your home’s perimeter as you build. Conventional homebuilds follow a formula to ensure all corners of a home are protected. Often, houses are framed before being enclosed and wrapped with a weather barrier like Tyvek (it’s called being “dried in” because the inside of your house will be dry when this phase is completed), then surfaced with siding, etc. On the inside, the gaps between the frame and floor and roof and windows are filled with sprayfoam and caulk. After trades add the plumbing, electric, and HVAC, all the new holes they make are resealed. Insulation and wall coverings are added.

This is an oversimplification, but it reveals a challenge we faced: we were converting an existing structure, where the exterior already existed. It was an unconventional project with no roadmap.

inside of pole barn framing and windows

Add that to the fact we had no idea what we were doing. As we reluctantly became the general contractors of our own home, we asked advice of any expert who would return our calls. A tiny-home builder recommended sprayfoam as a way quickly seal and insulate. He’d recently started converting storage containers and was finding sprayfoam effective.

There are different schools of thought on closed-cell sprayfoam and metal buildings. If this topic is of interest to you, type “sprayfoam metal building” into a search engine, and do your best to filter biased accounts by sprayfoam manufacturers and their competitors. In short, some say it can trap moisture against the metal and cause rust. They cite voided warranties when substances are applied directly to barn metal. Others say closed-cell sprayfoam (as opposed to open-cell) is a reliable, bullet-proof vapor barrier that strengthens walls and has a far longer lifespan than the pink stuff.

interior of bungalow under construction

If you’re going with sprayfoam, professional installation increases your chance for success. It’s expensive but not astronomical when weighed against the cost of labor and materials to retro-frame ceilings and walls to hold the pink stuff, which requires more structure behind the walls. Our installers were able to finish in a day. They did a good job creating a consistent coating without making a mess. If you’ve been around sprayfoam, you know what an accomplishment that is.

With the sprayfoam/barn-metal combo being a relatively new thing in the world, we may not know for years whether it was the best choice. To be fair, in this case, it isn’t the sprayfoam’s fault our house wasn’t well sealed. In fact, the only shortcoming we’ve experienced with closed-cell sprayfoam so far is that it conducts sound. It’s lucky we live such a quiet place and soundproofed most of our walls, because closed-cell foam is rock hard and definitely doesn’t mute noise.

Whoops, we made a mistake

As far as the sealing goes, 3 things happened after sprayfoam was installed that left the home open to unwanted airflow:

1) We neglected to fill small holes the installers missed. Installation of closed-cell sprayfoam is gross. Even with full-body suits, there are probably never enough showers to make the fiberglass stop itching. We didn’t fault the installers for the 3 or 4 crevices they missed 17′ up. They said they were happy to come back to address any issues, but these issues looked small enough to fix with cans of sprayfoam, so we didn’t call them out again.

men walking into pole barn

Then drywall and a kneewall went up in the loft, hiding the spots where sunlight peeked through, and we didn’t seal the holes ourselves either. Whoops.

2) We made more holes that we didn’t re-seal. Holes were drilled for infrastructure like cabling, wiring and plumbing. Many were resealed with sprayfoam. Some weren’t. Look carefully for daylight in the photo below. Those are bug doors!

plumbing structure on a sprayfoam wall

3) We didn’t finish trimming and caulking windows and doors. Duh. Each time we started to address the finish work around the windows and doors, a contractor disappeared or some other complication popped up that we felt should be addressed first. Reasoning that it was more aesthetic than mission critical, we scribbled “window trimming” low on the to-do list and let our marmorated stink visitors march right in.

The Solution
Chris polled homebuilder friends about why we were being so tormented by stinkbugs. They all advised that small holes, even tiny 1/16″ cracks between windows and walls, let bugs in. On their advice, Chris armed us with a mountain of caulk, sprayfoam, and polyethylene rope filler (also called “backer rod”), and we launched Operation LowerPowerBillsandNoMore6-or-More-LeggedHouseGuests.

In the darkest reaches of the loft, we found dozens of stinkbugs camped out by 3 different holes in the foam. The biggest hole was an inch across, drilled for security camera installation. An inch is far beyond what bugs need for egress, as evidenced by throngs of stinkbugs around the 1/4″ cracks missed by the sprayfoam installers in the uppermost creases of 2 rafters.

This is why the exterior pest spray hadn’t worked. The “new” bugs flying to the window weren’t from outside. They were already inside.

I popped a can of sprayfoam and did Mission Impossible contortions across the loft, around ventpipes and trusses, to dot out slivers of sunlight. With backer rod and caulk, we filled odd gaps in the seams where the tongue & groove meets. Chris hauled a ladder around the outside of the house to seal breaches not visible from inside. Lastly, Chris applied interior pesticide to finish off hordes of stinkbugs waiting to journey downstairs to harass us.

It was a sticky, dusty, dirty, sticky job, but it made a big difference. As the weather and number of bugs outside of the house stayed the same, the number of stinkbugs inside dwindled from over 100 to maybe 6 a day.

Lesson Learned
Sealing the house should have been on the top of our to-do list, not the bottom. In fact, some say in a mild climate like ours, the air seal is more important the the R-value (strength and efficiency) of your insulation.

Weeks later, when the kudzu bugs got bored of the kudzu and flocked to the outside of barnbungalow, few made it inside. We can’t be sure if that’s because they prefer the outdoors or can’t find a way in, but it feels like a win. These guys are cute but stinkier than the big stinkbugs!

kudzu bugs

Ladybugs came after that and are still hanging around, sneaking in from time to time. I happened to be showering outside the afternoon their magical, speckled swarm spiraled up from the southwest on the sunbeams. I grabbed my towel and ran inside. Most of them ended up looking forlornly at us from the window screens.

We’re still working on our home’s seal and now understand the vigilance it takes to maintain a good barrier between a home’s inside and outside. This is true with professionally built homes, too. Homeownership is humbling any way you slice it.

We’re grateful the first home we built ourselves is small enough to detect errors quickly. Living here is revealing all kinds of neat lessons about the intricate habitats humans have evolved to create, and it’s a treat to watch autumn unfold out here in the forest through windows undecorated by bugs.

What else has barnbungalow taught us about homebuilding? Find out here.

 

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