But what was in the envelope raised not only serious scientific interest, but concern.
It was a brown marmorated stink bug, a spindly legged creature that has been gnawing its way across farms and orchards in nearby states, leaving ruined crops and a pungent stench behind. The bugs are also infiltrating - and scenting - urban, suburban and rural homes, and spreading at an alarming rate. With hundreds of millions in agricultural damage already attributed to the pest, its presence makes the bedbug resurgence appear tame.
And now, it's here on Long Island, where insect specialists are closely watching to see if it proliferates. It can take up to a decade for the bugs to swarm in numbers large enough to affect crops. A warm, dry spring this year helped trigger an explosion of the tiny pests that look like miniature, armored dinosaurs.
"We got the specimen last winter from a master gardener, I believe it was found in Bohemia," said Cornell Extension entomologist Daniel Gilrein. Since that discovery, he said, the bug has been spotted in parts of Nassau, Suffolk and Brooklyn, which suggests it has already begun to spread.
"We're keeping our eyes peeled and probably will get more reports about them this fall as they try to move into houses," Gilrein said, noting the bugs prefer to spend winter in homes where it's warm.
The stink bug is an adept home invader capable of proliferating wildly indoors, beginning around this time of year, often staking out attics and clutter. And just as all bugs produce a range of chemicals for love and war this one's defense mechanism is emitting a skunkish odor when agitated - or crushed.
Richard Pisacano, owner of Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead and vineyard manager at Wolffer Estate in Sagaponack, said he recently received a bulletin about the insect. "It could be a potential concern, but at this point in the harvest if it's not present I'm not concerned," he said.
In the hardest hit states - Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania - waves of the bug have been chewing into a wide range of crops and ornamental plants, causing untold amounts of damage. In all, 15 states have evidence of the insect this year; a few have swarms. A bipartisan congressional committee last month estimated damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars - and rising.
In Sabillasville, Md., Richard Masser, co-owner of a 325-acre family orchard, said stink bugs have been dining on his crops for months. A third of his apples are unsalvageable and a quarter of his pear crop was damaged. "They sting the fruit and kill the tissue," Masser said. "And as the rest of the fruit grows around [the bruise] it leaves a concave section, and all the tissue in that part of the fruit is hard and dead."
The bug also is causing misery in homes. Residents in affected states have been sweeping them off porches by the bucketfuls and shoveling them out of attics. Pennsylvania State University entomologist Steve Jacobs said his home has become a living laboratory.
"I get about a dozen out of my house every day," Jacobs said. "I bring them here where I've got a colony going. They're pretty much across all of the state."
The brown marmorated stink bug is new to the United States, having arrived in Allentown, Pa., little more than a decade ago from Asia, possibly aboard cargo.
The bug is new to this country and without natural predators here. In their native habitat, which ranges throughout parts of China and Korea, a tiny parasitic wasp kills the bugs, keeping the population in check. Stink bugs succumb to standard pesticides but their rate of reproduction is so high, it's virtually impossible to keep up with their numbers.
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) wants the bug reclassified from a so-called federally "non-regulated pest" to a regulated one. Making that change would allow farmers to temporarily use normally restricted insecticides to help eradicate the bugs from crops.
With Mark Harrington