For States Dealing With the Spotted Lanternfly, the Policy Is No Mercy

The spotted lanternfly, an invasive species from Asia, is a voracious plant-eater and public nuisance that could cost state economies hundreds of millions of dollars.

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Adorned with pale, pinkish gray wings, black dots and a scarlet undercoat, the spotted lanternfly is a beautiful insect.

It’s also an invasive species and a rapacious consumer of plants that has a particularly strong appetite for apple trees, plum trees and grapevines.

If you see one, be ruthless, federal officials and agriculture departments from states up and down the Northeast have instructed.

Squash it and destroy its babies before they take over your county, they say.

If that seems harsh, consider this: They lay eggs by the dozens; they leave oozing sap on trees, vines and crops; and when they feed, they excrete a sweet substance that leads to the growth of black mold.

They are no murder hornets; they are harmless to animals and humans. But they can devastate valuable crops like vineyards. In 2019, researchers at the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences warned that the spotted lanternfly had the potential to cost Pennsylvania’s economy $325 million a year and 2,800 jobs.

They cover trees by the hundreds and swarm in the air. The sweet substance they secrete, known as honeydew, has coated decks and playgrounds.

“These are called bad bugs for a reason,” said the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which has set up a hotline — 1-888-4BADFLY — for residents to report sightings. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture named its eradication campaign “Stomp It Out.” In Ohio, residents have been told to scrape off any lanternfly eggs they see on trees, double-bag them, and throw them away or immerse them in hand sanitizer or alcohol.

The need to stamp out the bug will grow even more urgent next month, when the adults must feed voraciously to reproduce so they can lay eggs around October and November, said Julie Urban, an evolutionary biologist in the Penn State entomology department who has studied lanternflies for two decades.

She said she had heard joggers in Pennsylvania parks scream when the insects landed on them. Yoga practitioners at a vineyard were unnerved one year when swarms of lanternflies began hitting them on the head, Professor Urban said.

She said she had collected pictures from homeowners who found their decks blackened by the sooty mold. They are so enraging, Professor Urban said, that about two years ago she saw a small girl take off her flip-flop and beat the insects at a pagoda that had become infested.

“It was horrible,” she said.

Sam Landis, a partner at Vynecrest Vineyards & Winery, said he had no qualms about smashing the insects.

“There’s nothing cute about them,” said Mr. Landis, who said he had been fighting infestations of his grapevines for four years.

In that time, lanternflies have killed off an acre or two of grapevines each year, Mr. Landis said, adding that the vineyard had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove dead vines, plant new ones and invest in insect repellent.

But in Mr. Landis’s experience, pesticides don’t do much.

“A day or two later, they’re back,” he said.

Lanternflies, which measure about one inch long and use their mouths to suck sap from plants and trees, are easy to kill, Professor Urban said.

“We joke that harsh language will kill it,” she said. “It’s pretty delicate for an insect that is so large.”

Most pesticides will kill them, and they are easy to catch and smash. They also die easily when heat or frost arrives. The most aggressive and effective way to stop their spread is to remove one of their favorite food sources: the tree of heaven, which is also an invasive plant, Professor Urban said.

The lanternflies’ best defense is in their ability to reproduce. They breed in huge numbers, laying 30 to 50 eggs at a time. Their eggs, which can be laid virtually anywhere, including on trees, trucks and the tops of railroad cars, take eight months to hatch, Professor Urban said.

“That gives them time to be transported via humans’ travel,” she said.

Despite its name, the lanternfly is a planthopper, not a fly. It first appeared in the United States in September 2014, most likely from China, Professor Urban said.

The insects were spotted on imported stone at a landscape supply center in Berks County, Pa., she added.

Since then, lanternflies have spread across the northeastern United States. In Delaware, the state Department of Agriculture is monitoring and trying to eradicate five satellite populations, said Stacey Hofmann, a spokeswoman for the agency. Reports of sightings keep coming from two counties, and the state is worried that a third may have become infested.

“People may not realize that the insect has fallen into the bed of their truck, hopped into their car or is on an R.V. or boat,” Ms. Hofmann said.

In New Jersey, eight counties have been designated “quarantine zones,” which means in part that residents should inspect their vehicles before they travel. In Pennsylvania, where there have been 18,000 reported sightings of the lanternfly, 34 counties are under similar restrictions.

Other states are worried about infestations. In California in 2019, dead lanternflies were found in cargo planes from Allentown, Pa. In Virginia, David Gianino, the state’s plant regulatory official, said lanternflies had laid eggs on railway tracks used by local and Amtrak trains.

In Delaware, residents have been urged to walk around their car and examine the grille, wheel wells and mirrors to kill any potential stowaways, Ms. Hofmann said.

“They are surprisingly strong and will hold on even at high speeds,” she said. “Don’t be the reason that a new population gets established.”

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