Lanternfly a buzzkill for local winery

Barbara Christ has been vigilant on her property at State College’s Happy Valley Vineyard & Winery.

She is looking for a red-and-black spotted warning sign — a non-native insect that has found its way to Pennsylvania, destroying crops as it spreads.

“The insect has adapted quite well to living here,” she said. “That’s only one of the fears.”

Christ, the winery’s co-owner, was speaking about the spotted lanternfly, a species native to Asia that likely made its way to the state on a shipment of stone.

In the U.S., the lanternfly

was first discovered in Pennsylvania’s Berks County in 2014.

In that first year, scientific models predicted that the lanternfly wouldn’t survive the state’s cold, snowy winter, said Heather Leach, Penn State’s spotted lanternfly extension associate.

Those models were wrong.

Now, the bug has been identified in 13 counties, where a quarantine zone has been established. Within that zone, the lanternfly has wreaked havoc on agriculture.

“We’ve been seeing serious economic damage,” Leach said.

That damage has been done to plants like hardwood, apple and peach trees, as well as crops used in alcohol production, namely hops for beer and grapes for wine, said Shannon Powers with the state Department of Agriculture.

“We believe it threatens $18 billion worth of commodities in Pennsylvania,” she said.

Leach was able to back that claim.

“It has over 70 recorded host plants, so it will basically feed on anything,” she said, noting grapes, hops and black walnut are among the insect’s preferred food sources.

The lanternfly uses a straw-like mouth part to feed on plants’ stems, vines and trunks, sucking out fluids and saps, Leach, an entomologist, said.

Those fluids are rich in sugar, which the insect

doesn’t need, so the lanternfly excretes them as a sticky, sugary substance, Powers said.

That substance can become a nuisance, attracting other insects like stinging bees, Powers said.

And much worse, it can totally destroy plants, Leach said.

The sugary substance lends itself to the growth of sooty mold. Sooty mold is a term used to describe a combination of different fungi that form a thin black layer on surfaces that are covered with the lanternfly excretion.

The mold can be an unattractive problem to homeowners, who find it on decks and fence posts, but for growers it can be disastrous, Leach said.

The dark-colored mold covers plants, inhibiting access to sunlight, which they need to live.

That’s what frightens Christ.

So far, the 13-county lanternfly area — Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia and Schuylkill counties — has remained in the eastern part of the state directly around Berks County’s “ground zero.”

The bug also has been identified in Virginia and New Jersey.

The fear is that a lanternfly in an affected area could latch onto a vehicle and be transported to a currently unaffected location.

That is especially concerning as wine drinkers and shippers travel from vineyard to vineyard — even along designated wine trials.

Once transported, a pregnant lanternfly could easily lay eggs on nearly any hard surface, experts said.

“I get nervous,” Christ said, explaining she has been proactive in spreading information about the insect to visitors, especially those from the affected area. “It is getting the word out.”

In addition to visitors, Christ has discussed the lanternfly with vendors transporting items like artisan crackers and cheeses to her winery.

“They are not just coming to our winery. They are delivering to a number of places,” she said. “They can be a means of transport (for the lanternfly) especially the adult.”

Transportation is a concern at the Department of Agriculture, too. And department officials have set up a permitting system, requiring shipping companies in the quarantine zone to submit to a training about the lanternfly and how to properly load and unload goods.

The department is working with Penn State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to combat the insect, Powers said.

That includes targeting another invasive species — a plant called tree of heaven.

The plant, which grows in abundance in Pennsylvania, is especially attractive to the lanternfly.

So Department of Agriculture employees have been working to eradicate the seed-laying female tree of heaven plants, while deploying sticky insect traps and heavy insecticides on the males.

“It works like fly paper,” Powers said of the traps.

The lanternfly has no natural predators, and the possibility of importing a predator is being evaluated, as research of the bug continues locally, Leach said.

Leach described the research effort as an ongoing and expensive project with a lot of unknowns. But on Thursday, she drew one conclusion.

“I really think we have to prepare for the worst and prepare for it to spread,” she said.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.

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