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Spotted lanternfly a real pest

Insect highlighted at Ag Progress Days

Pennsylvania State University undergraduate Taya Etters uses a micro-pippette to paint by numbers at the spotted lanternfly exhibit on Tuesday during Ag Progress Days. Etters said the activity was designed to engage children and familiarize them with equipment they might use in a lab setting. / Photo for the Mirror by Ike Fredregill

PENNSYLVANIA FURNACE — Pennsylvania agriculture communities need residents to help stamp out an invasive species responsible for decimating fruit crops in eastern and central counties, a Penn State University spokesman said.

“(Spotted lanternflies) are singularly the worst grape pest I have ever seen,” said Richard Roush, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences dean.

Roush and Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding hosted a town hall Tuesday at Penn State’s Ag Progress Days, in part, to discuss the mottled insects, which are native to Asia and prey on fruit trees, hardwoods and grape vines.

“Until 2014, the spotted lanternfly was not in North America,” Redding told attendees. “This thing is an opportunist. It will go where you go. The key is making people aware of its existence.”

Just outside the town hall, Penn State undergraduate Taya Etters manned an exhibit detailing the spotted lanternfly’s habits and history.

“They first appeared in Berks County,” Etters said. “It hasn’t been confirmed, but the common speculation is they were transferred here from China in shipping materials.”

While the insects are not harmful to humans, they feed on plants, causing stunted growth. During the feeding process, the spotted lanternfly excretes a sugary water substance Etters referred to as “honeydew.”

“This honeydew creates a black mold that kills whatever plant it’s on,” she explained. “It falls on the plant’s root system or leaves, which is then taken in by the plant and is pretty much poisonous to the plant.”

At first, researchers weren’t aware of the insect’s destructive capabilities, largely because China doesn’t often share harmful insect data, Etters said.

“We haven’t seen this insect before, because China has some very strict shipping restrictions,” she added.

By the time crop producers realized the insect was killing yields, it was too late.

“Most of the time, when we’re dealing with removing insects, we use attractants,” Roush said, explaining why the species has been difficult to eliminate. “We don’t have those tools with this one.”

One method of spotted lanternfly management is targeting another invasive plant, tree-of-heaven, according to materials provided by Penn State.

Tree-of-heaven is a plant commonly used in landscape plantings, but it also grows along roadsides. Applying herbicide from July to September can remove the plants, but multiple applications may be necessary to kill it outright.

Redding said another management method is for people to check their vehicles and possessions for egg nests when traveling to or from the affected area.

“This insect doesn’t tend to lay its eggs at or near a host plant, but rather prefers inanimate objects such as wooden boxes, garden furniture and wood pallets,” he said. “We see them around railways. Adults can fly into boxcars, and lay their eggs in October or September. Then, the train moves somewhere else where the eggs hatch in spring.”

Insecticides can be used, but Roush said the applications need to be precise, otherwise non-invasive insect species could be put at risk.

Currently, 14 counties are under quarantine, but Roush said he wasn’t sure if the quarantine was as effective as hoped.

“We were all a little astonished with the movement of the lanternfly, especially the nymphs,” he explained. “They can move a lot farther than you think.”

So far, the damage estimates attributed to the invasive insect are in the billions of dollars.

Redding said it could take a statewide effort to put a stop to the spotted lanternfly’s reign of terror.

“We need to increase public awareness and vigilance,” he said. “Wherever you see a population appear, try to go in and stop it.”

Go to extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly to learn more about the spotted lanternfly and management efforts.

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