Spotted lanternflies are extremely cool-looking bugs, with polka-dotted wings in shades of red, black and beige that make them resemble paper lanterns. But people should be very worried about this invasive insect, according to entomologist Frank Hale.
The spotted lanternfly hales from India, Vietnam and China. It probably immigrated to the U.S. as a stowaway in a cut stone or wood product shipment circa 2012. The initial U.S. sighting in 2014 was, fittingly enough, on a common invasive tree of heaven in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Since then, spotted lanternflies have spread to at least 26 counties in Pennsylvania and been spotted in several other eastern states.
The problem is, this is one destructive little bug. Lanternflies feed by piercing tree bark and vines, biting right into the plant’s vascular system and sucking out the sap. At an inch long, they’re pretty big for a sucking insect and can remove an awful lot of sap, jeopardizing the lives of their hosts. Then they excrete large amounts of the euphemistically called “honeydew,” which coats the tree. “The heavy flow of honeydew and the resulting sooty mold makes a mess of the landscape,” said Hale, as reported in Ecowatch. Woe to those who park beneath a tree infested with lanternflies.
These invasive bugs also have a yen for grapevines. It takes a lot of insecticide to kill them, driving up production costs and making vintners kiss their organic status goodbye. Eastern wine-producing areas, including Long Island and Finger Lakes in New York, Newport, Rhode Island and parts of Virginia all face the threat of lanternflies ruining their vineyards.
How have these little bugs spread so far in just a few years? In late summer and autumn, lanternflies lay egg masses. Any smooth surface is fair game. Including cars, trains and trucks. The unborn lanternflies can hitch a ride anywhere, leading to future infestations.
Scientists are trying to figure out the best way to stop these bugs from continuing their west and southward trajectory. “Two naturally occurring fungal pathogens of spotted lanternflies have been identified in the U.S.,” Hale told Ecowatch. “Also, U.S. labs are testing two parasitoid insects – insects that grow by feeding on lanternflies and killing them in the process – that have been brought from China for testing and possible future release.” Wait, haven’t we seen that in a sci-fi movie?
In the meantime, if you see spotted lanternflies in your area, contact your local county extension office for suggestions on how to control the bugs. And if you’re the unlucky first sighter of the bugs in your area, contact your state department of agriculture. “If the infestation is caught early before it can become established in your area, hopefully it can be eradicated there,” said Hale. “Eventually, it will spread to many parts of the country. We can slow the spread by identifying and eradicating new infestations wherever they arise.”
Lead image via F Delventhal