In the summer of 2014, a Pennsylvania game commission officer named Frank Strathmeyer spotted a bug he’d never seen before in Berks County. It was about an inch long, with dark spots and red hind wings. He called it in to the state.
“And lo and behold it became our first discovery of spotted lanternfly in the northern hemisphere,” says Strathmeyer. “Not just in Pennsylvania, but in all of North America.”
Strathmeyer’s job now largely centers on controlling lanternflies. Within a month of that first report, the state issued a quarantine. But this is a fast-breeding, fast-spreading insect. Not because it can fly so quickly, but its dirt-like egg masses are known to hitchhike on trucks, trains, and ships. That’s how these Asian bugs are believed to have gotten here.
And Strathmeyer says there’s a lot at stake. While their main food source is an invasive known as Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven, lanternflies also suck sap from more than 70 other plant species, including important Pennsylvania crops, like grapes, hops, and hardwood trees.
“Pennsylvania is the leading state in the nation for hardwoods,” says Strathmeyer. “It’s an $18 to $20 billion dollar industry to the state, so you can only imagine the impact. You can imagine the impact for the grape industry if it were to end up in Erie.”
Thirteen southeastern PA counties are now under quarantine. Spotted lanternflies have also recently been found in New York, Delaware and Virginia. In early February, Governor Tom Wolf proposed spending $1.6 million dollars, and the US Department of Agriculture committed $17.5 million dollars, in new emergency funding to stem further spread.
In a video by the Penn State Entomology department, you can watch a swarm of the little bugs gnaw and suck on a grape plant. They excrete a stream of something called honeydew, which leads to a sooty mold. It’s already reduced grape yields and can damage hops and walnut trees.
Strathmeyer says it’s also making some parts of southeastern Pennsylvania unpleasant in the summer.
“It’s the day care center who couldn’t let the kids out because these things are flying all over the place,” says Strathmeyer. “It’s mom and dad that were planning on a family reunion that had to cancel because the sooty mold is such a mess at their house.”
With the new infusion of funding, Pennsylvania agriculture officials are meeting with the USDA to look at programs to stop the lanternflies’ spread, including increased surveillance and expanding the use of herbicides on those Ailanthus trees that lanternflies love so much. But Strathmeyer says that still won’t be enough.
“We realize that you’re not going to be able to contain or herbicide every Ailanthus tree in the state. It’s an impossible task,” Strathmeyer explains. “Our next best thing is make sure that people are aware of it.”
Agriculture officials are asking people who see lanternflies in any form — egg masses or full grown insects — to double bag them, throw them away – and report it to the state at BadBug@pa.gov.