Pennsylvania Battles Invasive Bug

Jun 28, 2019  | 7 min  | Ep4445

Invasive species have been a problem in the U.S. for decades. Those in the south have more than one story about Kudzu engulfing the mailbox. However, zebra mussels, Asian carp, and even house sparrows can be the cause of more serious problems.

A case in point, an insect intruder from overseas has become the focus of a multi-state effort to detect, control and eradicate an enemy with few natural predators.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story. Producer contact: colleen.krantz@iptv.org

 

A Pennsylvania wildlife education specialist was arriving home after work one day in September 2014 when he noticed an unfamiliar inch-long insect on his garage door.

Dan Lynch sent a photo to other state employees and, within a day, three entomologists were on their way to his southeast Pennsylvania home. Their initial excitement at documenting the unusual insect – and dozens of its nearby peers – soon gave way to dread as the entomologists realized it was likely an invasive species that could cause economic or environmental harm.

Within days, the bugs were identified as Spotted Lanternfly, never before found in North America. Within six weeks, a task force had been set up and a quarantine area established. Within three and a half years, USDA would pony up $17.5 million to help Pennsylvania and neighboring states slow the spread of the sap-sucking insect that now threatens vineyards, orchards, hops and other agricultural products.

The manager of a private airport about 15 miles from the original site in Berks County, Pennsylvania shot this video in September 2018, four years after Lynch found the first Spotted Lanternfly.

Russell Redding, Secretary of Agriculture, Pennsylvania: Berks County, which if you look at Pennsylvania’s map, is on the eastern side, but it happens to be right in the very epicenter of agricultural production for Pennsylvania… What we realized pretty quickly is that everything that we have in Pennsylvania.”

 

Experts believe the Spotted Lanternfly may have arrived on a shipment of stone from South Korea the year before it was discovered. South Koreans also consider the bug to be an invasive species. The quarantine zones now include 14 counties in Pennsylvania as well as a handful of counties in Delaware, New Jersey and Virginia.

Russell Redding, Secretary of Agriculture, Penn.: “No one really understood the full impact of this in 2014 and I would say it was even 2016 until we fully realized what was happening as this population exploded… We still believe that eradication is possible. You don’t want to say that this pest is here forever. We accept that we’ve got to manage it… It has not spread nearly as fast as some of the Asian countries.”

The name of the once-unfamiliar insect, a native of China, Bangladesh and Vietnam, has essentially become a curse word in the southeast quadrant of the state. As an adult, the bug prefers to eat the sap of the Tree of Heaven, also an invasive species native to Asia. Officials and residents have worked to clear the unwanted tree but the insects also have been found feeding on more than 70 other species of trees and vines.

Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator with Penn State Extension, says as it feeds, the bug also defecates a sugary waste – known as honeydew - on the leaves, which often results in a leaf mold that interferes with photosynthesis. As a result, the affected plants lose the energy needed for fruit growth.

Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator, Penn State Extension: “The concern is that repeated heavy infestations year after year could begin to result in tree loss. For growers, especially of grapes and hops, which are much smaller plants, that kind of feeding can definitely deplete a plant rather quickly.”

Although the insects do not bite or sting, Finlay says many homeowners find them to be a major nuisance.

Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator, Penn State Extension: “If nothing else, you just don’t want to swipe these insects out of your iced tea… We get calls with very strange remedies: everything from kerosene to bleach to motor oil to shotguns. None of those is a good way to go about management.”

While some insecticides work on the Spotted Lanternfly, experts are asking residents to simply crush them to avoid potential harm to bees or other non-target insects.

Beth Finlay, Master Gardener Coordinator, Penn State Extension: “Our concern from the beginning has been that if a couple of million households are turned loose with pesticides, we could create a bigger disaster even than the Spotted Lanternfly itself represents.”

Residents also can wrap sticky traps around their trees as the young insects are non-flying and tend to climb up the nearest tree trunk. Experts hope natural predators – like spiders and the Praying Mantis – may eventually reduce the number of Spotted Lanternflies.

Some vineyard operators have used chemicals to avoid dramatic declines in grape production. With 13,000 acres in vineyards, the state of Pennsylvania is the fifth largest producer of grapes.

Darvin Levengood, one of the owners of Manatawny Creek Winery in Douglassville, tore out one of his smaller vineyards in early May. A second, historically healthier vineyard also is struggling. Levengood suspects a bad-weather year in 2018 caused most of the harm, but the insects added insult to injury.

Darvin Levengood, Manatawny Creek Winery: “There’s not going to be enough grapes to go around. That’s my fear. We will probably buy grapes and juices to a greater extent than we did last year simply because we’re not going to have much of our own.”

Although Pennsylvania has spent roughly $3 million in addition to the money provided by the feds to slow the insect’s spread, Levengood is doubtful that the Spotted Lanternfly will be contained.

Darvin Levengood, Manatawny Creek Winery: “They are gearing up, they are spending a fair amount of money and trying to cover all the bases, and trying to find out what it takes to stop the spread of this thing … (cut to…) But I don’t see a lot of hope that it’s going to improve much in the next couple of years…I mean this is agriculture at its nastiest basically.”

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