When Lea Sullivan was hired 10 years ago as a quality assurance inspector at Rolling Rock Building Stone near Boyertown, her job consisted of packing small boxes of quarried stone before they were shipped around the country.
Sullivan’s job has changed ever since a vibrantly colored insect called the spotted lanternfly showed up not far from here four years ago – the first appearance in the United States of this non-native species.
Quality assurance now means walking the quarry in steel-tipped boots carrying a flyswatter, flashlight, mirror, plastic bag filled with Dawn dish detergent and water, and a plastic card. And, of course, a pair of well-trained eyes to identify and kill the insect so it doesn’t spread beyond the company’s property or get shipped out on the thousands of slabs of stone products it ships around the world daily.
The concern is the spotted lanternfly’s potential to destroy apples, grapes, stone fruits, hardwood trees and more than 70 other species of plants. State and local officials are worried the spotted lanternfly could wreak havoc on Pennsylvania’s $18 billion agricultural and forest industries.
In the four years since the spotted lanternfly was first confirmed in Berks County, it has spread to 12 other counties – Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Monroe, Philadelphia and Schuylkill – and has been reported in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
State Department of Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding is concerned that if spotted lanternfly problems spreads farther in Pennsylvania, the state could eventually be subject to trade restrictions by countries reluctant to import its products.
“The big fear is the unknown for this growing season,” said State Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, minority chair of the senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “The question is how much damage will we see.”
The Greater Lehigh Valley has the dubious distinction of being ground zero for another invasive insect from Asia. More than 20 years ago, the brown marmorated stinkbug, a notoriously malodorous creature that destroys certain crops, was found in Allentown, its first known appearance in North America. It has since spread across most of the continental United States.
Entomologists have the same concern about the spotted lanternfly, which doesn’t fly far but is a good hitchhiker, hopping onto goods and vehicles that cross state lines.
State and federal officials are so alarmed by the potential spread of the spotted lanternfly that the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $17.5 million in emergency funding in February to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to control, treat and gather data on the invasive insect. That same day, Gov. Tom Wolf designated $1.6 million in his proposed 2018-2019 budget to combat the spotted lanternfly.
HARDSHIP FOR HARDWOODS?
Schwank, one of the first to sound the alarm of the spotted lanternfly with her colleagues, has a better understanding than most. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture education from Penn State, was Penn State Extension horticultural agent for Berks County and dean of agriculture and environmental sciences at Delaware Valley University.
Like the stinkbug, the spotted lanternfly feeds off a variety of hosts and can damage fruits and vegetables, but one of the big differences is its potential to damage forest products, which could be devastating to Pennsylvania’s hardwood industry, Schwank said.
Pennsylvania is the leading producer of hardwood lumber in the country and employs thousands of workers.
Another concern is the economic loss in terms of property values and tourism, Schwank said.
“The spotted lanternfly is much larger than the stinkbug, more visible and repelling,” she said.
Schwank has firsthand knowledge of its repulsiveness.
The adult spotted lanternfly, which measures about an inch long and half-inch wide, can dive bomb people. They’ve congregated by the dozens in Schwank’s backyard, on her lawn furniture and on their favorite feeding and breeding site, the Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus altissima, another invasive species that is ubiquitous in Pennsylvania.
Much of the biology and behavior of the spotted lanternfly are still a mystery, and researchers at the state department of agriculture, Penn State University, Kutztown University and East Stroudsburg are engaged in numerous studies.
“We are still learning about the spotted lanternfly, so there are certain elements of it we still don’t understand yet,” said Amy Korman, an entomologist with Penn State Extension in Northampton County.
Tom Baker, a distinguished professor of entomology and chemical ecology at Penn State, where a number of research projects on the spotted lanternfly are underway, called the spotted lanternfly “the weirdest, most pernicious insect I’ve ever seen.”
There are no estimates available on how much economic damage the spotted lanternfly has caused so far in Pennsylvania, but it is clear it is causing jitters in Pennsylvania’s grape, fruit tree and hardwood industries.
“If the spotted lanternfly were to expand into the state’s fruit belt region, it could be economically devastating,” Redding wrote in his blog at a special joint hearing on the spotted lanternfly held last fall by the state House and Senate Agricultural Committees.
The state and Penn State extension office have been engaged in a massive public information campaign via social media and conducting hundreds of meetings to educate the public and affected industries.
On a snowy day in February, 79 nursery operators, arborists, landscapers and garden center employees gathered at Penn State Lehigh Valley’s auditorium for Korman’s class about the spotted lanternfly and how to manage it.
The situation is similar to the impact of the emerald ash borer, another invasive insect, which required specific handling of firewood, Korman said.
“I think most in general are very cognizant of how to handle the spotted lanternfly,” she said. “We don’t want them to move things around that are potentially infested to create a worse problem.”
The Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association has been alerting its members to be vigilant about looking for the spotted lanternfly and its egg masses, even if the business is not in one of the 13 quarantined areas designated by the state.
CONCERN AMONG VINTNERS
Pennsylvania’s $28 million grape industry, the fifth largest in the U.S. and the third largest producer of juice grapes, also is on high alert of the potential threat the spotted lanternfly poses.
The spotted lanternfly is the topic of conversation among vintners in the area and was the subject of a presentation at the Pennsylvania Wine Association’s meeting in Lancaster in March.
Marianne Lieberman, owner of Maple Springs Vineyard in Bechtelsville, said her business has lost about 10 percent of its wine production because of the damage caused by the spotted lanternfly.
“For a small winery, that’s huge,” said Lieberman, who testified at the hearing last fall. “We are very, very concerned.”
KILLS THE PLANT
Lieberman said she first noticed the spotted lanternflies in her grape arbors about four years ago.
“They’ve multiplied at an alarming rate,” she said.
The spotted lanternfly doesn’t eat the grapes but uses its piercing, sucking mouth-parts to feed off the trunk of the vines and climb into the canopy. The sticky honeydew it excretes builds up on the leaves, preventing photosynthesis, which kills the plant.
TASTE IS UNAFFECTED
The honeydew feeds on the nitrogen and yeast in the grapes, dragging out the fermentation process longer than normal, thereby producing five times more dead yeast, called lees.
“The more lees you have, the more wine loss you have,” Lieberman said.
The spotted lanternfly doesn’t affect the taste of the wine, she said.
“Our wine is still fantastic,” Lieberman said, and winning awards, but “it is making it harder to make wine and it affects our total volume.”
Brian Rider, executive director of the Pennsylvania Forest Products Association, a trade group that represents 300 sawmills, lumber yards, pulp and other wood product businesses, called the spotted lanternfly “a major problem for the industry.”
Rider said the spotted lanternfly could infest logs waiting to be shipped or manufactured into hardwood products.
One way the state has been trying to eradicate spotted lanternfly is through the creation of quarantine zones, where the insect has been confirmed.
Loggers, landscapers, nurseries, quarries and other businesses that transport materials in the quarantine areas have restrictions on how they move their goods. They enter voluntary compliance agreements with the state, which outlines how those products are to be inspected and handled.
Gary Weller, owner and president of Rolling Rock, has been an enthusiastic supporter of the compliance agreement ever since the first spotted lanternfly was identified nearby.
When state and local officials gathered at Rolling Rock during National Invasive Species Awareness Week in late February, Weller was recognized by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Fred Strathmeyer for his efforts to combat the spotted lanternfly.
Along with designating Sullivan as the point person for removing the spotted lanternfly, Weller has made sure everyone knows how to identify and kill the insect. He’s been working with experts on strategies to remove the spotted lanternfly by banding and removing trees.
“We left some trees in place to act as host trees. If you leave a few host trees still remaining, the spotted lanternfly will be attracted to those trees,” Weller said. “We have a program in place where we treat those trees with pesticides. It goes through the tree, and when the spotted lanternfly hatches and feeds on the tree, it will kill them in place.”
In about a month, the spotted lanternfly’s egg sacks will hatch. The challenge is finding them.
Weller calls the spotted lanternfly “an evasive invasive” because it lays its egg sacks on the underside of surfaces.
Sullivan looks for the pouches, which contain about 30 to 50 eggs in chambers, resemble pale brownish gray smears of putty that are covered in a waxy substance and are laid on trees, rocks, equipment, the sides of buildings, the undercarriage of trucks and any number of other inanimate objects outdoors. The agriculture department recommends placing the egg sacs in a baggie or vial filled with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer – not dish detergent.
“It’s not that bad. The real fun begins when they start hatching and flying in summer,” Sullivan said.
The nymphs, called instars, go through four growth stages and look different in each, going from black-and-white spotted backs to predominantly red, black and white spotted backs.
And as part of a group of insects called planthoppers, they’re all strong and quick jumpers.
“They’re actually pretty cute when they’re nymphs. But I try to stomp and kill them,” she said.
SWATTING AND SQUISHING
As the months progress, Sullivan’s inspection style changes.
Come August, Sullivan can kill the multicolored winged adult spotted lanternflies with a satisfying swat or squish-crunch with her boot or gloved hand. On a bad day, one of the insects had flown in her face and she let out a startled scream.
“Who knew something so pretty could be such a nuisance and such a problem,” she said.