Areas in the United States and world that have been identified as possible spotted lanternfly habitat.

Nov 15, 2019
Tools, funds target spotted lanternfly

Research funds and new tools are fueling another year of the fight against spotted lanternfly.

The colorful, polka-dotted insects are an invasive species native to China, Bangladesh and Vietnam – and a significant risk to U.S. fruit growers, especially those who grow grapes. Other crops affected by the pests include almonds, apples, blueberries, cherries and peaches.

The insects, which feed on the sap in trees and vines, have since 2014 been identified mostly in Northeastern states, including Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia, but are thought to be capable of infesting other regions.

An organized effort to track and kill the bugs continues to ramp up. Federal funds have now brought in 37 researchers and Extension educators to study techniques for thwarting the bugs. Growers are obviously spraying them. Truckers in some areas are being required to observe quarantine zones where the insects are thick. Even the public is being encouraged to act, in addition to reporting any spotted lanternflies seen.

“What else? Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it,” read a public alert in Pennsylvania.

In October, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $7.3 million, four-year grant to Penn State University (PSU) to lead a team of researchers in multiple disciplines and at several different institutions to fight the insects. The grant is matched by commitments from growers who are volunteering land to use for the research – an effort valued at $5 million.

“We’re learning a lot more about its biology and behavior,” said PSU Extension associate Heather Leach, who is one of two co-principal investigators of the project – the other is Julie Urban, associate professor of entomology in PSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. There is a broad range of host plants – the invasive Tree of Heaven is the insect’s favorite and growers may want to pull those out.

“We’ve continued to see some very drastic and what I would call scary losses in vineyards in particular,” she said. Grapevines fed upon by spotted lanternflies are especially susceptible to winter damage, and Leach said she knew of one grower who pulled out his grapevines after an attack.

There’s no point in panicking – one bright spot is that the insects can be controlled by existing insecticides.

“I don’t want to be a reason a grower doesn’t sleep at night,” said Leach, who frequently speaks about the dangers of spotted lanternfly, for instance, at the upcoming Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market Expo in Grand Rapids, Dec. 10-12.

Research over the next four years may make sleeping easier for those Midwestern grape growers. Short-term research focusses on chemical sprays – which sprays are most effective, and when they should be used – as well as the design of traps. Long-term research examines biological controls. One study is examining the use of beauveria bassiana – the fungus used in bioinsecticide products such as Certis’ BoteGHA or BioWorks’ Botanigard – and another, lesser-known fungal pathogen to possibly control the insects or reduce their pressure on agriculture.

Researchers from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) have collected from China two different species of parasitoid wasps and are assessing them at an APHIS facility to see if they could be safely released for spotted lanternfly control.

“This pest is a really good hitchhiker,” Leach said. Spotted lanternfly in late summer and early fall lay egg masses on any hard and semi-smooth surface in the vicinity of feeding sites – those surfaces could include trucks, pallets or other shipping materials. Both New Jersey and Pennsylvania expanded their quarantine areas in 2019.

How far could it go if unchecked? The USDA-ARS generated a map that showed wide swathes of the U.S. and world with climates suitable for the establishment of a spotted lanternfly population. Leach said the map was reliable although some of those areas such as the U.S. Corn Belt aren’t known for growing large amounts of fruit. Some areas of Europe could be in danger of an invasion by spotted lanternfly – Leach said scientists from Italy recently visited to learn more about the insects.

“We know a lot of people are watching this pest, which is great,” she said.

It would be nice to eliminate the invading spotted lanternflies from North America completely. Leach said that may not be possible, though quarantine efforts may slow down its spread.

“I don’t know if eradication is going to happen, but I think if we can slow it down as much as possible it gives us the best chance of buying us time,” Leach said. “Because we just got this grant, we’re able to assemble this team, get graduate students, get (post-doctoral researchers) and hopefully get more answers out there that we can really help reduce population, so that by the time it gets to the Michigan grape industry, the New York grape industry, we have better answers, we have management options in place.

“And hopefully that means that damage from that bug, that economic impact from that bug, will be less,” she said.

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor; Map at top: Areas in the United States and world that have been identified as possible spotted lanternfly habitat. Photo: USDA ARS

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