UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For residents of southeastern Pennsylvania, winter provides a brief respite from the spotted lanternfly, an insect invader that has impeded their warm-weather enjoyment for the past several years.
But for scientists, extension specialists and government regulatory officials, putting a stop to the pest is a year-round endeavor.
“There is too much at stake to take a break in the battle against spotted lanternfly,” said Dennis Calvin, associate dean and director of special programs in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We won’t give in or give up until we have answers.”
Native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly — now confirmed in 14 Pennsylvania counties and reported in surrounding states including New Jersey, Delaware, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland — has an insatiable appetite for the sap of fruit and landscape trees, grape vines, and woody ornamental plants. The insect is blamed for estimated economic damages of $50.1 million per year and the loss of more than 400 jobs in the southeastern part of the state.
Penn State has joined forces with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to control and contain the spread of spotted lanternfly.
The College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension are leading the research and public outreach efforts, respectively, while the state and federal agriculture departments are focused on operations and regulatory work, which includes enforcing a state quarantine order and treating locations where the pest has been reported.
The key to finding strategies for sustainable, long-term management of the spotted lanternfly lies in understanding its biology and behavior, noted Julie Urban, research associate professor of entomology.
To that end, Urban and Penn State colleagues are working with USDA scientists and other institutions to develop biological and chemical controls and other methods to manage the pest around homes, parks, buildings, nurseries, vineyards and fruit farms.
Projects include studies on disrupting the lanternfly female reproductive cycle; testing of organic control methods such as a fungal-based spray and natural insect predators; investigations of the pest’s flight behavior, where it might travel and the conditions it needs to flourish; and research on its feeding preferences, including its penchant for tree of heaven and at-risk specialty crops such as grapes.
“There are no easy answers when it comes to the spotted lanternfly, and we understand that’s hard for people to hear,” Urban said. “Good research takes time — and funding — but we are making discoveries every day and are sharing those findings with the public and key stakeholders.”
For example, the results of Penn State research on the effectiveness of various commercial insecticides in controlling spotted lanternfly populations have been shared with growers and other stakeholders. Experiments focused on effective management techniques for homeowners also are ongoing, with updates provided on the Penn State Extension website and in printed pieces.
In addition, Penn State is part of an interdisciplinary spotted lanternfly research group made up of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Virginia Tech, the University of Delaware, the University of Rhode Island, Temple University, Rutgers University, Cornell University and the Northeastern IPM Center.
The team recently received a $7.3 million USDA grant and $5 million in matching investments from growers and landowners to bolster spotted lanternfly research.
Parallel efforts among all partners are focused on stopping the spread of the pest and educating the public and businesses about the actions they can take.
At Penn State, extension educators, volunteer Master Gardeners and Master Watershed Stewards, and other staff and faculty have been giving presentations to the public, government officials, growers and other industry stakeholders in and outside of the quarantine zone, traveling as far as Massachusetts, North Carolina and Minnesota to meet with industry and government groups.
In all, more than 10,000 people attended meetings on spotted lanternfly hosted by Penn State Extension in the past year, with thousands more reached through displays set up at community events, including the Pennsylvania Farm Show and Penn State’s Ag Progress Days.
Educators hope to reach more people this year and have a full calendar of presentations planned. Those interested in attending a meeting can visit https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly-public-meeting for the schedule.
The Penn State Extension website also is home to an online course that provides businesses with the necessary training to receive a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture permit, which is required for companies that move equipment and goods within and out of the 14-county quarantine zone. Nearly 30,000 individuals have taken the course to date, including Penn State employees who travel to the quarantine zone on business.
State and U.S. agriculture officials are working to reduce the populations and limit the spread of spotted lanternfly by treating locations where the insect has been reported. Part of this approach entails treating preferred host plant Ailanthus altissima, or tree of heaven, with a systemic insecticide in high-risk places such as parks, rail lines and highways.
“Sometimes, these agencies have to access residents’ properties as part of this work,” said Heather Leach, spotted lanternfly extension associate. “We urge homeowners to support these efforts by giving these agencies permission to treat their properties.”
This past fall, extension educators participated in a surveillance effort to identify tree of heaven locations throughout the state. Approximately 3,200 data plots were recorded. Educators will take part in the survey again this year.
Making a difference
These efforts are making a difference, noted Emelie Swackhamer, horticulture extension educator based in Montgomery County.
“More and more people are identifying, reporting and destroying the spotted lanternfly,” she said. “Keeping the spotted lanternfly from reaching other parts of the state is crucial while we work, and every citizen can help by learning the steps they can take to help stop it.”
To learn more and report sightings, visit the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/have-you-seen-a-spotted-lanternfly or call the spotted lanternfly toll-free hotline at 888-422-3359. All reports are documented and investigated by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
–Amy Duke, Penn State University