Voracious hordes of destructive insects on the horizon: Here's what it means to NY
- Spotted lanternflies are a threat to Finger Lakes vineyards.
- The Asian invaders are already damaging grapes in Pennsylvania.
- They also threaten many other plants, from fruit trees to rose bushes.
- Lanternflies have been seen in Rochester and other NYS spots.
Spotted lanternflies, the feared invasive insect that could wreak havoc in the Finger Lakes, have been found in at least eight New York counties since last summer, including Monroe, Chemung, Yates and Westchester.
All but one of the insects was dead when discovered, and state officials said last week there was no sign of a spotted lanternfly infestation in New York.
But the number of sightings in the span of a few months’ time underscores the difficulty of preventing a lanternfly colonization of New York — an event that could have a significant impact on agricultural interests, such as wineries and orchards, and on everyday homeowners.
Swarming lanternflies are already established in 14 Pennsylvania counties, four adjoining counties in New Jersey and Delaware and one county in Virginia.
They can feed on — and kill — dozens of species of plants, from towering hardwoods to backyard rose bushes.
But the Asian insects have shown a particular affinity for grapes, and in southeastern Pennsylvania around Berks County, where they’ve been established since 2014 after arriving in a shipment of cut stone, the news is horrifying.
"We’re seeing some pretty significant yield loss," said Heather Leach, a Penn State extension specialist who works solely on the lanternfly invasion. "We’re holding our breath waiting to see how many vines are producing flowers and how many are producing fruit this year."
One wine-grape vineyard that was heavily infested in 2016 and 2017 lost an estimated 90 percent of its output. Another found that about half its vines were dead or unable to generate buds, according to Penn State University officials who tracked productivity.
At a third vineyard, a 2½-acre planting of Pinot noir grapes was destroyed after being inundated by lanternflies for just a few months in 2017.
This experience is not lost on growers and others in the Finger Lakes, one of the most productive and beloved wine-grape regions in America. The northern edge of the infested area of Pennsylvania is just 100 miles from Finger Lakes wine country.
"It has the potential to be pretty devastating," said Hans Walter-Peterson, a viticulturalist who heads Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Finger Lakes Grape Program. "The thing that’s different about this bug is … it feeds directly on the sugars that are being transported up and down the vine. If you get enough of them, what they’ve seen down in Pennsylvania is they’re killing the vines."
Fear for the Finger Lakes
To date, no effective way to fully protect vineyards from heavy infestation has emerged, and the lanternflies’ spread is continuing at a rate of about 10 miles per year, Leach said. But their hardy egg masses also can be transported long distances by motor vehicle, train or boat and hatch out where they light.
"The reality of it is it’s going to be hard to contain," said Jayson Harper, a professor of agricultural economics at Penn State who also heads the college's fruit research center. "We’re concerned about it getting into the Finger Lakes."
New York state officials share that concern, and have mounted a considerable effort to keep lanternflies from establishing themselves here.
They’ve been watching and warning about the insects for several years. Behind the scenes, they began looking for lanternfly egg masses at businesses that have accepted shipment of goods from infested areas of Pennsylvania.
Last year, state workers scoured 635 square miles of landscape for sign of lanternflies, and made 145 regulatory inspections. So far this year, another 140 square miles have been checked and 17 more inspections conducted.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation wrote in a prepared statement that officials are determined to prevail, though they acknowledge they might not.
"New York fully intends to prevent spotted lanternflies from ever establishing a viable population in the state," the DEC statement said. "We also continue to prepare for alternatives should this pest become a fixture on the landscape."
Homeowners face gooey rain
Grape-growers have had it worst so far in Pennsylvania but homeowners, surprisingly, have suffered considerably as well, Leach said.
It’s bother enough when hundreds or thousands of gaudy winged insects twice the size of stink bugs arrive on a piece of property. Their droppings are worse.
Lanternflies feed by piercing a plant’s outer covering with a straw-like appendage and sucking out sap. They then excrete a sticky, smelly substance called honeydew, which collects where it lands and often promotes the growth of black, sooty mold.
When they infest a large tree that shades a backyard deck or swimming pool, it can fall like gross and ruinous rain.
"Frankly, it’s disgusting. It’s this sticky stuff and then mold grows on it. I can understand why homeowners are up in arms about it. They want a solution," Harper said.
The jury is still out in Pennsylvania on the impact of lanternflies on agricultural plants other than grapes. Field crops so far have seen no impact, and officials say they can't judge yet whether the state's vast and valuable hardwood forests are at substantial risk.
Fruit trees are a particular concern; Pennsylvania, like New York, is rich in apple and peach trees.
The concern was heightened by stories from South Korea, where a spotted lanternfly invasion reportedly damaged that country's peach industry.
In Pennsylvania, lanternflies have fed on fruit trees, but so far their stay has been limited and damage minor, Leach said. They’ve been more a nuisance to pickers than anything else.
Numerous other invasive insects from Asia have made their way to New York, with brown marmorated stink bugs, emerald ash borers, hemlock woolly adelgids and Asian longhorn beetles being the prime examples.
But the borers, adelgids and beetles target specific types of plants; only stink bugs are as wide-ranging in their tastes as the lanternflies.
Stink bugs have harmed apples and other crops in the Hudson Valley, though they are not yet numerous enough to cause much damage in this part of the state and they've shown no affinity for grapes.
In mid-October last year, the DEC announced it had found a live adult and several dead lanternflies in a tree nursery in Deer Park, Suffolk County. The insects arrived via a shipment from a tree grower within the infested portion of Pennsylvania.
Another shipment from the same source to the Deer Park nursery included a tree harboring a lanternfly egg mass, the DEC recently told the Democrat and Chronicle. Had the mass not been found, it could have unleashed dozens of lanternfly nymphs into the nursery this spring.
The Deer Park incidents came just days after the DEC had made its first public announcement of spotted lanternflies being found in New York — the discovery of dead adult insects in Albany and Yates counties.
The Yates bug was found near Keuka Lake by a resident of the infested area in Pennsylvania who has a summer home on Keuka. The insect presumably traveled there on the man's car. The other lanternfly was on a car in a suburban Albany parking lot.
Since then, lanternflies have made many more appearances in New York state, officials told the newspaper:
- Three separate reports in Rochester of individual and multiple adult lanternflies being found.
- Two instances in Horseheads, Chemung County, when a bug was found in the packing material of a manufactured product.
- At least one adult found in South Salem, Westchester County; Dix Hills, Suffolk County; and Brooklyn.
- In addition, a lanternfly was found in 2017 in Hobart, Delaware County, though not publicized then.
In all but the one Suffolk case, the DEC said, the insects were dead when discovered and follow-up surveys near the locations where they'd been found turned up no evidence of other lanternflies.
But the discoveries here demonstrate the fallibility of a quarantine established in 14 Pennsylvania counties that regulates movement of commercial vehicles and materials within the zone, and prohibits the shipment of items such as stone and nursery stock to locations outside the zone.
All the spotted lanternflies found in New York came from within the quarantine zone, state officials said.
As well, an infestation in northern Virginia was sparked by lanternfly eggs attached to a shipment of cut stone from inside the quarantine, officials there have said.
New York state officials nonetheless believe they have a chance to prevent the insect from infesting New York vineyards, orchards, forests and backyards.
They say adult lanternflies' size and distinctive coloring makes them easier to spot than the more reclusive emerald ash borers, an Asian invader that is sweeping through New York unchecked.
"Our goal is to find spotted lanternflies early enough to be able to prevent its establishment in the state," said Jola Szubielski, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. "Early detection is the key."
No natural predators
Lanternfly eggs hatch in the spring, pass through four nymphal stages and mature into adults in July or August. The adults feed voraciously, perhaps storing up energy so that females can produce eggs in the fall.
They will swarm plants from which they can suck the nutrients they need; Harper said they can cover a tree and move up it methodically as if on a conveyor belt.
Officials have counted as many as 365 adult lanternflies on a single grapevine, a degree of infestation that is a virtual death sentence.
"It was actually completely covering that vine. When you get that kind of damage, especially at a time those grapes are finishing ripening up and putting sugars into those grapes, and the vines are starting to shut down … those vines are not able to survive winter conditions," Leach said.
Though Pennsylvania isn't nationally known as a wine-producing state, it ranks fifth in acreage and production. Leach said she's found 50 to 60 wine-grape growers in the quarantine zone. (New York's wine industry is an order of magnitude larger and ranks third in acreage and production.)
Lanternflies are easily killed by a number of insecticides, and some Pennsylvania grape-growers have ramped up spraying to combat them.
Six growers tracked by Penn State tripled the number of times they sprayed their plantings from 2016 to 2018, with a corresponding 271 percent increase in expense.
In some cases it helped, but in others it did not. Among the six growers was the one that lost 2½ acres of Pinot noir grapes.
"The grower had high levels of spotted lanternfly and couldn't maintain control despite spraying," Leach said. "The vines prematurely senesced (deteriorated with age) and then did not come back in the spring."
That experience illustrates the shortcoming with insecticides — they can kill off a feeding population, but don't prevent another from moving in. The insects can fly short distances, and also will hop or spread their wings and go wherever the wind takes them.
"If you spray the ones in the vineyard, there can still be plenty in the treeline that can come right in and replace the ones you’ve killed," said Walter-Peterson, of the Finger Lakes Grape Program. "But at this point, what else can you do?"
Like many invasive species, lanternflies have no natural predators in North America to hold their population in check. Research is underway into importing some of those predators from Asia.
The hope is that some effective means of control will emerge before the insects expand their habitat to New York.
"The fact that we have some lead time to be thinking about this and to be preparing for it, and learning about it, hopefully gives us a bit of a leg up on it," Walter-Peterson said.
Louis Gridley, secretary-treasurer of the New York State Grape Growers Association, said growers are hoping to learn as well.
"We’ll just sort of deal with lanternflies when they come along,” said Gridley who, with his wife, Donna, grows grapes on the slopes above Keuka Lake. "The important thing is you’ve got to be ready to learn something every year. You can never get set in your ways.”
How to spot a spotted lanternfly
What to look for:
- They lay eggs in late summer and early fall on smooth surfaces. Tree bark is a possibility, but so are metal panels, stones, wood products and plastic.
- The egg masses are inch-long rows covered with a waxy substance that can be white or darker colored. They get dry and scaly as winter wears on.
- When they hatch in April or May, nymphs are very small, like ticks. Look for swarms of them on a tree.
- As they grow in the spring and summer, black coloration with white spots becomes visible.
- Look for buildup of sticky honeydew under infested plants.
- In their last stage, nymphs are larger and are black with red spots
- Adults appear in summer and are gray with hues of pink or lavender, with black dots. When wings are open, one pair is red with black spots and black with white stripes, while the other wings are brownish-gray with black spots.
How to report a sighting
Officials in New York, Pennsylvania and other states want citizens to report any lanternfly eggs, nymphs or adults they see.
- In New York, take a photo, note the exact location and email it to email@example.com, or fill out the form at the DEC website.
- In Pennsylvania, call (888) 422-3359 (4BAD-FLY) or go to this website to file a report.
- In New Jersey, email photo and location to SLFfirstname.lastname@example.org or leave a voicemail message at (833) 223- 2840.