ERIE, Pa. — The spotted lanternfly doesn’t look dangerous. In fact, it’s a rather pretty insect: brightly colored and dotted with black, just as its name suggests.
However, this invasive species could wreak havoc on the picturesque vineyards that are so important to Erie County’s agriculture and identity. The insect, which is native to China, India and Vietnam, threatens Pennsylvania’s grape, tree-fruit, hardwood and nursery industries.
More than 70 percent of the grapes produced in Pennsylvania come from Erie County. At the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center, a 40-acre facility that is part of a cooperative effort between Penn State and Cornell University, researchers led by Michael Campbell, professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, grow 19 varieties, including Concord and Niagara grapes. They study vineyard disease and test insect controls.
“The spotted lanternfly is the number-one concern for grapes,” said Jody Timer, an entomologist who worked at the center for 15 years. “It takes out the whole vine, rather than just eating berries or leaves. It kills the plant itself.”
The spotted lanternfly was first found in Berks County in 2014. In just five years, the insect has spread to 14 counties in southeastern Pennsylvania. Those counties are now under quarantine; all Penn State employees who travel in the quarantine zone for work purposes must now complete an online training program, available at https://lrn.psu.edu, and inspect their vehicles for lanternflies, when traveling to or from the quarantine zone.
In Erie County, the primary concern is the threat to the region’s grape industry. The spotted lanternfly doesn’t just target vines, however: It feasts on everything from hardwoods to hops.
“It’s a generalist feeder, in that it will attack any kind of plant or tree,” Timer said. “Plus, they gang-feed, which means if you see one, there likely will be many others there — enough to really damage and destroy a plant, or even a large tree.”
Penn State has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to learn how best to control and contain the spread of the spotted lanternfly. The University has taken the lead on research and public outreach related to the insect’s biology and its ability to adapt to Pennsylvania’s environment. An online toolkit is available at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly.
The quarantine and Erie’s cooler northern climate might slow the spread of the insect, Timer said. Still, she expects it to make its way to the region eventually.
“We don’t know for sure, of course,” she said, “but nearly every other invasive species eventually showed up in Erie County. I expect this one will, too.”
She uses the stink bug as an example. The species first appeared in the U.S. in Allentown in 1998. By 2016, it was common across northeastern Pennsylvania.
“Most of these species take a while to get to this corner of the world,” Timer said, “but they do show up.”
Timer and other researchers hope to find a way to control the spotted lanternfly before it arrives in Erie County. Chemical sprays appear to work, but they need to be applied frequently.
“In the southeast, they’re spraying every two or three weeks, trying to combat these things,” she said. “That adds up, in terms of cost and environmental impact, so it’s not the best solution, especially for grapes, which already have a very small profit margin.”
Researchers also are looking at natural predators, including a small Asian parasitoid wasp. The species was introduced in Pennsylvania in 1908 as part of an effort to control the state’s population of gypsy moths. The wasps attach their eggs to the eggs of the moth, robbing the host eggs of nutrients.
In addition, studies underway in the Philadelphia region show cautious promise in the development of biopesticides that incorporate a natural, soilborne fungus.
Timer is hopeful that continuing research will lead to an environmentally friendly solution before Erie County’s vineyards are affected.
“They’re working hard on finding out more about the lanternfly and what we can do to combat it,” she said. “There are solutions out there. We just need to find them.”
To learn more about the spotted lanternfly, permitting regulations, management techniques and how to report a sighting, visit the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly.