Spotting the Spotted Lanternfly

The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014 in eastern Berks County and is now menacing its way through the state.

The species of plant hopper is native to China, India and Vietnam and has successfully invaded South Korea, Japan and now America. The insects most likely came from stone imported from South Korea that had egg masses attached.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has imposed a quarantine zone in 13 Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia. The quarantine limits the import and export of certain goods from the affected counties. The spotted lanternfly feeds primarily on the tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, so eradication efforts are focusing partly on these trees.

We asked Robert Conrow, a Drexel biology teaching assistant, about the effect of this insect in Pennsylvania.  Conrow is a PhD student with Jon Gelhaus, PhD, Academy entomology curator and professor in the Drexel Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science.

Why is the spotted lanternfly a problem in Pennsylvania?

The biggest concern is that it attacks agricultural and ornamental plants including grapes (wine and juice industry), hops (beer production), and forests (recreation, protection of natural resources, logging).

Lanternflies develop in four stages and shed exoskeletons, similar to the common cicadas we see in our backyards. Only the adult lanternflies have wings, but the nymphs, the immature stages, are excellent jumpers.

All life stages have a a piercing, needle-like mouthpart that sucks fluids out of plants, stealing the resources the plants need to survive. The nymphs feed on almost any plant, but when adults finally appear they seem to prefer the tree of heaven. New research suggests they also require black walnut, chinaberry or hops to reach maturity.

Lanternflies also harm plants by transmitting diseases. When large numbers of lanternflies feed on the same tree they produce a sugary excrement called honeydew that collects around the base of the plant, causing mold to develop, which can kill the plant.

Tree of heaven (from left): flower, leaves, bark, full tree. Photo from Ohio DNR Division of Forestry

Any sightings in nearby states?

New Jersey reported its first sighting on July 17 of this year, and Virginia confirmed the presence of spotted lanternflies in February 2018. The State of New York found one dead adult in 2017, but none since. The spotted lanternfly is not a great flyer, but is an excellent jumper and great at stealthily hitchhiking on objects, including vehicles.

Lanternfly nymphs feeding. Photo by Robert Conrow

Does the Academy’s Entomology Collection play role in the current lanternfly issue?

As entomologists, we’ve all observed spotted lanternflies in the field or unintentionally captured some in traps. Collecting and documenting the time and place where we encountered these insects helps us understand the insect’s behavior, movement and overall distribution. The collection stands as an active well of information for future research and plays a vital role as the eyes and ears of the community. The more we sample and work in the field, the more likely we are to encounter a new non-native species.

I hear you’ve seen these insects in your yard.

As an entomologist, it’s exciting to observe them as they develop, but they are really damaging my neighbors’ gardens. I’ve seen them on a maple tree, rose bushes, sweet pea, and other plants. Last year they would inadvertently dive-bomb us, and some entered the house, where our cats would hunt them but not eat them. Note for pet owners: Spotted lanternflies are not poisonous, but they have a bad taste and may cause health problems if pets eat a large number.

Academy lanternfly specimen. Photo by Robert Conrow

What should people do if they see the spotted lanternfly in their yard or other outdoor area?

First and foremost, if you are in the quarantine zone make sure to check your vehicle before traveling outside of the quarantine area. Eggs and adults can both hitch a ride. If you find nymphs or adults, try to catch them and place them in alcohol or hand sanitizer. Then report it to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture or to the proper department in your state.

Feel free to squish or otherwise dispatch them as you find them. If being an exterminator makes you uncomfortable, you can cut down any tree of heaven plants on your property. This tree is invasive (non-native) as well, so removing them doesn’t really have a down-side.

For more information, see this fact sheet and visit this site.

Top image: Spotted lanternfly specimens from the Academy’s Entomology Collection.

By Robert Conrow

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