Last week, the USDA officially declared war on the spotted lanternfly, giving Pennsylvania $17.5 million to fight the invasive species. But you can be forgiven for not being aware of the infestation, so let’s start at the beginning.
The spotted lanternfly is about an inch long, boasting peacock-like spotted outer wings and jarringly bright, red and black inner wings. Despite those showy appendages, it’s not good at flying and instead prefers to hop. Native to Vietnam, China, and India, it has become a major invasive species in the two places it has managed to travel to: South Korea and Pennsylvania.
Unlike other agriculturally problematic insects, the spotted lanternfly does not eat roots or leaves, instead preferring to gnaw at stems to suck out sap. This in itself is a problem, but the raw wounds left by the lanternfly also attract mold and fungus, which can in turn kill the plant. The pest lays eggs in a disgusting mass of grey goop, each containing between 30 and 50 eggs. What’s worse, it has no natural predators in South Korea or Pennsylvania.
How did this Southeast Asian insect even end up in Pennsylvania? Nobody really knows. It was first confirmed in the southeastern corner of the state in 2014, where it was recognized as a potentially disastrous problem for the state’s fruit growers, especially apples and grapes. One possible reason are the area’s many trees of heaven, an invasive, fast-growing tree (with a misleading name) of Chinese origin most famous for smelling extremely bad – and for being the tree in question in the novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The spotted lanternfly loves the Tree of Heaven, which may have provided an initial habitat for its early days in Pennsylvania. It has since moved on to fruits: grapes, apples, peaches, plums, and apricots.
Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture, Russell Redding, has estimated that the spotted lanternfly infestation could result in the loss of as much as $18 billion in agricultural revenue. The state’s governor, Tom Wolf, has placed 13 counties around and including the Philadelphia area under quarantine, a move designed to stop the pest from spreading any further. It may already be too late; the spotted lanternfly has already been spotted in neighboring Delaware, New Jersey, and New York.
The Pennsylvania government urges anyone encountering the spotted lanternfly, or its egg sacks, to immediately destroy it, report it, and send a sample or a picture to the state’s entomology lab.