Experts warn about spotted lanternflies

LANSING — The bugs don’t look so menacing when they’re pinned to the bottom of a cardboard box.

By some standards they are pretty, with speckled outer wings, long legs curved delicately inward, a bold splotch of red that flashes when they fly.

In Michigan, they only appear this way: Dead, contained and in expert hands.

It’s unclear how long that will last. The insects are making their way across the East Coast, feasting on the insides of trees, carpeting infested forests in sticky secretions and threatening multi-million dollar agriculture and forestry industries.

They are hundreds of miles away, but with their tendency to lay eggs on vehicles, that doesn’t matter.

The question isn’t if the spotted lanternfly will get to Michigan. It’s when, the Lansing State Journal reported.

Spotted lanternflies — formally, Lycorma delicatula — are native to southeast Asia. They are invasive to North America, which means they have the potential to hurt the environment and economy.

The insects landed in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014, and have since slowly radiated outward to New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, New York and Maryland. Those states are busy with trucking, traffic and tourism, three things that could hasten spotted lanternflies’ spread throughout the U.S.

“This is one of those very scary situations where it’s hard to say where they’re going to show up next,” said Joanne Foreman, an invasive species expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Unless everyone takes this very seriously, what can we really do?”

Foreman is among the ranks of entomologists, farmers and state officials mobilizing to teach Michigan residents about spotted lanternflies.

They hope a strong, early outreach campaign will prevent the bug’s arrival for as long as possible, or will help experts detect its presence early enough to contain it before it spreads throughout the stateand threatens agricultural crops worth almost $350 million annually.

Spotted lanternflies in Pennsylvania seem attracted to the plants Michiganders cherish — like wine grapes, cherries and hops — but they don’t discriminate. They will eat the innards of practically any woody plant.

To feed, the insects pierce tree bark to slurp the sap as it runs upward while excreting a sweet, sticky waste scientists call “honeydew.”

Be warned: Lanternfly honeydew is not like the fruit.

“People who live in the infested area in Pennsylvania say when the adults are out feeding they become prisoners in their own homes,” said John Bedford, a recently retired Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pest specialist. “If you get underneath these trees when they’re feeding, it’s like it’s raining.”

Researchers who visit infested areas sometimes wear rain coats to protect themselves from the dripping, sticky ooze, he said.

The story doesn’t end with lanternflies and honeydew.

“Once that honeydew gets on an object a black sooty mold grows,” Bedford said. “That’s going to be all over the grapes. That’s going to be all over the apples and it also will cover any object that is under an infested plant.”

That could include playgrounds, porches or fruit, he said.

Insecticides can be used to kill spotted lanternflies, Swackhamer said, but those chemicals can be bad for native bugs that pollinate plants and are good for the environment. Sometimes those pesticides are off-limits for food crops shipped to certain states.

“Nobody wants to use more insecticides, but to protect these crops some of the growers have resorted to that,” she said.

They have reason to act. The crops most at risk, tree fruits and grapes, were valued in Michigan at almost $350 million in 2017. Lanternflies aren’t known to kill trees or vines outright, but they can usher in mold and leave plants with less energy to grow fruit.

Scientists are still researching the economic impact spotted lanternflies pose in Pennsylvania, but it could be sizable, said Jayson Harper, a Penn State University professor of agriculture economics.

Consider the impact to wine grapes: In 2016, vintners sprayed their crops an average of 4.2 times a year and spent $55 per acre on insecticides. In 2018, they sprayed 14 times and their costs increased to $148 per acre.

“There’s a lot more pest pressure out there and it was all spotted lanternfly,” Harper said.

Spotted lanternflies will just be another hurdle for Michigan farmers like Brian Lesperance, vice president of Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville.

It’s hard enough for a Midwest winery to grow old world wine grapes like sauvignon blanc. The environmental factors involved matter a lot, Lesperance said, since wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar.

“I call it ‘extreme farming,'” he said. “We’re definitely taking advantage of every drop of sun, every ounce of time we can get here. It’s a pretty big challenge, but given the years of experience, appropriate crop load and other factors — luck being one of them — we’ve been able to pull off some pretty consistent stuff year to year.”

The most important thing farmers do to thwart invasive pests and diseases is watch their crops and share what they see with neighbors and experts at the state and MSU Extension, Lesperance said.