Spotted lanternfly infestation puts the state on alert

DOVER — The message to Delawareans concerning the spotted lanternfly is simple: Kill on sight.

Earning its nickname — the hitchhiker bug — by its mode of travel, the insect has successfully spread in the region over the last few years by latching on to vehicles or riding in shipped boxes.

Originally from China, the bug made its first appearance locally in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has been spreading out since.

In Delaware, the invasive pest was first found in Wilmington in the fall of 2017. However, it has now gained a substantial foothold, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA).

The agency announced the expansion of a quarantine on Wednesday that includes all portions of New Castle County north of the Chesapeake. The north part of the state joins a quarantine zone that includes 11 zip codes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The state has deputized the public to both kill and report the pest — primarily because of its tendency to be destructive to trees and to agriculture.

As the bugs feed on the tender shoots and stems of various plants they excrete a fluid called “honeydew.” This thick, sugary substance lands on other parts of the plant and can start causing mold to form.

According to DDA plant industries administrator Jessica Inhof, they aren’t hard to spot.

“At this time of year, they’re in their adult stage,” she said. “They’ll be about an inch long. When they’re at rest, they kind of look like a gray moth with spots, but when they jump — they’re hoppers — you’ll see a portion of red on their wings as they spread out.

“As soon as you see one, you should squash it. Kill them first, then take a picture and report the sighting to the DDA to help us track them. Usually they’ll hop away from you once you approach, but it’s been found that about three hops tends to exhaust them, so afterward they’ll stop to rest and they’re easier to kill.”

Ms. Inhof notes that a pregnant female bug can lay several egg bundles containing 30 to 50 offspring each, so insect control — even when applied to the individual — is important.

Damage caused by the pest
The damage the pest does is most detrimental to fruit farmers, particularly vineyards growing grapes, says Ms. Inhof. In Pennsylvania, where the invasive species first showed up, wineries are among the hardest hit, she added.

For the moment, the area most at risk remains in the northern part of the state.

“We’ve had sightings souths of the canal, but no confirmed populations,” said Ms. Inhof. “We had a sighting in Dover last year, but after performing a survey in the area, we determined that it was an individual that likely hitchhiked to the area rather than being part of an infestation.
“Every time we have a confirmed sighting, we perform a quarter mile survey looking for additional evidence.”

The DDA’s findings, at least for the moment, conform with some of the most at risk local farmers.
Bobby Fifer — who farms a mix of fresh fruits and vegetables at Fifer Orchards in Wyoming — says he’s yet to see them.

“I’d say we’re tentatively concerned about them,” he said. “We haven’t seen any in the orchards, but they’re on our radar. The Ag extension agents have been talking about them for the past two years and telling us that they’re pretty nasty. So, we’re keeping a lookout.”

Further south in Lewes, no spotted lanternflies have been seen on the state’s oldest operating winery either. Peg Raley, owner of Nassau Valley Vineyard, says the news of the expanded quarantine is “concerning.”

“Luckily, we’ve not seen any in our vineyard,” she said. “We’ve heard they can cause some really significant damage. Going forward, we’re going to take more thorough walks through the vineyard looking around, but also look more closely at any additional fruit we buy.

“We buy some fruit for our hybrids from growers on the eastern shore of Maryland and Virginia, where there’s currently no infestation, but if I end up buying anything from Pennsylvania, I’ll have to give it some close consideration because that would be a really quick way to spread infestation. We’d have to consider something like a custom crush on site so we’re transporting juice in bulk rather than the fruit.”

Some pesticides are effective
At this point, some pesticides have been effective in dealing with the pests, but it’s been a moving target says Ms. Inhof.
“In Pennsylvania, some vineyards are spraying pesticides and getting control of the situation,” she said. “But around this time of year the bugs are swarming, so even if they knock them out a new swarm will come along and attack, so they just have to start spraying again.”

Part of what’s helped the spotted lanternfly’s spread so successfully is that the regional ecosystem lacks natural predators and pathogens that keep them in check in their native habitat, says Ms. Inhof. Serious research into the possibility of introducing some of those as a “biocontrol” are being examined at Pennsylvania State University.
“The biocontrol measure is still in the research phases and Penn State is leading that,” she said. “They’ve found two types of fungus that can affect the spotted lanternfly in its adult stages and have had some promising results.

“But, we don’t know how far away the possibility for releasing those is because it has to be thoroughly examined — no one wants to release a biocontrol that might affect the ecosystem detrimentally in another way and accidentally make the issue worse.”
Closely monitoring the situation and enforcing a quarantine remains the best defense against their continued spread, noted the DDA.

Enforcing the quarantine
“This (quarantine) expansion is necessary in our attempt to eradicate, control and prevent the spread of spotted lanternfly in Delaware and to surrounding states,” Secretary of Agriculture Michael T. Scuse said in a statement. “Along with conducting surveys, our plant industries inspectors, in conjunction with USDA contractors, have treated 19,685 trees in the initial quarantine zone, encompassing 130 properties.”

The quarantine can expand if there is reason to believe that the pest has moved to a non-quarantined area. A quarantine means that any material or object that could harbor the pest cannot be moved without taking precautions to prevent the spread.

The DDA notes that any person conducting business for a commercial business, a municipality or a government agency that requires movement of any regulated item within or from the quarantine area must have a permit, available through the DDA spotted lanternfly website. To obtain a permit, a designated individual from an organization must receive training and pass an online test to demonstrate a working knowledge and understanding of the pest and quarantine requirements.

Training of other employees, inspection of vehicle and products, and removal of living stages of spotted lanternfly must be completed. The permit demonstrates the individual understands how to identify the pest and can ensure the items transported are not carrying the insect.

Examples of regulated articles include:
• Any living life stage of the spotted lanternfly
• Landscaping, remodeling or construction materials
• Firewood of any species
• Packing materials (e.g. wood crates, boxes)
• All plants and plant parts including all live and dead trees, perennial and annual plants, and mulch
• Outdoor household articles like RVs, lawnmowers, chairs, grills, tarps, tile, stone, deckboards, and other vehicles not stored indoors.

For more detailed information regarding the quarantine, permitting, treatment or to report a sighting of spotted lanternfly, visit the DDA’s dedicated spotted lanternfly webpage at de.gov/hitchhikerbug or call the dedicated spotted lanternfly hotline at (302) 698-4632. When leaving a message, leave contact information and, if reporting a sighting, provide the location of the sighting.

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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