Two strange bugs sat on the driveway of his pumpkin farm in Jackson Township, moth-like creatures with mottled red and gray wings, and Mike Firestine reached down, picked up one and examined it.
Never saw one before, but Firestine had heard of them. Spotted lanternflies, Asian insects that somehow had made their way to southeastern Pennsylvania, a menace to fruit trees and hardwoods that is spreading to other parts of the state.
Farmers have been warned about the bugs by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, and now two of them were crawling on his driveway.
Firestine carried them to his flatbed truck and dropped them into a liquid insecticide he had just hauled to his farm for his pumpkin vines.
They’re no danger to humans – they don’t bite or sting. But the spotted lanternfly is a voracious eater of plant sap, threatening Pennsylvania’s $18 billion grape, tree fruit, timber and nursery industries, according to the state Agriculture Department.
The pests, originally from China, India and Vietnam, were discovered in neighboring Berks County in 2014, arriving on a shipment of landscaping stone from Asia, Agriculture Department officials suspect. They’ve spread to 14 Pennsylvania counties, including Lebanon, and three states: New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia.
Spotted lanternflies have killed grape vines in Berks, sticking their pointy mouth parts into the vines to gorge on the sap. They feast on a variety of plants, from silver maples to cucumbers, and they’re particularly fond of the tree of heaven, a weedy tree resembling sumac that flourishes along highways and country roads, in vacant city lots and on the edges of suburban parks and farmland.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated $17.5 million to battle the pests, and Pennsylvania has spent more than $5 million to research the bug, a mystery to American entomologists, and control its spread. A major part of the campaign against the bug is public vigilance: Pennsylvania has sought to enlist the public to stomp, spray and otherwise kill any spotted lanternflies they find. The insects are sneaky hitchhikers, hopping into cars and trucks and laying their eggs on almost any outdoor surface, including a vehicle’s wheel wells.
Firestine figures that’s how the two spotted lanternflies ended up on his driveway in mid-July. He had taken his flatbed truck to Berks County the previous week, to buy insecticide for his pumpkins.
“I carried them in on the truck,” he said. “I think I brought them in.”
He told his story Tuesday to a brief symposium on the spotted lanternfly at the Lebanon Area Fair. The meeting, hosted by the Lebanon Valley Chamber of Commerce, attracted 70 people, including enrollees in the chamber’s Leadership Lebanon Valley program. Penn State, which is leading research on the insect in Pennsylvania, presented a slide show on the pest through its extension office.
Though Lebanon County may not have seen heavy infestations of spotted lanternflies like other Pennsylvania counties, it’s important to warn and educate the public, said Karen Groh, president and CEO of the chamber.
“The more people we can educate in advance of its arrival, the more we can control it once it comes,” said Groh.
An adult spotted lanternfly is about an inch long, with a black body and those colorful, dotted red and gray wings. They are abundant from July to about November, when they lay eggs on tree trunks, firewood, patio furniture, just about any surface.
The adults die from the chill of winter, but their eggs survive the cold, hatching in April when temperatures warm. Baby spotted lanternflies grow through four stages of infancy, emerging from eggs as tiny black creatures and eventually developing white and red spots before gaining wings.
They eat sap from more than 70 trees and plants, climbing up trunks, vines and stems to feast. Researchers are studying several aspects of the insect’s life, from feeding habits to flying abilities, to discover the most effective ways to kill them.
The insect doesn’t limit itself to farmland; they’ve swarmed cities and suburbs, too. The bug has been discovered in Philadelphia and Allentown, and Reading was so swarmed last summer that employees hired to sweep sidewalks and greet visitors armed themselves with spray bottles to knock the pest off buildings and stomp them to death.
The spotted lanternfly excretes a clear, sticky goo that can cover backyard patios and decks and develop mold, making the bug a pest to homeowners.
Pennsylvania still hopes to eradicate spotted lanternflies once research provides information on the best strategy to kill them, said Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.
Recently, the state legislature authorized $3 million in the 2019 state budget for additional research on the pest and educational outreach to enlist the public in its battle against the bug.
Vigilance is an important tool to keep the spotted lanternfly from invading, say, historic Lebanon, or other areas of Lebanon County that have not yet seen the pest, said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the state Agriculture Department.
“You travel to other places, so you can bring it back and bring a nuisance with you,” said Powers.
Found one? Kill it, the Agriculture Department urges.