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Alien Invaders

I have seen the enemy, and it is — a bug. Well, a plant hopper, really, a big one. It’s the Spotted Lanternfly, and it’s pretty well entrenched in Southeast Pennsylvania by now. They were first reported in 2014, in Berks County, not very far from my home. The best guess is they hitchhiked into the country as eggs on a skid of landscaping stone.

The PA Dept. of Ag is doing its best to stop them, enforcing a quarantine area of two or three townships in Berks County. Today, the quarantine covers 13 counties in Pennsylvania, including Lebanon county, and they’ve been reported in New York (a dead adult), Delaware (a live adult), and Virginia (multiple live adults and eggs). I’ve been told the Virginia sighting is just off Interstate 81, in Virginia’s fruit and wine country.

Father’s Day weekend, I got to see the little beasties live and in the flesh. “Little” is a relative term, here; the adults are about an inch long and just under a half inch wide, with a wingspan of just under two inches, pretty impressive for a plant hopper. They’re pretty distinctive, too, decked out in red, white, black and grey wings.

The ones I saw that Saturday, however, were a good bit smaller. They were little jet black nymphs adorned with stark white polka dots, and could have sat comfortably on a pencil’s eraser. By now, they’ve most likely added bright carmine red to their color scheme.

They’re lively little buggers, too, scuttling quickly up and down the tree trunks and even rocks. They must be camera shy, as I couldn’t get close enough with my macro lens for a good shot. I think my breathing must have been the issue, because they didn’t seem to mind pictures taken with my cell phone.

As tiny as they were, they could jump surprisingly well, reaching at least two feet of travel. At least, that was our best guess. A tiny little bug tends to be hard to track when it takes a flying leap.

One of the places we visited was the site of a research experiment to test control measures. Apparently, the nymphs migrate up and down tree trunks daily, and can be captured on sticky traps. This site had several different trees outfitted with different sticky trap materials, from duct tape and fly tape to commercial whitefly traps and tanglefoot traps. Judging by the bare duct tape, and tanglefoot paper covered in thousands (yes, you read that right!) of nymphs, commercial traps seem to be the way to go. Too bad there were still lots of free nymphs crawling up and down the trunks.

I’ve been following the news on Spotted Lanternflies, and they have the potential to create a nearly Biblical plague. They feed on just about any plant, sucking sap from walnut and apple trees to grapes, eggplants and even horseradish. The only constant seems to be that they apparently need to feed on Tree-of-Heaven at least once in order to breed. They tend to feed in swarms numbering in the thousands,, and produce so much honeydew that fungal disease outbreaks soon follow.

They also hitchhike like a boss. Remember how they got here? The adults don’t fly very well, but they do hang on like nobody’s business, clinging to cars, trucks, cargo, boats… you get the idea. More to the point, the females lay their egg masses on anything, and I mean anything. They seem to prefer rusty metal, rough wood, and concrete, but they aren’t awfully picky. Each egg case holds a few hundred eggs. In other words, it’s a self contained invasion force roughly the size of a big postage stamp

If you live on the Eastern Seaboard, keep an eye out for these alien invaders. If you see one, catch it, photograph it and kill it. Call the PA Dept. of Ag at (717) 772-5205 and ask for Dana Rhodes, even if you’re not in PA. Inspect your car, truck and trailer for hitchhikers, and don’t transport firewood long distances.

They’re headed your way, but maybe we can stop them before it’s too late.


Photos property of Andrew Weidman.

Published on Jun 25, 2018

Grit Magazine

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