Penn State helps to assemble expert task force to combat spotted lanternfly

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a grape and hop integrated pest management specialist in New York state, Tim Weigle has been keenly following news about the spotted lanternfly's invasion of neighboring Pennsylvania and the considerable harm it is inflicting on agricultural crops.

"The impact of this devastating insect on agriculture and homeowners cannot be overstated," said Weigle, whose appointment falls under the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, Cornell Cooperative Extension. "From what I have heard and seen, it is not a matter of if spotted lanternfly will get to New York — it is more a matter of when."

For that reason, he readily accepted an invitation to join a multistate, interdisciplinary task force of more than 80 university, regulatory and agricultural industry representatives assembled to fight the looming threat, led by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"It's going to take more than one state, one university and one regulatory agency to defeat this pest."

— Heather Leach, Penn State Extension

The group came together for an inaugural, two-day summit at Albright College in Berks County, Pennsylvania — the county in which the planthopper, native to Southeast Asia, first appeared in 2014. Co-hosting the meeting were Albright College and Northeastern IPM Center, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's going to take more than one state, one university and one regulatory agency to defeat this pest," said Heather Leach, Penn State's spotted lanternfly extension associate, who was the principal organizer for the July meeting. "This is a war that is going to take an army and tons of reinforcements to win."

Spotted lanternfly — now in 13 Pennsylvania counties and recently spotted in New Jersey and Virginia — feeds on sap, weakening plants and leaving behind a sugary excrement called honeydew, which promotes the growth of sooty mold — further harming the plant — while attracting other insects and creating a mess that can render outdoor areas unusable. The pest threatens Pennsylvania's grape, tree fruit, hardwood and nursery industries, which collectively are worth about $18 billion to the state's economy.

The forum featured presentations on research, panel discussions on current outreach and education programs, and open discussions with industry stakeholders. Members were tasked with developing priority lists in the areas of research, extension and regulation.

In the research realm, Leach reported that participants developed a list of immediate priorities, which include learning more about the pest's feeding habits; understanding its preference for Ailanthus altissima, commonly known as tree of heaven; developing a biological control program; and coming up with safe insecticide recommendations.

"To control it, we first have to understand it," said Julie Urban, senior research associate in Penn State's Department of Entomology, emphasizing that Penn State and other universities are involved in research efforts. "This is a new insect to the United States, and there is a lot we don't know."

Carrie Brown-Lima, director of the New York Invasive Species Research Institute, agreed. She said what she has found most surprising is how spotted lanternfly is affecting quality of life for citizens in the core of the infestation, forcing them to stay inside and alter their activities. That is another reason for those on the frontlines to be "simultaneously seeking short-term and long-term control methods." 

Along with research, another focus has been stopping the pest's spread through outreach and education efforts. Driven by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Penn State and the USDA, these communications are aimed at teaching citizens how to identify spotted lanternfly, how to destroy egg masses, and reporting methods.

Building on that foundation, Leach said the group wants to enhance and expand public awareness campaigns, especially in regions outside of the current 13-county quarantine zone in southeastern Pennsylvania. The members suggested hosting more industry-specific and public information sessions.

Nancy Cusumano, program extension aide for the Northeastern IPM Center, commended current public awareness efforts, saying, "When you think of all the ways spotted lanternfly can be spread, it is truly a testament to the quarantine and education that it has not spread further or faster."

However, she advocated ramping-up education even more.

"Getting the information to truck drivers, rail companies and others to prevent the insect's migration to new habitats needs to be further explored," she added.

Making sure that spotted lanternfly is not hitching a ride to other areas was one of the concerns discussed during the regulatory sessions, with participants brainstorming ways to develop inspection procedures such as vehicle checks at state borders, and the need for surveillance at campgrounds, rest stops and forests.

Spotted lanternfly adult at Pagoda

A spotted lanternfly adult and nymphs on a tree branch in Reading, near The Pagoda landmark. 

Image: Steve Ausmus, USDA-ARS

While the presentations and information exchanges were informative, the activity most talked about, according to Leach, was a field trip to The Pagoda in Reading, a local landmark, where thousands of lanternflies have taken up residence.

"It is one thing to hear about the pest, but I was stunned to see it in person," Weigle said. "Not only did I see it at The Pagoda, but all I had to do was walk 100 feet outside of my hotel and I was able to find tree of heaven infested with spotted lanternfly along a fence line on a four-lane highway."

Going forward, the task force will meet regularly and keep the public informed of its progress. Leach is pleased with the new team's willingness to link arms to stop the pest's advancement, with Cusumano among those supporters.

"I do believe the group will make progress," Cusumano said. "We have learned some things from recent invaders like brown marmorated stink bug and emerald ash borer that these pests need to be stopped faster and with better and more research early on. I think the quick reaction by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and USDA in research funding reflects this."

Continued funding will be critical — as will public involvement — to make significant headway, noted Urban.

"We won't have answers overnight, but bringing these experts together is an imperative first step," she said. "We won't give up until this menace is defeated."

In addition to Penn State and Cornell, research institutions represented at the meeting included USDA-ARS, Rutgers University, Virginia Tech University, Albright College, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Temple University, University of Rhode Island, Drexel University, Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and University of Delaware. Extension programs from several of those universities also attended.

Regulatory agencies involved are Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets; Delaware Department of Agriculture; and New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

Among the key stakeholders in attendance were New Castle Lawn and Landscape, Pennsylvania Hardwoods Development Council, The Morton Arboretum, IPM Center, USDA Forest Service, Arborjet Inc., City of Reading, Wines and Vines, Maple Springs Winery, NYISRI, Salix Springs Landscaping, and Weaver's Orchard.

For more information about how to identify and control spotted lanternfly, how to report an infestation, and how to comply with quarantine regulations, visit the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly or the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website at http://agriculture.pa.gov.

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Last Updated August 10, 2018