Master Gardeners lend expertise, support to spotted lanternfly fight

Amy Duke
September 25, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With home gardening season now in the rear-view mirror, Penn State Extension Master Gardeners in Berks County thought calls to their garden hotline would wind down a bit, as in years past.

But this year has been unlike any other as calls to the hotline continue to stream in, and more often than not, the person on the line is seeking information from the trained horticulture volunteers on the spotted lanternfly.

"Most days the phone is ringing when we walk in the door for the day," said Beth Finlay, Master Gardener coordinator and horticultural program assistant. "In July alone, we logged 160 more phone calls to the garden hotline than usual, and all of those were from people dealing with spotted lanternflies."

As a longtime coordinator in that region, Finlay has seen her share of gardening and horticulture-related problems, from tomato blight to the brown marmorated stink bug. Yet, she hasn't seen anything quite as troublesome as the spotted lanternfly, an invasive planthopper that made its first U.S. appearance in Berks County in 2014, much to her — and others' — chagrin.

The insect since has spread to 12 other counties — Bucks, Chester, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Carbon, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Monroe, Philadelphia and Schuylkill — which, like Berks, are part of a state-designated quarantine zone.

"Likening it to a natural disaster might seem extreme, but for people living in the quarantine zone, it sometimes feels like it," said Finlay.

The pest, which feeds on the sap of fruit trees, grapevines, hops, hardwoods and ornamentals, not only harms host plants, but it also can render outdoor areas unusable by leaving behind a sugary excrement called honeydew, which attracts other insects and promotes the growth of sooty mold.

SLF two header

A spotted lanternfly mass on a grapevine in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, last year. Mass feeding can cause shoots and canes to wither and die, and honeydew can lead to sooty mold growth that contaminates grape clusters.   

IMAGE: Erica Smyers

The only consolation is that spotted lanternflies do not bite or sting, nor do they cause structural damage. However, as Finlay knows, that provides little comfort to those whose properties — and summertime fun — have been ruined by clusters of the insect. Finlay's own homestead has been under siege for the past few summers.

"My husband and I can't enjoy our deck without feeling a shower of excreted honeydew," she said. "It's not just a quality of life issue but also an economic one because many homeowners are fearful about the long-term economic impact on housing values. Master Gardeners have empathy for what our neighbors and clients are going through and want to do what we can to help."

Finlay said Master Gardeners in the quarantine zone and beyond are lending time, expertise and, often, a sympathetic ear to folks dealing with spotted lanternfly infestations. In addition to fielding calls in their respective offices within Penn State Extension, they have set up educational displays at numerous community festivals throughout the state, given presentations about the insect at civic organizations and community meetings, and are helping to organize workshops to inform the public.

All of this is in addition to the volunteers' traditional educational outreach in consumer horticulture, tending of demonstration gardens, youth programs and pollinator garden initiatives, Finlay added.

To make sure all Master Gardeners are knowledgeable about the spotted lanternfly, a great deal of their yearly certification training has focused on how to identify and report it; its life cycles; pest management methods, such as destroying egg masses and use of tree banding; and how to prevent its spread, among other topics.

Another focus is educating Master Gardeners on how to undo bad advice — spread primarily on social media — to quell the panic and prevent people from doing harm to themselves, others and the environment.

"People are fearful and angry, so they are looking for anything, and I mean anything, that might help," Finlay said. "We've heard of people spraying kerosene and bleach on infestations. One lady insisted that spotted lanternflies could be killed by firing shotguns into treetops. Our job is to guide residents to safe, effective controls that will not pose added risk to human health, wildlife or the environment.”

The Master Gardeners work with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, of course, faculty and educators in Penn State Extension and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"We always encourage people to seek out research-based information and to go to those organizations' websites, especially when it comes to complicated questions about chemical control," Finlay said. "We use those resources ourselves to stay up-to-date. And, we're lucky to have Penn State Extension educators and specialists to help."

That relationship works both ways, according to Heather Leach, extension associate in Penn State's entomology department, who said the Master Gardeners have done a superb job in spotted lanternfly outreach.

"Master Gardeners are valuable and extremely important partners in public education efforts, as they are connected and invested in the communities they serve," Leach said. "We can count on them to provide reliable information."

For the latest information about the spotted lanternfly, including a detailed integrated pest management calendar, visit the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly.

To learn more about the Master Gardener program, visit the Penn State Extension website at http://extension.psu.edu/programs/master-gardener.

  • SLF tree banding

    Jen Hanf, left, and Julie Seiz, Master Gardeners in Berks County, demonstrate how to wrap a tree trunk in sticky tape to trap spotted lanternflies.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 25, 2018