• Wed. Dec 2nd, 2020

The Dreaded Lanternbug, Scourge of Agriculture, Spreads in New Jersey

On Aug. 17, a banner floated in the blue sky above Ocean Grove, N.J., with a call to arms: “JOIN THE BATTLE — BEAT THE BUG.” A large picture showed an insect with crimson and Dalmatian-spotted wings outspread. The spotted lanternfly, New England’s pest à la mode, was back.

A week earlier, officials from New Jersey’s Department of Agriculture placed eight counties under quarantine, asking anyone traveling through Warren, Hunterdon, Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem or Somerset to thoroughly check their vehicles for any sign of the hitchhiking bugs. “If you are able to eliminate the Spotted Lanternfly, please do so,” the department asks on its website.

New Jersey has been tracking and treating the inch-long pest since it appeared in the summer of 2018, but this year’s population has spread into the state’s western counties along the Delaware River, according to the agriculture department.

The spotted lanternfly is a known menace elsewhere in the Northeast. Native to parts of Asia, it was first observed in 2014 in Berks County, Pa. Since then, the lanternfly has spread in fluttering hordes to Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, drawn to the region’s ample population of the tree of heaven, an invasive tree from China and the lanternfly’s primary food.

Pennsylvania currently bears the brunt of the infestation, with 26 of 67 counties under quarantine. A subreddit channel on Philadelphia swarms with lanternfly-adjacent posts, from creative killing strategies to a cinematic montage of lanternflies getting blasted by a salt gun to the tune of Carl Orff’s choral ode to “O Fortuna,” a medieval poem about the inescapable nature of fate.

“I used to sit out on my deck and watch bees fly by,” said Matthew Helmus, an ecologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. “Now I sit out and I just see lanternfly, lanternfly, lanternfly, lanternfly, lanternfly.”

Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Lanternflies, which are not flies but insects called planthoppers, have a chameleonic life cycle. They hatch in the spring as wingless, glossy black nymphs with white spots, and pass through several stippled phases before maturing in midsummer. The adults are certainly hard to miss. They are clunky fliers, reliant on gusts of wind to coast from tree to tree, according to Julie Urban, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State.

Fortunately, the insects pose no threat to humans. If a lanternfly lands on you — and it likely will — you may feel a slight poke. But this is from the bug’s tarsal claws, not its mouth, Dr. Urban said.

Lanternflies do pose a serious threat to American crops, particularly vineyards. The insects sip on sap from ornamental fruit trees and grape vines, a refined palate that could cost the state at least $324 million per year and eliminate 2,800 jobs, according to a study published by Penn State economists in 2019, which also included a worst-case scenario of $554 million lost per year.

Scientists and officials throughout New England are battling the bugs on multiple fronts. In Pennsylvania, the Spotted Lanternfly Program includes representatives from Penn State, the state’s Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The program takes a multipronged approach, with various teams focused on management techniques, the lanternfly’s reproductive biology and potential biological control agents.

Dr. Urban, a member of the task force, is studying the lanternfly’s internal bacteria, which live in specialized organs within the bug and help it digest plant sap. The spotted lanternfly has three bacterial organs, two known from other planthoppers and one that is new to science, and which Dr. Urban discovered after dissecting hundreds of the bugs. “It’s bright yellow and lays across the belly,” Dr. Urban said. If she can figure out how to block the lanternfly from transferring this bacteria to its eggs, she could stamp out the population without posing a threat to any other insects.

Last year, the Trump Administration dismantled the Invasive Species Advisory Committee and halved the funding for the National Invasive Species Council, whose budget some researchers already viewed as “grossly insufficient,” according to an op-ed published in Science this February. “That’s the funding that goes to state government agencies that do the actual control and treatments to knock down lanternfly populations,” Dr. Urban said. “That’s the worst place to cut funding.”

As scientists struggle to curb the lanternfly’s natural dispersal across New England, the greatest threat is tied to lanternflies that hitchhike on long-distance shipments out of the Northeast, such as train cars and trucks, Dr. Helmus said. “If it gets to Napa, it could do some real damage,” he added.

For the rest of America, the battle starts in the backyard. Dr. Chengyuan Wu, a neurosurgeon in Philadelphia, set up his first circle traps this year on trees in his lawn. So far, he has caught two. “It seems like an uphill battle,” Dr. Wu said. He added that his wife, Lisa, has a “personal vendetta” against the insects and hopes to get rid of all that she can.

“People are getting really passionate about squishing lanternflies,” Dr. Helmus said. “But I suppose it’s something they have some control over these days.”