Michigan experts warn residents about invasive spotted lanternflies: What to know

By CAROL THOMPSON

Spotted lanternfly

The bugs don’t look so menacing when they’re pinned to the bottom of a cardboard box.

By some standards they are pretty, with speckled outer wings, long legs curved delicately inward, a bold splotch of red that flashes when they fly.

In Michigan, they only appear this way: Dead, contained and in expert hands.

It’s unclear how long that will last. The insects are making their way across the East Coast, feasting on the insides of trees, carpeting infested forests in sticky secretions and threatening multi-million dollar agriculture and forestry industries.

They are hundreds of miles away, but with their tendency to lay eggs on vehicles, that doesn’t matter.

The question isn’t if the spotted lanternfly will get to Michigan. It’s when, the Lansing State Journal reported.

Spotted lanternflies — formally, Lycorma delicatula — are native to southeast Asia. They are invasive to North America, which means they have the potential to hurt the environment and economy.

The insects landed in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014, and have since slowly radiated outward to New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, New York and Maryland. Those states are busy with trucking, traffic and tourism, three things that could hasten spotted lanternflies’ spread throughout the U.S.

“This is one of those very scary situations where it’s hard to say where they’re going to show up next,” said Joanne Foreman, an invasive species expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Unless everyone takes this very seriously, what can we really do?”

Foreman is among the ranks of entomologists, farmers and state officials mobilizing to teach Michigan residents about spotted lanternflies.

They hope a strong, early outreach campaign will prevent the bug’s arrival for as long as possible, or will help experts detect its presence early enough to contain it before it spreads throughout the stateand threatens agricultural crops worth almost $350 million annually.

Spotted lanternflies in Pennsylvania seem attracted to the plants Michiganders cherish — like wine grapes, cherries and hops — but they don’t discriminate. They will eat the innards of practically any woody plant.

To feed, the insects pierce tree bark to slurp the sap as it runs upward while excreting a sweet, sticky waste scientists call “honeydew.”

Be warned: Lanternfly honeydew is not like the fruit.

“People who live in the infested area in Pennsylvania say when the adults are out feeding they become prisoners in their own homes,” said John Bedford, a recently retired Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pest specialist. “If you get underneath these trees when they’re feeding, it’s like it’s raining.”

Researchers who visit infested areas sometimes wear rain coats to protect themselves from the dripping, sticky ooze, he said.

The story doesn’t end with lanternflies and honeydew.

“Once that honeydew gets on an object a black sooty mold grows,” Bedford said. “That’s going to be all over the grapes. That’s going to be all over the apples and it also will cover any object that is under an infested plant.”

That could include playgrounds, porches or fruit, he said.

Insecticides can be used to kill spotted lanternflies, Swackhamer said, but those chemicals can be bad for native bugs that pollinate plants and are good for the environment. Sometimes those pesticides are off-limits for food crops shipped to certain states.

“Nobody wants to use more insecticides, but to protect these crops some of the growers have resorted to that,” she said.

They have reason to act. The crops most at risk, tree fruits and grapes, were valued in Michigan at almost $350 million in 2017. Lanternflies aren’t known to kill trees or vines outright, but they can usher in mold and leave plants with less energy to grow fruit.

Scientists are still researching the economic impact spotted lanternflies pose in Pennsylvania, but it could be sizable, said Jayson Harper, a Penn State University professor of agriculture economics.

Consider the impact to wine grapes: In 2016, vintners sprayed their crops an average of 4.2 times a year and spent $55 per acre on insecticides. In 2018, they sprayed 14 times and their costs increased to $148 per acre.

“There’s a lot more pest pressure out there and it was all spotted lanternfly,” Harper said.

Spotted lanternflies will just be another hurdle for Michigan farmers like Brian Lesperance, vice president of Fenn Valley Vineyards in Fennville.

It’s hard enough for a Midwest winery to grow old world wine grapes like sauvignon blanc. The environmental factors involved matter a lot, Lesperance said, since wine is made in the vineyard, not the cellar.

“I call it ‘extreme farming,’” he said. “We’re definitely taking advantage of every drop of sun, every ounce of time we can get here. It’s a pretty big challenge, but given the years of experience, appropriate crop load and other factors — luck being one of them — we’ve been able to pull off some pretty consistent stuff year to year.”

The most important thing farmers do to thwart invasive pests and diseases is watch their crops and share what they see with neighbors and experts at the state and MSU Extension, Lesperance said.

Warnings about spotted lanternfly are starting to trickle through the agricultural community. Lesperance stressed the value of research and education before the bug’s arrival.

“We don’t want to blanket the farm with pesticides on the off chance we have a bug,” he said, “but you don’t want to wait until you have a problem to start thinking about it.”

And before Michiganders can prepare for its arrival, they have to learn what to look for.

In a way, the outreach team is lucky. At least spotted lanternflies are hard to miss.

“It’s a pretty showy insect,” said Howard Russell, a Michigan State University entomologist. “If you’re a bug geek, you might say they’re attractive.”

Russell might fall under that classification. His office is crammed with bugs in plastic baggies, snap-lid containers and white cardboard boxes. His moniker is “bug man.” His expertise, identification.

It took a little searching for Russell to find the spotted lanternflies among the assemblage of creepy-crawly corpses piled in the small room.

But his search was successful. There, tucked on a shelf above his computer, were two full-grown spotted lanternfly specimen spiked through their middles by a pair of small, sharp pins.

Adult spotted lanternflies are about an inch long, with tawny, spotted outer wings and red under wings only visible when they fly. They are striking and showy, big and unique, obviously not cousins to the regular-old ant, roach or bee.

They start their lives small, about a quarter- or half-inch long. As newly hatched babies, or “nymphs,” they are black beetles with white spots that tip upward on long, spindly legs. Their bodies turn red with white spots and black stripes before their transformation into winged adults.

Entomologists call them “leafhoppers,” a type of insect that tends to be jumpy and quick, characteristics that make them hard to smoosh.

They’re also hard to predict. Since their arrival to the U.S., researchers have been studying their feeding, reproductive and flight habits, hoping to uncover information that will limit their impact and stop their spread.

“It seems like every time we have a pretty good idea of what we think the lanternflies are going to do, they prove us wrong and decide to do something else,” Emelie Swackhamer, a Penn State Extension horticulturalist, said. “They really keep us guessing.”

Swackhamer and her Pennsylvania counterparts are working to make sure lanternflies don’t spread, although she said she wouldn’t be surprised if they appeared in the Great Lakes region.

Neither would Russell. His thoughts when he learned about North America’s flashy new invader? Oh great.

“We have been ravaged by invasives — emerald ash borer, the brown marmorated stink bug,” Russell said. “Now this is one more, and this one does a fair bit of damage... It’s going to be another serious pest.”

The spotted lanternfly is just one of 30 species on the state’s invasive species watch list, which also includes Asian carp, New Zealand mud snail and other plants, animals and bugs.

When entomologist Deborah McCullough arrived at MSU, the gypsy moth was the invasive insect du jour. Populations were peaking and fuzzy caterpillars were stripping leaves from tree after tree.

Gypsy moth populations have diminished, partially thanks to a fungus that festers inside the caterpillars and kills them off. The fungus is native to Japan. Scientists introduced it in Michigan in the early 1990s, effectively killing swaths of caterpillars, McCullough said.

That could foreshadow spotted lanternflies’ fate — eventually; something might develop a taste for them.

“I can’t believe birds and other kinds of predators are not going to go after these insects eventually,” McCullough said. “There might be a few bad years, like with gypsy moths.”

As bad as spotted lanternflies seem to be, they won’t come close to the emerald ash borer, glittery green insects that have killed tens of millions of ash trees since their discovery in Michigan in 2002.

“I don’t think spotted lanternfly will ever do anything on that level,” McCullough said. “Emerald ash borer is the most costly and destructive forest insect to ever invade North America. Good luck beating that.”

Experts hope someone will alert them as soon as spotted lanternflies begin to land here, unlike what happened with emerald ash borer, which has spread to 25 states and cost an estimated $10.7 billion in economic damage, the U.S. Forest Service reports.

“It’s going to be really important to respond as soon as possible when (the spotted lanternfly) arrives,” Bedford said. “We don’t want it to be like emerald ash borer, here for 10 or 15 years before it is even identified in a problem.”

Scientists have launched dozens of studies to learn about spotted lanternflies’ behavior and develop ways to kill them or curtail their spread.

Some of those projects are studying the tree lanternflies seem to favor, called tree-of-heaven, another invasive species purposefully introduced in the U.S. as an urban street tree more than 200 years ago, according to Penn State Extension.

Spotted lanternflies like tree-of-heaven so much that scientists use them as traps to kill the bugs in big numbers, Swackhamer said. They go to a tree-of-heaven-heavy area — usually a recently logged forest or along roads and train tracks — remove most of the female tree-of-heaven and treat the remaining male trees with an insecticide.

“It’s a good way to kill a lot of lanternflies,” she said.

Performing research on spotted lanternflies is harder than other forest pests, McCullough said, because lanternflies need to feed on living trees to survive. That means scientists can’t lop off a branch and bring lanternflies to the lab.

“That makes it really hard to do research on them because either the tree has to be alive, or you end up using something like a potted tree that’s small enough that you can work with them, and then you have honeydew everywhere,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

Michigan established firewood quarantines to prevent emerald ash borer from spreading, but that wouldn’t be enough to stop spotted lanternflies because they don’t burrow into wood.

State agencies are instead relying on lanternfly-infested states to keep the bugs within their borders.

“The effort in Pennsylvania is what’s going to prevent it from getting here,” Bedford said. “We can’t put road blocks at our borders and search everybody who comes from Pennsylvania.”

Pennsylvania issued a quarantine restricting the movement of lanternflies, yard waste, nursery stock, crates and other outdoor gear from its infested zone. Residents are supposed to complete a checklist before moving outdoor items, and businesses are required to get permits to move vehicles and products within or outside the quarantine area.

New Jersey and Delaware have instituted similar quarantines. New York issued a quarantine on goods coming in from infested areas.

Michigan state park workers will use a list of zip codes in those quarantine areas to contact campground visitors who are coming from the lanternfly-infested areas and make sure those visitors have checked vehicles and gear.

Lanternflies likely will spread by laying eggs on something traveling through the infested zone, like a recreational vehicle or semi-truck, Bedford said. That’s why experts say it’s so important to check for eggs before traveling out of lanternfly territory.

It won’t be easy. The bugs are flashy, but their eggs are not.

Spotted lanternflies lay egg masses in the fall, leaving rows of offspring on flat surfaces like rocks, trees, grills and cars, then cake those rows with a brown, mud-like substance.

They lay about 35 eggs at a time. Scientists think females lay eggs twice, Swackhamer said.

Experts recommend destroying spotted lanternfly egg masses by squishing them until they pop, then scraping them off into a bag of hand sanitizer or alcohol.

Michigan residents don’t have to wait until lanternflies arrive before they act.

Experts offered the following advice: Don’t bring them here. Be very careful to check cars and outdoor gear for all stages of spotted lanternflies, especially egg masses, if traveling through Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland or Virginia. Remove tree-of-heaven. Spotted lanternflies seem to especially love tree-of-heaven when they infest a new area, so removing the trees could slow their spread. Tree-of-heaven sprout from stumps, so they are best killed by carefully applying herbicide. Report sightings: See a lanternfly? Tell the state at MDA-Info@michigan.gov or 800-292-3939, or Howard Russell at bugman@msu.edu.

Although many experts are resigned to the reality of invasive species moving into new habitats, often through commerce and travel, they won’t accept inaction.

With a little caution and care, everyone can help prevent the spotted lanternfly from ravaging Michigan’s environment and farms, said Foreman, of the DNR.

But first, they need to hear about it.

“If we don’t act to prevent, then the next step is invasion and then we’re dealing with the consequences,” she said. “The only way we can put out our best effort is to keep talking about it.”

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