Michigan experts warn about invasive spotted lanternflies

(Penn State University photo)

LANSING, Mich. — 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 DNR. “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.”

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.

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