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Lanternfly alert: Voracious bug found in New York threatens grapes, apples and more

Steve Orr
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Urgent efforts to eradicate colonies of voracious spotted lanternflies are underway in Ithaca and at least four other New York locales with an eye toward protecting grape vines, apple trees and other prized crops.

Infestations of the colorful bugs have been found in recent weeks in Ithaca's Fall Creek neighborhood, at two spots in Rockland County and one spot in neighboring Orange County. The state's first confirmed infestation was found in a state park on Staten Island in August. 

Trained inspectors are in the field now trying to find and destroy spotted lanternfly eggs that otherwise will hatch in late spring and loose hundreds or thousands of lanternfly nymphs into state forests and farmlands.

Spotted lanternfly

Residents and visitors to the infested areas are being asked to join the search for lanternfly egg masses.

The appearance of adult lanternflies and egg masses at Ithaca, on the southern shore of Cayuga Lake, is an alarming development for the Finger Lakes’ historic wine and grape industry.

"Oh, you bet there’s some concern. Oh, yeah," said Tunker Hosmer, who with his wife, Maren, operates Hosmer Winery on the slopes above Cayuga Lake about 20 miles north of Ithaca. They have been growing grapes there for 50 years.

"This is a nasty critter. It reproduces quickly and we’re going to be really hard-pressed to try to kill it off with pesticides," Hosmer said Thursday. "We’re going to have to find other ways.”

Spotted lanternflies, which are native to Asia, were first found in this country five years ago in southeastern Pennsylvania. They have since spread over the eastern half of that state and parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Connecticut and now New York.

Unaided, individual bugs can travel only a few miles in their short lifetimes. But both adult lanternflies and their egg masses are readily transported by motorists and commercial shippers.

Mature nymph stage of spotted lanternfly

It is not known how the insects arrived at the five New York locations, said Jola Szubielski, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.

But there is no doubt the invasive insects are here.

"In each of these areas reported, inspectors have found multiple, live adult spotted lanternflies and egg masses," Szubielski said. "The department is confident the cold temperatures will kill off the adult spotted lanternflies but is calling on the public to help and be on the lookout for the egg masses, which can survive the winter, to combat the establishment of this invasive species in New York."

The insects' arrival, while unsettling, was not unexpected.

“Well, we all knew that it was just a matter of time before it arrived here,” said David V. Peterson, whose family has been growing grapes since 1969 in vineyards about 25 miles north of Ithaca.

“We all know it is a very serious pest and there will be a time in the not-too-distant future that we will have to deal with infestations. Either next year or the year after, it is likely to become a serious problem,” he said.

Grapevines a favored food

Adult lanternflies, which develop in mid-summer, feed on the sap of a variety of plants, including apple and other fruit trees, shade trees, hops and more.

But in Pennsylvania, one primary food source has been a nuisance plant known as a tree-of-heaven, which itself is an invasive species from Asia. New York state inspectors, in addition to destroying every egg mass they can find, are removing tree-of-heaven trees near the infestation sites, Szubielski said.

Unfortunately, the lanternfly's other primary food source has been grapevines. Southeastern Pennsylvania has a small but well-established viticulture industry, and some of its vineyards have been devastated by lanternflies.

Adult insects, feeding heavily before they reproduce, can swarm vineyards in the late summer and fall as grapes are maturing. They can be killed with short-lived insecticides but a new swarm of bugs can appear the next day, and the day after that.

Trying to keep them at bay can cost a small fortune, and it may not work. Feeding lanternflies can sap grapevines of so many nutrients that they don't survive the ensuing winter, the experience in Pennsylvania has shown.

In New York, Szubielski said workers from multiple agencies are in the field at the five sites where lanternfly infestations have been located. The known infested area in the city of Ithaca is "relatively small," she said, though inspectors continue to fall out to look for more lanternfly egg masses.

Ag & Markets will develop management plans for each of the areas, and will enforce and update its quarantine rules, which now apply to infested areas in Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

The emergency rules prohibit shipment of plants, firewood, lumber, stone and certain other materials from those locations unless the materials are subjected to careful inspection before they leave.

Holding the tide against a bug that can be spread so easily and reproduce so readily is a daunting task. Outright victories against highly mobile invasive insects, plants and aquatic organisms have been few and far between.

Witness zebra mussels, purple loosestrife, emerald ash borers, European starlings.

For now, New York vineyard owners will be playing a game of watch and wait.

“At this point, there is not much we can do. Once we begin pruning in the next month or so, we will be sure to educate all the pruners on what the egg masses look like and they will be instructed to report any incidences," said Peterson, president and co-owner of Goose Watch Winery on Cayuga Lake, Penguin Bay Winery on Seneca Lake and Swedish Hill Vineyard and Winery, which lies between the two lakes. 

"We will know more by next year in the growing season how extensive we can expect it to be distributed in the area," he said.

At Frontenac Point Vineyards and Estate Winery about 10 miles north of Ithaca, “it’s going to be a sleuthing exercise," said co-owner Carol Doolittle, adding praise for experts from the state and Cornell Cooperative Extension who’ve been advising growers on pest control.

"You go out and you scout an you try to spot things,"  she said. "It’s yet another challenge for agriculture.

"But no complaints. See how it goes. Do what we can."

Keep an eye out for eggs

Spotted lanternfly egg masses are a few inches long and consist of 30 to 60 eggs covered by a grey or brown putty-like substance. Lanternflies prefer to lay their eggs on tree trunks but will lay them on other smooth, hard surfaces, including rocks, outdoor furniture and motor vehicles.

The majority of eggs laid on trees are farther up, out of sight and out of reach of egg-hunters on foot.

If you find an egg mass, please report it to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets via this online form so they can track the presence of the invasive insects.

You can destroy an egg mass by carefully scraping it off the surface and into a bag or other container filled with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. It must be left there for a time. You also can smash the egg mass, but it must be done uniformly and thoroughly so that all the eggs are flattened.

Do not simply throw an egg mass on the ground. The eggs could still hatch the following spring.

Eggs:Expert advice from Pennsylvania

Bugs:Spotted lanternfly background from Cornell

D&C 2019:Voracious hordes of destructive insects on the horizon: Here's what it means to NY

Contact watchdog reporter Steve Orr at sorr@democratandchronicle.com or at (585) 258-2386. Follow him on Twitter at @SOrr1. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. If you don't already have a digital subscription, please sign up today.