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These pretty insects are costing Pennsylvania $50M a year and may invade surrounding states


A pretty little insect native to China, India, and Vietnam is causing devastation in the state of Pennsylvania. It’s called the Spotted Lanternfly and to look at it, you might think it’s no more harmful than a ladybug. It’s red with spots and prefers to live on a tree called the tree of heaven, or Ailanthus altissima, an invasive tree from China imported to the Philadelphia area in 1785 by William Hamilton from England.  

However, these little planthoppers are so bad that 14 counties in the Keystone State are under quarantine, and a hotline is in effect to report sightings, 1-888-4BADFLY.

Even the way Spotted Lanterflies damage the environment sounds cute: They create sugar-rich “honeydew” when they swarm on plants, trees, and just about anything else. The swarms of flies produce so much honeydew that it can appear like a falling mist if you are underneath a tree where they have gathered. Gross.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture:

“The Spotted Lanternfly causes serious damage in trees including oozing sap, wilting, leaf curling, and tree dieback. In addition to tree damage, when spotted lanternflies feed, they excrete a sugary substance, called honeydew, that encourages the growth of black sooty mold. This mold is harmless to people, however it causes damage to plants. In counties infested and quarantined for Spotted Lanternfly, residents report hundreds of these bad bugs that affect their quality of life and ability to enjoy the outdoors during the spring and summer months. Spotted Lanternflies will cover trees, swarm in the air, and their honeydew can coat decks and play equipment.”

Since first appearing in Reading in 2014, hundreds of thousands have spread like a plague at the rate of ten miles a year. The bugs may have been hiding in a package of landscaping stones from China in 2014. However, nobody knows for sure, with other reports suggesting they arrived by boat in the port of Philadelphia in 2012.

There are so many of them that they have impacted the agriculture industries like nurseries, wine and vineyards, craft beer, apples, peaches, Christmas trees, and even hardwood producers

Some experts have called these bugs the worst invasive species in the last 150 years. 

The PA Department of Agriculture has called on residents to squash the bugs, scrape egg masses from trees with instructions for how to kill them, and contact the department.

The problem appears to be that Spotted Lanternflies have no natural predators in Pennsylvania. Birds don’t like how they taste.

Millions of dollars have been spent in research to discover ways to combat the problem. One method is to combat the also invasive host tree, the tree of heaven. Ironically, the trees first became a huge problem in the 80s when another invasive insect, the gypsy moth, invaded hardwood forests.

According to Matthew Kasson, coauthor of a study on the tree of heaven, or Ailanthus:

“The moths defoliated hardwoods, which were then logged by salvaging operations, Kasson said. Whole swaths of forest lands were left open to plant invasion.

That gave Ailanthus a clear path into eastern forests where it thrived, putting down rhizomes which spread horizontally underground, crowding out native species. The trees can reach 80 feet, and live a long time. A tree at the Lemon Hill Mansion in Fairmount Park is almost 110 years old and still producing seeds, he said.”

WFMZ reports that the flies are costing Pennsylvania a whopping $50m million a year in damages as well as nearly 500 jobs each year.

“If the insect were to expand statewide, it could cause $325 million in damage and wipe out 2,800 jobs, the researchers estimate. The state’s $19 billion forest products industry would be especially vulnerable. Pennsylvania, with its vast unbroken stretches of forest, is the nation’s No. 1 producer of hardwoods,” reports WFMZ.

Meanwhile, the bugs have been spotted in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia. Fortunately, the Spotted Lanternfly is easy to spot with its bright colors. Nymphs turn bright red as they grow.

Take a look at what these critters look like and find out more below from Cheddar:

Featured image: Screenshots via YouTube

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