Invasive Spotted Lantern Fly Spreads to Loudoun County, Virginia

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The spotted lanternfly — an insect that can devastate large areas of fruit crops — arrived in Loudoun County this summer.

The insects are not venomous and do not bite humans, but they do excrete a sugary, sticky liquid known as honeydew from their backside. The honeydew promotes the growth of black sooty mold, which can cover plants and prevent sunlight from reaching their leaves, reducing photosynthesis.

The honeydew falls from infected trees like a gentle rainstorm, covering foliage, fruit, cars and outdoor furniture, also creating a mess to clean up. The sweet liquid attracts yellow vests, wasps and ants.

It was thought that the plant hopper accidentally imported to Berks County, Pa., in 2014, presumably in a shipping container from Asia. Since then, lanternflies have spread across the Mid-Atlantic and have appeared in several provinces in the Northeast and Midwest. Before the discovery of Loudoun County, nearby quarantine areas had already been established to stop the spread.

“Honeydew contaminates foliage and fruit. The fruit becomes unmarketable, posing a huge economic problem for apple, cherries, peaches and grapes growers,” said Michael Raupp, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Maryland.

The invasive spotted lanternfly is spreading across the Mid-Atlantic

While the spotted lanternfly doesn’t kill most trees, it can kill vines. And if the vines survive, the grapes are infested with the insect’s honeydew and cannot be used for winemaking.

Beekeeping is also affected. Bees that feed on honeydew produce a dark honey with an earthy or smoky taste.

“I’ve tasted honey from bees that fed on honeydew, and it’s not something I want to put on my breakfast cereal,” said Brian Eshenaur, senior extension officer with the Integrated Pest Management Program at Cornell University in New York State. But it’s good for cooking, Eshenaur noted.

Eshenaur has created the spotted lanternfly distribution map (above) and is updating it several times a year as the infestation spreads. He said that the lanternfly has spread quite quickly in recent years, mainly because the insect is a good hitchhiker.

“Spotted lanternflies can only fly up to five miles,” Eshenaur said. He recalls an infestation believed to have occurred when a horse ranch moved from New Jersey to Indiana, transporting lanternflies or lanternfly eggs across multiple state lines.

Paula Shrewsbury, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland, collaborated with Raupp to capture lanternflies for a joint research project with the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspectorate. Insecticidal fungus is being tested as a solution to reduce spotted lanternfly populations. The goal is to find a biologically based option to traditional insecticides.

Shrewsbury explained that hundreds of sap-sucking insects cover trees in their study area. “When you stand under a tree that has spotted lanternflies, you feel little droplets on your skin and you think, is it raining? And then you remember it’s just spotted lanternflies in the trees that pee on you,” she said.

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The honeydew from the lanternfly covers everything under the affected trees. The combination of sticky honeydew and black sooty mold makes it difficult to remove an unsightly mess.

Shrewsbury said the spotted lanternfly’s honeydew has no scent, but Raupp recently took the opportunity to taste honeydew while trapping the insect. “It’s slightly sweet, and I fully understand why ants, yellow jackets, honeybees, paper wasps and so many other sugar seekers are attracted to it,” Raupp said.

Raupp said the story of manna from heaven may have come from honeydew secreted by sap-sucking insects.

The lanternfly’s favorite host is the Ailanthus altissima, known as the tree of heaven, but it will quickly move to wooded and residential areas to feed on other types of trees, such as maples or willows.

Adults lay eggs from September to December. Egg masses contain about 30 to 50 eggs and are about an inch in size and resemble dried mud. Females can lay up to two egg masses, usually on flat surfaces, including tree bark, rocks, patio furniture, or anything left outside. Although the adults do not survive the winter, the eggs can.

If you come across the spotted lanternfly, you are encouraged to crush it. You should also report spotted lanternflies or egg masses to the Maryland or Virginia Department of Agriculture.

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