Scientists in Massachusetts are closely tracking the growing number of invasive insects that are not only harmful to agriculture but also a pest to the communities they infect.
The spotted lanternfly, while not new to the Gulf states, is also found in more communities in the Commonwealth. This month Worcester became the fourth place to find their infection.
Some parts of the country, such as New Jersey and New York City, which have advertised joining the Stampede, already require residents to kill spotted lanternflies when they see insects.
Jennifer Forman Orth, an environmental biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, recently spent a lot of time talking about pesky bugs. “If you look at a map of every place in the state where the lanternfly is found, it’s pretty much all around our northeast.”
In Massachusetts, lanternflies have been found in 33 communities since 2018, and in four local infestations in the state — Fitchburg, Springfield, Shrewsbury and Worcester — Three appeared this year.
Spotted lanternflies are about a quarter of the size and are grey with black spots and red wings underneath – the part that’s visible when they fly. They are larger than many other insects in Massachusetts.
Spotted lanternflies feed on plant sap, Orth said. Its straw-like mouth “does a lot of damage to certain plants, especially grapes, and that’s one reason we’re concerned about Massachusetts’ wild grapes and the state’s winegrowers and vineyards.”
In addition to grapes, the spotted lanternfly threatens maples, hops, blueberries and more than 100 other host plants, according to the Department of Agricultural Resources.
Not only is their feeding detrimental to plants, Orth explained, but the “sticky, sugary waste” excreted by insects can also cause harm when an infestation occurs.
“‘Honeydew’ covers everywhere the lanternflies are,” she said. “So it’s all over tree trunks, bushes, grass, your porch, your car. Then it’s sticky and sugary, so it starts to ferment and grow this fungus…and it doesn’t just damage whatever plants it’s covering. , but it smells really bad and can be a pain to deal with.”
The insect originated in Asia and first appeared in the United States in 2014 in Pennsylvania, Orth said. The spotted lanternfly is believed to have gotten there via a shipment of rubble and continued to hitchhike to other areas.
“We know they’re associated with the transportation industry, so we’ve seen spotted lanternflies coming in by vehicles, cars, trucks — and also by rail,” Orth said. “We’ve also seen them bring in things like pumpkins and mums and other things that adults in other states bring in for their fall events.”
The insects were first reported in Massachusetts in 2018, when a dead spotted lanternfly was found in a poinsettia plant, according to Orth.
Officials are asking residents to kill any lanternflies that are found immediately. Sap-sucking insects pose a threat to crops and the logging industry.
The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources believes that infection occurs in the community when spotted lanternflies are found active in trees, foraging, mating and laying eggs.
State biologists are asking the public to take a look at what the insects look like and report any sightings if they come across, which helps the state determine the scope of the problem and how to manage it. Massachusetts is currently studying the possibility of limited pesticide treatment in the most affected areas, while the federal government is also looking into other long-term solutions, such as “biological control organisms,” Orth said.
“But it’s going to take them a couple of years to find a method that works and test it and make sure it’s doing what it needs to do,” she said. “A lot of other states are doing pesticide treatments to try and drive the lanternfly back. I don’t think they can eradicate it completely, but they can slow it down.”
You can learn more about the spotted lanternfly and report any sightings here.