You may have heard about them. They invade our natural habitats and managed landscapes, our farms and forests, our yards and gardens — and sometimes our homes. They raise our anxiety as they cause ecological and economic damage, threaten our health, and force costly responses from government agencies, industry sectors, and research institutions.
Now we face potentially the worst invasive pest since the introduction of the gypsy moth nearly 150 years ago: the spotted lanternfly, which one of our veteran Penn State entomologists called "the weirdest, most pernicious insect" he's ever seen. This Asian planthopper was found for the first time in the United States in Berks County, Pa., in 2014. With no major natural enemies here — and scientists' lack of knowledge about its behavior and biology — the pest has spread through Southeastern Pennsylvania, and populations have been found in New Jersey and Virginia.
Why should you care? Maybe you've never seen one. Maybe you live outside the 13-county area under a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantine, which requires the inspection of all items moving within or out of the region.
But make no mistake. If we don't find scientifically sound methods for containing this insect, it could affect all of us in major ways, no matter where we live.
The spotted lanternfly does its damage by feeding on sap, robbing a plant of nutrients, and leaving behind honeydew — a sweet, sticky excrement that promotes the growth of sooty mold, further harming and possibly killing the plant. Honeydew also attracts other insects and, along with sooty mold, creates a messy nuisance that can make outdoor areas unusable. Consider the pest's potential impact on the recreation you enjoy in Pennsylvania's parks, forests, and woodlands, and its ecological consequences, such as the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats.
Damage from this pest could further put a large dent in products worth about $18 billion to Pennsylvania's economy. Think about locally produced grapes and wine; hops used in brewing craft beer; apples, peaches, and other tree fruit; the state's lumber industry — the nation's largest; and the shade trees and ornamental shrubs in your yard. The presence of spotted lanternfly could also threaten the shipment of goods over state lines and from the Port of Philadelphia, should additional requirements be placed on the movement of Pennsylvania products in order to contain the insects, as has happened in New York.
As part of the state's land-grant university, our College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension are working closely with the Pennsylvania and U.S. Agriculture Departments to monitor infestations, test control tactics, and educate residents, municipalities, and businesses about the threat. In addition, the USDA provided $17.5 million in emergency funding to expand federal and state pest surveillance, control, and outreach efforts.
In the long term, our best hope for containing damage from the spotted lanternfly is scientific research. Penn State and USDA researchers are studying the pest's biology, its feeding and mating behavior, the effectiveness of pesticide treatments, new detection techniques, and ways to use the pest's natural enemies as biocontrols. But to develop critical tools and long-term management solutions, we need much more research, which will require a substantial commitment of time, expertise, and funding over many years.
Without this investment of resources, we will be ill-equipped to deal with the spotted lanternfly and other invasive species that are sure to arrive. And with our agriculture, natural resources, and economy at stake, that's not a risk we should accept.