By virtue of her profession — and her family’s farm and produce stand — Emelie Swackhamer long has been connected to the local agricultural community in southeastern Pennsylvania. As autumn approached in 2014, Swackhamer, a Penn State Extension horticulture educator based in Montgomery County, began to hear rumors in farm circles that state officials had discovered a strange, new insect in Berks County, just a few miles from her family’s farm.

“People were talking about it, but nobody knew what it was,” she recalled.

A public announcement from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) in November of that year identified “it” as the spotted lanternfly, which never before had been found in the United States. The discovery of this invasive pest, which likely hitchhiked with shipped goods that originated in the insect’s native range in Asia, quickly created a stir among growers, municipalities and citizens and prompted a major, collaborative response involving Penn State Extension and the College of Agricultural Sciences, PDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Officials are worried about the threat the spotted lanternfly poses to the state’s grape, tree-fruit, hardwood and nursery industries, which collectively generate nearly $18 billion annually. The planthopper feeds on sap, weakening plants and leaving behind a sugary excrement called honeydew, which promotes the growth of sooty mold — further harming the plant — while attracting other insects and creating a sticky mess that could render outdoor areas, such as backyards and public parks, unusable.

After the lanternfly’s discovery, the state imposed a quarantine that requires the inspection of all items moving in or out of the area to prevent the transport of any life stage of the pest, whether eggs, nymphs or adults. As of fall 2018, the quarantine encompassed Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Carbon, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Monroe, Philadelphia and Schuylkill counties. Dauphin County was recently added.

Enlisting businesses and the public to help keep the spotted lanternfly from spreading to new areas is a top priority. To that end, the state launched an educational campaign with the slogan, “Look before you leave,” emphasizing the need to inspect vehicles and other items before traveling out of or within a quarantined county.

For many companies that conduct business in the quarantine zone, this means obtaining a required permit that certifies that a business is complying with quarantine regulations.

“Before moving vehicles, equipment and goods within and out of the zone, businesses and organizations must have permits from PDA,” said Dana Rhodes, state plant regulatory official with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “A permit provides evidence that you have completed training on how to follow the rules of the quarantine order, and you agree to do all you can to ensure that you are not carrying spotted lanternfly.”

Penn State Extension and PDA have developed a self-paced, “train the trainer” online course to teach designated company employees — usually an owner, manager or supervisor — how to comply with the quarantine regulations. “Designated employees who pass the course will receive spotted lanternfly permits, which include a hangtag or decal for company vehicles,” Rhodes said. “This person must train fellow employees before granting them a permit.”

Rhodes noted that PDA will begin compliance verifications on May 1, and businesses that don’t have a permit must obtain one before this date.

USDA also offers helpful resources. Companies that do business within the quarantined areas can receive a free Action Toolkit of printed materials to inform their employees about ways to stop the spotted lanternfly. Toolkits can be ordered from USDA online at www.aphis.usda.gov/hungrypests/slf-biz.

Meanwhile, the role of Penn State agricultural researchers and extension educators — as part of the university’s land-grant mission — is to bring science-based information to bear in solving emerging issues such as the spotted lanternfly. With a pest that is new to North America, these efforts must start at square one.

“The spotted lanternfly is a fascinating insect,” said Amy Korman, a Northampton County-based Penn State Extension educator who is an entomologist by training. “Everything we learn about it is a new discovery. But the novelty also makes it frustrating, because we don’t yet know enough about it to provide all the answers people are seeking.”

To develop near-term solutions for managing lanternfly infestations, Korman, Swackhamer and scientists at Penn State’s Fruit Research and Extension Center in Adams County have tested the efficacy of various pesticides. Penn State and USDA researchers also are studying the pest’s biology, its feeding and mating behavior, new detection techniques and ways to use the insect’s natural enemies as biocontrols, with an eye toward developing long-range strategies for managing it.

Until research bears more fruit, Penn State educators and PDA and USDA officials are monitoring for the pest and helping commercial stakeholders and the public to understand what to look for and what to do if they find spotted lanternfly or its egg masses. But long-term solutions will take time and resources, noted Tom Baker, distinguished professor of entomology and chemical ecology at Penn State, who has studied insects for 40 years.

Said Baker, “The spotted lanternfly is the weirdest, most pernicious insect I’ve ever seen.”

To learn more about the spotted lanternfly, quarantine and permitting regulations, and how to report a sighting, visit the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly.

By Chuck Gill, Penn State University

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