Jim Mullin says he feels like he’s living through an Old Testament plague.
What used to be pleasant summer evenings on the deck have turned instead into a battle against nature, and against the swarms of bugs – a particularly nasty bug that shows up by the thousands and is tough to kill. “If I took a flyswatter out on my deck, I’d kill 30,” he says. Some evenings, Mullin – who lives in Cecil County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore – goes swimming in the Bohemia River, except on one particular night the vineyard across the river had sprayed for the bugs. Mullin went to the river to swim; the insects decamped to the river, as well – to wait out the spray.
“They were completely across the water – hundreds, thousands of ’em on the water,” he says. “You could grab ’em with your hand, hold ’em under the water, feel ’em squirming. Then you think they’re dead and you let up and they’re still alive.”
Mullin’s unscientific assessment of the bug (by trade he’s a real estate appraiser and is a former county commissioner, Maryland’s equivalent of a county supervisor): “They’re bad news.”
The Eastern Shore of Maryland is somewhat far afield from our coverage area in Southwest and Southside but Mullin’s experience is relevant in this way: The voracious little bug he’s swatting and stomping and trying to drown there is on its way here. In fact, it’s already here. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services recently confirmed that the spotted lanternfly has been found in Bedford County – and that’s not even the first find in this part of the state, just the most recent. Earlier the bugs – perhaps we should say the dreaded bugs – were found in Carroll and Wythe counties.
The spotted lanternfly is a native of China that showed up in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has been spreading ever since. It’s a nuisance to ordinary folks who just want to sit outside, but it’s an economic threat to agriculture – partly vineyards because the little buggers love, just love, grapevines. The spotted lanternfly was first spotted in Berks County, Pennsylvania – the Reading area. “In early infestations, some Berks County vineyards lost between 97 and 100% of their crops,” according to Shannon Powers of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Theresa “Tree” Dellinger, an entomologist with Virginia Tech, says some vineyards went out of business. Spotted lanternflies are sap-suckers, so they weaken the vines to the extent that some can’t survive the winter. No wonder the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has issued a pretty clear directive to anyone who spots one of these pests: Kill it. There aren’t many times the state government tells people they can kill something with impunity.
While the spotted lanternfly prefers grapevines, it’s also happy boring into fruit trees, and also sometimes walnut and maple trees, so this has implications – bad ones – for the timber industry (and maybe the maple sugar industry in Highland County). A 2019 study by Penn State (conducted five years after the spotted lanternfly showed up in Pennsylvania) estimated crop damage in the state at $50.1 million per year – with a loss of 484 jobs. That study also said that “under a worst-case scenario, in which damage reaches the maximum projected by crop-production and forestry experts, these losses could increase to $554 million annually and almost 5,000 jobs.”
So, yeah, if you see one of these bugs, kill it (although let the state ag people know, too, so they can keep track of where they are, other than the underside of your shoe).
Random but important fact: Virginia has at least 281 vineyards and the state’s wine industry is measured as a $5 billion enterprise, in the state according to the National Association of American Wineries. I don’t mean to sound alarmist but this bug is not their friend.
Dellinger warns that vineyards face a threat beyond simply having their vines gnawed through until they die: They could lose the wedding business.
The spotted lanternfly likes to swarm, especially when they’re mating. (Yes, bug orgies.) “We have heard reports of people who feel they can’t go outside anymore,” Dellinger says – with Mullins in Maryland being a real-life example of that. “In Pennsylvania, we’ve even heard from people who wonder if they could sell their house with all these things around it, so it’s a quality-of-life issue for homeowners.” The bugs also like to land on people (they are voracious but friendly). “Can you imagine going to your wedding and seeing these things flying around?” Dellinger asks. “I don’t want to scare any potential bride off from looking at a vineyard but that could be one possible issue.”
We should also mention that the spotted lanternfly, besides being an economic threat, and a general nuisance, is also pretty disgusting. “They’re sucking sap out” of their host plant, Dellinger says, “and they use some of the material, but they can’t use all the water or sugar so that comes out the back end in what we call honeydew because that sounds better than spotted lanternfly poop.” (Whoever decided to rebrand spotted lanternfly poop as “honeydew” is a marketing genius.) And there’s a LOT of spotted lanternfly poop. “All that honeydew waste can coat a back deck or driveway or sidewalk or play area,” says Mark Sutphin, the Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for the northern Shenandoah Valley. (More on why we’re talking to him shortly.) The stuff also attracts other bugs – ants, wasps, and whatnot – so we’re talking a bug paradise, and not all those bugs are nice.
OK, that we’ve terrified you about this coming plague of vineyard-killing poopers, let’s look at the way to deal with this, which brings us to the intersection of science and government. First, let’s understand the science.
The spotted lanternfly is native to China, where it has some native predators that don’t exist in North America. The spotted lanternfly is also a really good hitchhiker, which is how it got to Pennsylvania in 2014 – probably as an egg mass on an imported ornamental bush, according to Sutphin. Spotted lanternflies lay their eggs pretty much wherever they want, so these eggs can easily be transported – on just about anything. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has imposed a quarantine on some counties to regulate the movement of the most likely bug-carriers – from shrubbery to construction equipment – but it’s hard to fight an insect.
“The adults don’t fly super far,” Dellinger says, “but they’re really good at landing on your shoulder unaware and clinging on. If you have a pregnant female land on your shoulder and get in your car and you go somewhere and it gets out, the female goes and lays her legs.” Then, presto, you have spotted lanternflies somewhere where they weren’t before. (Their egg masses are generally 30 to 50 eggs, so one pregnant lanternfly can pretty quickly establish a new population.) Carroll County and Wythe County are among the Virginia localities under quarantine; Dellinger says the spotted lanternflies in Carroll County were found not far from a truck stop along Interstate 77. Like we said, hitchhikers, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The bug turned up in Virginia in 2018 in on some grape vines in Winchester. At the time, that was considered just the second population in the country – the first being in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area. Now the map compiled by the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program shows the insect across much of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware – and moving down into Virginia, with sightings as far north as Massachusetts, as far west as Indiana, as far south as North Carolina. Sutphin says for a while the population in the northern Shenandoah Valley was confined to mostly commercial, industrial and residential parts of Winchester, but now it’s out into the agricultural areas of the countryside. The state now considers Clarke County, Frederick County, Warren County and Wincehester “heavily infested.” There’s no data yet on agricultural losses in Virginia because all this has happened pretty quickly – this is really the first big year for a lot of sightings in the state. Even the official map of the spotted lanternfly range is out of date. Besides the recent confirmation in Bedford, Dellinger says the species has also been found in Campbell, Culpeper, Fauquier, Loudoun and Nelson counties. “We’re finding it in counties faster than they can adapt the quarantine” by adding those counties, she says.
Speaking of that now-outdated official map:
Let’s say a few words here about the first responders on invasive species. We don’t usually have much reason to think about the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, but it’s there and on the case. The department has 24 full-time and four part-time staffers who deal with invasive species, according to department spokesman Michael Wallace. How often do they get reports of invasive species? Every day. Every single day. The state’s list of invasive plants alone runs three pages. The invasive species considered the biggest threats at the moment include the red imported fire ant, spotted lanternfly, cotton boll weevil, plus a long list of “noxious” weed species and some plant-based pathogens such as thousand cankers disease and sudden oak death. In fact, the spotted lanternfly sighting in Bedford County was first made by one of the state ag department’s Plant Protection Inspectors making a routine survey, Wallace says. We often bemoan about all the ways in which government doesn’t work. Here’s an example of a government agency working. Politicians usually spend their time talking about other things but here’s a government agency they could be citing as a real-life example of “your tax dollars at work.”
Don’t jump to some stereotype about mild-mannered scientists, either: In 2006, some fire ants were spotted in a planter in the parking lot at Valley View Mall in Roanoke, probably imported with some shrubbery. You’d have thought the Marines had shown up the way an ag department team arrived and dispatched the fire ants with extreme prejudice. The problem is that bugs are notoriously hard to deal with. They’re small and they often fly. Those fire ants in Roanoke might have been sent to wherever bugs go, but the species itself is still crawling into places it hasn’t been before. A map released by Virginia Tech this year shows infestations from Virginia Beach west to Halifax County, with smaller, isolated populations in Danville and Lee County. The continent is full of invasive species that have established themselves so much we no longer think of them as invasive. Burmese pythons up to 18 feet now slither all through the Everglades, swallowing up deer and the occasional small child. Starlings were released in Central Park in New York in 1890 because someone thought it would be cool to import a bird mentioned in Shakespeare. Now they’re all over and up to no good (they also damage crops). Technically, humans would be considered an invasive species in North America, too, but since we get to keep the records, we don’t record ourselves that way.
There are some success stories: The state ag department says both the spongy moth and the boll weevil have been eradicated in Virginia. Score two for our side. But sometimes the best you can do is “manage” the situation. In the case of the spotted lanternfly, that often means insecticides. If you can’t stomp ’em or swat ’em, spray ’em. The catch, Sutphin says, is that in Pennsylvania this has sometimes tripled a vineyard’s insect management costs. Your wine might get more expensive. Now do we have your attention?
Dellinger says some people – not actual scientists – have suggested using flamethrowers. Do we really need to include an advisory that this is not a good idea? Just in case, we offer these cautionary examples: “Seattle Man Burns Down House Trying to Kill Spider.” Or “Man Sets Home On Fire After Using Blowtorch To Kill Spiders.” “Homeowner fighting Joro spiders caught attic on fire, officials say.” (Observation: It’s always men and it’s always spiders.) Dellinger says the internet is full of home remedies for how to kill spotted lanternfly (the internet is full of lots of things). She doesn’t recommend them, either, because they might also kill whatever plants you’re trying to protect. She advises finding some approved bug spray (the internet is full of those, too).
Mullin, our Maryland friend who is heroically battling the spotted lanternfly, offers this unscientific but probably sound advice. He says the species is most vulnerable after it’s hatched but before it can fly. “At that point, they’re just bugs,” he says, easy prey for a flyswatter or a shoe. “They’re just crawling over the deck and I’d go boom boom boom.” He also offers this tip: “It’ll hop three times, then stop. Then it’s like it’s run out of breath.”
That’s when you stomp.
Just be prepared to do it a lot. “I’d kill a mess of ’em, go back out and have to start over again, they’re that thick,” Mullin says. “It’s freaky.”