With arrival of invasive ‘hitchhikers,’ ag officials step up efforts to stop the spread

The Spotted Lanternfly often migrates by hitching a ride on trains, trailers, RVs and automobiles. (Photo by Becca Gvozden)

Videos and article by Becca Gvozden, contributor

After hitchhiking to the Shenandoah Valley, an invasive insect could be making a home here, which can come at an environmental cost, according to Virginia officials who are tracking the Spotted Lanternfly. 

With fall on the way, Spotted Lanternflies are in their cycle of “mating flights,” said David Gianino, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ program manager for the Office of Plant Industry Services. In the winter, the females will lay egg masses in vertical rows, which can survive cold weather because of a warm, claylike substance the Spotted Lanternfly lays over them as protection. The egg masses range from 45-50 eggs and the nymphs, or babies, will hatch in the late spring, repeating the spotted lanternfly life cycle.

These “hitchhikers” have traveled down I-81, likely from Pennsylvania, which has been home to the insect for years. They have been spotted this summer as far south as North Carolina. Rest areas and railroad tracks are popular sightings for infestations because the pests often spread by climbing, hoping, and jumping onto objects — like cars, tractors and RVs — to migrate, as opposed to flying long distances themselves. 

An adult Spotted Lanternfly. (Photo by Eric Day of Virginia Tech)

“Let’s say you have a children’s playground equipment in your backyard, and you move 200 miles away, and you move that playground equipment with you,” said Theresa Dellinger, who works with the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Tech and the Cooperative Extension. “You could be transporting egg masses and not know about it. And then suddenly spotted lantern fly has jumped out of its known range by 200 miles and could establish a population there.”

Harrisonburg and Rockingham County were included in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Spotted Lanternfly Quarantine in July. In addition urging residents to be on alert for the insect, the quarantine requires businesses and individuals to check for the insect before moving goods, household items or vehicles to places outside the quarantine zone, according to the agency

A Spotted Lanternfly infestation can be detrimental to the environment because the insect can make a home on more than 100 species of trees and plants, with the Tree of Heaven being its favorite, Dellinger said. 

They “pierce into the trees, and suck the sap out,” said Jason Cooper of the Virginia Cooperative Extension. That can cause damage over an extended period. 

Dellinger explains how — but also why the Spotted Lanternfly isn’t all bad news.

Vineyards and wineries faced the biggest hardships, as grapes are another plant species the lanternflies prey on. 

Officials from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Virginia ag department are working together to control the issue, and the Cooperative Extension is involved with educating and communicating with the public. 

Gianino, from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, said the agencies are using “traps and visual surveys” to help locate the lanternflies. They’re also using mechanical and chemical methods of control, such as pesticides. 

Originally believed to be native to China, the Spotted Lanternfly has traveled long ways and continues to do so. 

“We’re running a new campaign now. What we want everyone in Virginia to do, is if they see Spotted Lanternfly, we want them to kill the Spotted Lanternfly,” Gianino said. “So, we’re at beyond the point of kind of reporting it.” 

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