March of the Lanternflies

By Chase Detwiler

An army is on the march. Crossing oceans and vast lands, their advancement is relentless. The land they have captured, and the mass that is still fixed in their sights, makes even imperial Britain tremble. The casualties of this impending war will extend across nations.

The spotted lanternfly, as it is called, could not care less where their malice will tread, as long as it begins with the tasty farmland of Lancaster County and beyond. Their appetite is truly a weapon of mass destruction.

The spotted lantern fly is an inch-long, moth-like, invasive insect under the genus lycorma. It has a faint grey top wing covering, revealing bright reddish orange lower wings, both of which are dotted with black spots. It has a black underside and legs that contrast the upper half of the body. If disturbed, these legs are used to propel them into the air, allowing them to unfold and flit their wings for distance.

When they lay eggs, the ailanthus tree is a typical host in the Fall. However, this versatile species is not particularly dependent on the tree for reproduction; any smooth surface will do as an egg laying spot. This puts protected places like areas of cars, shipping containers and crates, and trains on the spotted lantern fly’s list. All of these, of course, can carry the individuals hundreds of miles before hatching time rolls around. It is no wonder how the flies, first spotted in 2014, came to Berks County, PA.

This invasion would not cause paranoia if their story ended there. In their native Asian setting, the spotted lantern fly feeds mostly off of the same ailanthus tree, also an invader of the United States, and enjoys the luxury of having very few predators. They suck the sap of this and other agricultural crops if the trees are not present when feeding, causing the fluid to drain onto the leaves. The fluid attracts other pests and mold, which further damage and deprive sunlight exposure to the plants.

This is half of the equation. The other half occurs when the lantern flies excrete honeydew on and near the leaves as a carbohydrate waste product. The sweetness of honeydew multiplies the attraction of the same issues that plague the sucked leaves.

In a large swarm, the damage extends from a few leaves to perhaps a few farms. Grape cultivators are especially feeling the stress of the invasion. The impacts may not be clearly known yet, but The New York Times author Zach Montague notes that reports surfaced “from growers last year of a 90 percent loss….”

He goes on to explain that the insect had previously conquered South Korea in a matter of three years since its introduction. The damage includes fruiting trees and hardwoods as well as grapes, threatening an eighteen-billion-dollar industry back home in Pennsylvania.

If the spread of the spotted lantern fly were to extend itself to a major source of wine grapes, such as the Napa Valley in California. Not only would this grape-dependent economy be upset, but so would some of the most quality and renowned wines in production be in jeopardy of deletion.

Here, visitors alone spend a couple billion as tourists, and up to eight billion circulates back into the economy from those that live and work there.

Even if relocation is the only option for the growers, the soil and climate of the Napa Valley adds to the flavor and signature of the product. A Napa Valley wine does not come from elsewhere, and the different and foreign flavor complexities would certainly reveal this. All the while, the spotted lantern fly happily slurps away at an American success story and identity.

Given that this pest is attracted to other fruit trees also, prices for the now pesticide-infested produce will rise. Perhaps this will harm the organic sector of the market, who would see it fit to omit the more effective but deadlier pesticides for concern of human health over control of lantern flies. In this scenario, demand at both consumer and commercial levels will begin to exceed the supply from lost crops for the year.

It is possible that the impacts of a lantern fly swarm would go further and kill certain trees if the leaves and stems are infected by microbe buildup over the course of a feeding. If this is so, consumers will see a long-term hike in fruit prices if enough trees are eliminated from the equation. It can take up to three years for some fruit baring trees to even minimally produce a harvest after planting. This does not account for the time it takes to graft and root budding twigs to make new stock. It will take an additional decade or two of growth, harvests, and pruning to obtain a tree shape that best suits harvest convenience and maximizes production.

This would set producers back about fifteen to thirty years per tree in all, catastrophic if a sizable portion of producers’ fields are taken out. The spotted lantern fly might as well be sucking wallets dry in the fruit industry if events turn this sour.

Dawn has greeted the lantern fly epidemic, and this army has a bit of marching to do before it becomes the next Roman juggernaut. But it has marched far already, proving itself as a deadly and hungry little foreigner that is an instinctive master at distributing itself across the land. In order to preserve prices and save harvests, perhaps it is everyone’s duty to produce a declaration of war against this enemy.

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