The Spotted lanternfly was found in a 90-acre wooded lot in southeastern Indiana in July, marking the westernmost known infestation of a pest known for decimating vineyards, destroying fruit trees and dismantling hardwood forest ecosystems.
No one knows exactly how it got there, but experts say it is essential to move quickly to address the issue before the insects spread further west. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources is hard at work in collaboration with other researchers and the property landowners to get the issue under control, but it could take years, said the state’s lead entomologist Megan Abraham.
“We have concerns of this insect changing the biodiversity in the understory of all of our hardwood forests,” said Abraham, director of the DNR’s Division of Entomology and Plant Pathology. “The longer we can hold off of these invasives spreading, the better off we all are.”
Here’s what you need to know about the spread of the Spotted lanternfly, how it could impact Indiana, and what’s being done to stop it.
What is a Spotted lanternfly?
With wide, black- and white-spotted wings and mismatching patterns overlaying a shock of candy-red, the Spotted lanternfly doesn’t look much like it belongs among the woods of Indiana.
That’s because it doesn’t. The insect is actually native to China.
Spotted lanternflies were first found in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 2014. No one’s sure how it got there, Abraham said, but some suspect some specimens may have traveled as eggs on goods being shipped from Asia.
At first, officials in Pennsylvania thought they had contained the infestation, but the creatures escaped and have now been found in 10 states.
How did the infestation get to Indiana?
Like trainhoppers, scientists believe Spotted lanternflies are sneaking from state to state on freight trains.
The insects feed on certain trees such as fruit trees, ornamental trees and tree-of-heaven, the latter of which happens to frequent railway corridors.
Spotted lanternfly eggs are extremely hard to find. The insect lays eggs “in just about anything you can think of,” Abraham said, and covers them up so the area will often just look like a smear of mud. This means humans are often spreading this insect without knowing it, on shipping containers, railroad cars and firewood.© Courtesy Peter L. Coffey, University of Maryland Extension Spotted lanternfly adults have grey wings with dark spots and a flash of red.
Knowing this, DNR researchers have been looking for signs of the Spotted lanternfly near Indiana’s railways and highways for years, Abraham said. But it wasn’t until they received an email from a homeowner inquiring about a strange red bug he’d seen on his property that they knew they’d found it.
The infestation is in a 90-acre woodlot in Vevay, Indiana, in Switzerland County. The lot is jointly owned by a couple of homeowners that don’t use it often, Abraham said, and it appears as though the insects have been living, breeding and feeding there for at least a few years.
The pests have also been found in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
What makes a Spotted lanternfly dangerous?
The snazzy Spotted lanternfly feeds on the sap from trees such as fruit trees and hardwoods, and when they do so, they swarm it.
The bugs also act as congregate feeders, Abraham said, meaning they feed in large groups at once. Losing this many resources can weaken the tree and mean it may struggle to survive the winter months.
In doing so, the insects also produce a sticky and highly sugary waste product called “honeydew.” This substance attracts mold, bees and other insects that kill understory plants as well.
“This is an insect that can have a dramatic effect on a woodlot, just by lazily feeding and staying in the same place for a long amount of time,” Abraham said.© Courtesy of NJ Department of Agriculture. Spotted lanternfly on a tree.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture warns that several plants are at risk from the Spotted lanternfly, including: almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, nectarines, peaches, plums and maple, oak, pine, poplar, sycamore, walnut and willow trees.
But one of the biggest commodities at threat from Spotted lanternfly infestations are actually vineyards, Abraham said. When the bug feeds on vines, it actually changes the pH of its grapes and makes them unusable. In addition to Indiana vineyards that could be affected, researchers fear that the lanternflies could riddle the west coast wine industry if they were allowed to spread.
A point of concern in staunching this spread is that there are a few RV parks just outside of the woodlot hosting Indiana’s infestation, Abraham said. If the invasion isn’t contained, lanternflies could hitchhike out of state on these RVs when they travel.
What’s being done to contain the infestation?
The DNR has treated the infested woodlot with pesticides multiple times since the Spotted lanternflies were found in July.
To do so, officials use backpack sprayers to spray the pesticide on the bark of the tree, where the chemical then penetrates to the inside of the tree. Any Spotted lanternflies that feed on that tree then also consume the pesticide and die.
DNR officials are specifically spraying tree-of-heaven, one of the Spotted lanternfly’s favorite snacks. In some areas, they’re killing off smaller seedlings of this tree in hopes of creating a “trap tree.” The lanternfly, without the option of other trees to feed, would settle on the trap tree only to be poisoned by the pesticides within it.
So far, the DNR has sprayed about 160 trees in the area, and has plans to return and spray more this week. The chemicals are not expected to affect groundwater or surrounding homes and businesses in any way.
“It’s going to be an area that we’re going to have to treat for a few years,” Abraham said, “but hopefully we’ll be able to stop it from spreading.”
A major source of help has been working with colleagues in Pennsylvania, where the first known infestation began and where researchers have already been working to contain the Spotted lanternfly for seven years. The state of Pennsylvania has offered to send treatment trucks, chemicals, equipment and staff members to Indiana’s site and help DNR staff.
“We’re very lucky that we’ve got partners like this,” Abraham said. “It just shows how important everybody feels that this pest is stopped.”
What can you do?
Indiana’s infestation was discovered when one person reached out to the DNR, so Abraham asks that if you see something that looks unusual in your backyard, tell the department!
Report Spotted lanternfly sightings to Abraham’s team through email at DEPP@dnr.IN.gov or call them at 866-NO EXOTIC, or 866-663-9684.
Fall is one of the best times of the year to spot a lanternfly because they’ve reached their adult size and are especially easy to see.
The USDA suggests checking your outdoor items for lanternfly egg masses and inspecting your trees and plants for signs of the insect, especially at dusk and night when they tend to feed. If you frequently travel in and out of state, it may also be helpful to be careful about inspecting the items you bring and whatever might be on them, such as mud.
“This insect obviously found its way to a non-heavily trafficked area in the middle of nowhere in Indiana, so that means it can find its way anywhere,” Abraham said. “We really have to be conscious of what we are moving and where we’re moving it, and what might be on it when we do move it.”