An invasive pest that ravages crops and backyards is new to Virginia.
And a team of Virginia Tech researchers and state entomologists is working to stop its spread.
The spotted lanternfly, an Asian insect, was first spotted in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has been a nuisance there as it slowly spread along the East Coast.
It often lays eggs on hard surfaces, including cars and trains that help spread the population. If it spreads across Virginia, there could be thousands of them irritating farmers and homeowners.
The pest eats many crops and has already been found feeding on grapes near Winchester, where the first brood hatched around May 9, said Doug Pfeiffer, a Tech entomologist who also works with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office.
The lanternfly was first spotted near Winchester earlier this year. Shortly after its presence was confirmed, the Virginia Cooperative Extension issued a pest alert to the public.
The lanternflies like feeding on grapes, stone fruits and hops during their various life stages, Pfeiffer said. They can be added to the list of pests that already ravage crops of Virginia growers, he said.
The insects will also be particularly irritating to homeowners, said Eric Day, manager of Tech’s insect identification laboratory.
Day said that during various stages in their life cycles, lanternflies will crawl around on plants and even lawn furniture in backyards, leaving behind a clear, sticky residue known as honeydew. That residue then will be ravaged with black mold, leaving behind a mess that’s difficult to clean up.
Because there can be hundreds or thousands of the insects traveling together, they’ll likely be a challenge to control.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Day said.
Finding ways to control the pests is exactly the goal of Tech researchers and other state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Chemical control with pesticides has proved challenging in Pennsylvania, where entomologists are currently battling the pest and most likely would be unsustainable in Virginia, Pfeiffer said.
Managing the lanternfly will come down to studying where it lives and how it reproduces. Such knowledge would help researchers find non-chemical control solutions, Pfeiffer said. That’s where the public can come in and help.
In its adult stage, the pest is particularly attracted to the tree of heaven plant. Entomologists are studying the best ways to remove some of those plants and create what Pfeiffer called an “ecological choke point,” to then control the insect with pesticides when it feeds on select tree of heaven plants.
However, he said, how the population interacts with its Virginia environment could be different. People should not start removing tree of heaven plants willy-nilly, he said.
Many of the lanternflies spotted near Winchester hatched in early May, Pfeiffer noted, so people around the state should be on the lookout for the pest in its various life stages.
Those who spot the lanternfly or find one can submit a sample to their local Virginia Tech extension office or they can take a picture and submit it online.
The diligence of the public will be crucial in slowing its spread and discovering the best ways to keep the lanternfly from afflicting a large number of people.
“We want to get the word out that it’s out there,” Pfeiffer said.
For more information about the spotted lanternfly, visit ext.vt.edu/agriculture/commercial-horticulture/spotted- lanternfly.html.
Anyone in Virginia who thinks they’ve seen a spotted lanternfly should report it to their local Virginia Tech extension office or submit a picture to the Virginia Tech cooperative extension website at https://ask.extension.org/groups/1981/ask.