Spotted Lanternfly egg mass

Adult spotted lanternflies cover the eggs with a white secretion that protects the eggs from parasites, predators and the weather outside.

Heading into their egg-laying season, the number of destructive spotted lanternflies sighted in Lancaster County has more than doubled since last year, according to state officials tracking the bugs.

That news came earlier this month, only days after lanternfly expert Heather Leach announced the first detected egg mass of the season in New Jersey.

And on Monday, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania announced a new breakthrough that could make finding those masses much easier — using dogs to sniff out the eggs.

“With up to 300 million smell receptors in their noses, properly trained dogs are uniquely positioned to provide an effective surveillance and management strategy in identifying and removing these egg masses that may otherwise go undetected,” reads a statement from Cynthia Otto, director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center at the university.

Lanternflies lay their egg masses in the fall, and it’s important to find and destroy them before they hatch in spring, local experts have said.

That’s true because the invasive insects use straw-like mouth parts to suck sugary liquids from plants before secreting a sticky substance that can attract crop-killing mold.

The bugs — native to Asia — were first discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, believed to have arrived on an overseas shipment to Berks County. They have since spread, including to Lancaster County, which is within a lanternfly quarantine zone. In Pennsylvania, the bugs have no natural predators.

Spotted lanternfly with yellow abdomen

This image shared by Lancaster County Conservation District Spotted Lanternfly Technician Amanda Goldsmith shows a spotted lanternfly with a yellow abdomen, meaning it's reaching the egg-laying stage of its life cycle.

Sightings here up 102%

By the end of August, a total 6,032 Lancaster County lanternfly sightings had been reported this year to the state Department of Agriculture, spokeswoman Shannon Powers said. That’s up 102% from last year’s end-of-August total at 2,990 reports, she said.

Statewide, those numbers jumped 71% from 36,721 sightings in 2019 to 62,924 this year.

“In counties like Lancaster and Lebanon, where the quarantine has been in place for some time, reports are about 90% accurate,” Powers said. “People recognize the insect because it is a nuisance when they are outdoors, or it threatens their livelihoods.”

In Lancaster County, the idea of completely eliminating lanternfly infestations is likely a fantasy, according to Leach, who studies the bugs at Penn State University in State College.

“It’s here to stay,” he said.

Amanda Goldsmith lanternflies

The wire mesh is pulled back to show dozens of lanternflies caught on a sticky trap that was wrapped around a tree outside the Lancaster Farm and Home Center 1383 Arcadia Road in Lancaster city Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The mesh covers the trap to prevent other wildlife from being caught on the trap.

Preventative measures

This year’s seemingly large population could be the result of ideal weather conditions — a mild winter and dry summer — that likely contributed to high hatch and survival rates, Leach said.

Still, she said, researchers are doing what they can to kill off the destructive insects in hopes of minimizing population sizes and blocking their further spread across the state.

That includes the ongoing testing of beauveria bassiana, a native fungus that has been known to attack and kill lanternflies, Leach said. The fungus can be spread — including by airplane — onto threatened crops, including at wine-producing vineyards, she said.

Those tests are underway on at least one Lancaster County vineyard, Leach said, hinting that results may be slightly disappointing.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Leach said. “It’s not a silver bullet.”

Lanternflies are typically active in Pennsylvania through September and October, their egg-laying season.

Amanda Goldsmith, a lanternfly technician with the Lancaster County Conservation District, said she is not yet aware of any local egg masses this year.

“It should be very soon,” she said, admitting that eggs could have been laid already but not seen or reported.

Looking to find those hidden eggs, officials at the state Department of Agriculture funded research at the Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania, where Otto’s team has been working since late last year to train dogs to sniff out the masses.

According to a Monday announcement from university officials, those trials have been successful and at least one dog soon will be trained to work for the Department of Agriculture.

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