Spotted Lanternflies

Spotted lanternflies infest a tree in Lancaster Township Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020.

THE ISSUE: Spotted lanternflies have made an unwelcome mark on Lancaster County in recent summers. The eggs of this invasive species will begin hatching again in May, and the nymphs will grow to adulthood by summer. At that point, the lanternflies will begin “feeding like crazy” ahead of laying eggs in the second half of summer and early fall, Heather Leach, a spotted lanternfly expert with Penn State University, told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro last month. Sauro also reported that Lancaster County is facing the ongoing lanternfly battle this season without some significant grant funding that was available between 2018 and 2020 and has now expired.

It’s important to remember that lanternflies are more than just unwelcome, disgusting, revolting, nasty, dreadful bugs that have horrifically hijacked some of our ability to enjoy the summer and autumn in beautiful Lancaster County.

Beyond that, they are also an incredible threat to Pennsylvania’s economy. And with that being the case, we believe the state and federal governments should be designating more — not fewer — resources toward fighting this menace.

As the state Department of Agriculture explains on its website, spotted lanternflies are especially drawn to grapevines and to maple, black walnut, birch and willow trees. They are a direct threat to the fruit, nursery and timber industries. “A 2019 economic impact study estimates that, uncontrolled, this insect could cost the state $324 million annually and more than 2,800 jobs,” the department notes.

With those economic stakes, the response should continue to be aggressive.

Some background on this bug intrusion for those who need it: “Lancaster County started contending with the invasive insects not long after lanternflies were first discovered in the United States —specifically in Berks County — in 2014,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sauro wrote last month. “It’s believed that the bugs arrived there by piggy-backing on a cargo shipment from somewhere in their native habitat of East Asia.”

In Pennsylvania, there are no natural predators to keep the insect in check, which has allowed them to spread rapidly — as many of us now are all too aware.

Lancaster County has been within Pennsylvania’s lanternfly quarantine zone since 2017, and much effort has been put toward mitigation, eradication and making sure the insects don’t spread farther.

We’ve written editorials about the importance of everyone looking for and destroying lanternfly eggs in the fall. And we noted the promise of using dogs to sniff out lanternfly eggs (as if dogs weren’t already awesome enough).

However, there is some bummer news in the fight against this pest.

“A multiyear program set up to combat potentially destructive spotted lanternflies has been discontinued in Lancaster County due to a lack of funding,” Sauro reported recently.

The program, run by the Lancaster County Conservation District, helped to guide efforts here. With a combination of state and federal dollars, the state Department of Agriculture provided two grants totaling $382,000 from 2018 to 2020.

Lancaster County Conservation District Manager Christopher Thompson told Sauro the funds supported a program that educated the public on the lanternfly problem and implemented mitigation projects on both municipal and private lands.

“I was sorry to see it go,” Thompson said.

We are, too.

Sallie Gregory, a district education coordinator, told Sauro that 16 local municipalities had participated in the program. One important aspect was the treatment of ailanthus trees, which are especially attractive to lanternflies.

In addition to the municipal efforts to treat the trees, “more than 2,600 ailanthus trees — commonly known as tree of heaven — were treated on private land,” Sauro wrote.

He added: “On top of that, district employees were able to distribute 505 lanternfly traps for use on municipal property and another 900-plus to members of the public.”

Local mitigation efforts might not disappear entirely. Sauro noted that officials at the state Department of Agriculture and Penn State University have long led statewide efforts to research and control lanternflies.

But it seems to us that the grant-funded programs allowed for those who know Lancaster County best to efficiently target areas of need.

State Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers said it’s unclear whether new grant commitments can be made to conservation districts in the coming months. And Pennsylvania is now dealing with the fact that 34 of its 67 counties have lanternfly quarantines in place.

As federal and state lawmakers complete their 2021 budgets, there’s the possibility that newly designated grant money could restore the Lancaster program, Powers told Sauro. But future funding to control lanternflies could also focus more on transportation corridors, for example, than conservation districts.

With lanternfly spread and sightings still rising, we believe local programs should continue to be funded. While there should be big-picture strategies for Pennsylvania and the Northeast, local conservation officials on the front lines are well-positioned to combat this threat, too.

Congressman Lloyd Smucker helped to secure past federal funding to combat the lanternfly problem here, and we hope he can make his voice heard on this issue again in Washington, D.C.

We don’t yet know how the lanternfly threat will evolve in 2021. Some local farmers expressed cautious optimism to Sauro about the crop destruction caused by the invasive species being “less than was expected thus far.” And, in addition to sniffing dogs, Penn State researchers believe that chickens and praying mantises might help in the battle against this scourge.

But now is not the moment to stop funding programs that were keeping the local lanternfly threat from being even worse.

For the good of the county’s economy and its agricultural future, we’d like to see a new grant for the Lancaster County Conservation District. 

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