The spotted lanternfly, a native species of southeast Asia, is a colorful, inch-long insect that was first found in North America in Berks County in 2014. But its beauty masks a tremendous crisis. It has now spread to more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties, including Lancaster, and it threatens to devastate fruit, timber and nursery industries that are worth a combined $18 billion to the state’s economy. As this invasive-insect plague is fought on many fronts and with millions of state and federal dollars, there is a new worry: Christmas trees.
Lancaster is one of 13 counties in a lanternfly quarantine zone that affects how businesses can move equipment and products. That means, according to an Oct. 20 article by LNP’s Tom Knapp, that Christmas tree growers “have to be careful if they’re shipping trees to an area not yet affected by the invasive pest.” Lanternflies — which are becoming more widespread here\!q — will lay their eggs on almost anything, and that includes Christmas trees.
“People that are moving pre-cut trees are responsible for inspecting them,” Penn State Extension educator Timothy Elkner told Knapp. “They are the first line of defense.”
The second line of defense is you.
Looking ahead to the holidays, we don’t want to discourage anyone from purchasing a live Christmas tree. But, when you do, know what to look for when it comes to lanternfly eggs.
Shown above are photos, provided by the Penn State Extension, of what the eggs look like, in their various stages of development, on bark. A fresh egg mass looks like a smear of wet putty, Elkner says, and an older mass looks like dried, cracked mud. Each mass can hold 30 to 50 eggs, and thus you can see their potential for expanding the lanternfly’s growing environmental and financial disaster. It is an insect with no natural predators in the United States, which heightens the difficulty in eradicating it.
Lanternfly eggs are laid from late September through the first hard freeze, and they typically hatch in May. But Elkner told Knapp that egg masses brought into a warm house via a Christmas tree (or anything else) could hatch early.
If that happens, Elkner said you wouldn’t have to worry about indoor damage or harm to you or your pets. But lanternflies are certainly an indoor annoyance, and an exponentially worse disaster if they — or their intact eggs — get into your yard and neighborhood.
If you discover eggs on your Christmas tree — or anywhere else — Elkner says you should “get a container with a little alcohol in it and scrape the eggs into the container. That will kill the eggs.”
And, to be clear, lanternfly eggs can also be attached to patio furniture, firewood, plywood or anything else that’s been outside. If you’re buying, selling or transporting anything that’s been outdoors, be diligent.
industry takes heed
Christmas tree growers and sellers seem to be aware of the lanternfly egg issue and have already been working to make sure their customers are not affected.
State Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Shannon Powers said “the Christmas tree industry has been particularly vigilant,” and two Lancaster County tree sellers told Knapp last month that they’re already on the lookout for eggs.
“Some people are acting like this is new, that we’ve never brought an insect inside on a tree,” Elkner told LNP. “People have brought mantids in, people have brought spiders in. This is just another thing that can happen.”
But it’s never bad to have extra lines of defense, especially with the billions at stake in Pennsylvania’s economy.
The lanternfly invasion is moving quickly into Lancaster County, “even as state and federal officials have tabbed the western and southern parts of the county as a battleground to stop further expansion into Pennsylvania,” LNP’s Ad Crable reported in September.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker and other members of the state’s congressional delegation helped to secure $17.5 million in federal funding earlier this year to combat the insect. “We risk jeopardizing our nation’s food and economic security,” Smucker said then.
With vineyards and orchards here at particular risk, there’s an undercurrent of fear. Penn State Extension officials are working to calm nervous agricultural business owners, in particular.
“People are fearful and angry, so they are looking for anything, and I mean anything, that might help,” Beth Finlay, a Penn State Extension Master Gardener coordinator, told Crable. “We’ve heard of people spraying kerosene and bleach on infestations. One lady insisted spotted lanternflies could be killed by firing shotguns into treetops.”
Please don’t be that lady. Or the folks spraying kerosene and bleach willy-nilly.
And we’re not asking anyone to skip buying a live Christmas tree this year. It’s safe.
We just ask for everyone’s due diligence, for everyone to play their small role in checking Christmas trees — and other outdoor materials — for lanternfly eggs as we work together to combat this potentially devastating invasive species.