Lanternfly dog

Toby, a Small Münsterländer being trained to detect spotted lanternflies, is seen during a live training session.

THE ISSUE

“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,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Sean Sauro reported for the Sept. 22 edition. The invasive, crop-destroying insects — which have no natural predators in Pennsylvania — are a huge threat to the state’s agriculture industry and also a disgusting nuisance. Newer measures to help combat lanternflies include testing the use of a native fungus and training dogs to sniff out lanternfly egg masses.

“Egg smashing” is not something we were actively planning to advocate for in an editorial this year. But here we are.

Thanks, 2020.

The lanternfly problem has gotten markedly worse this year. We don’t need to tell you that, of course. You need only look in yards, on lamp posts, on picnic tables, on windshields — everywhere.

These bugs have made it less fun to be outdoors and, far worse, are a growing threat to Pennsylvania’s economy, which has become more fragile because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state Department of Agriculture website warns that, if uncontrolled, this sap-sucking plant hopper could cost Pennsylvania $324 million annually and threaten 2,800 jobs. Especially at risk are fruit growers, plant nurseries and the timber industry.

Unfortunately, the status of the lanternfly population in Pennsylvania at the moment is definitely “uncontrolled.”

By the end of August, there had been more than 6,000 lanternfly sightings in Lancaster County this year, Sauro reported, citing state figures. That number was up 102% from the same period in 2019.

Statewide, sightings are up 71%.

This year’s larger lanternfly population could be partially the result of a mild winter and dry summer that helped the hatch-and-survival rates, Penn State University bug researcher and lanternfly expert Heather Leach told Sauro.

We understand if this all seems too discouraging. With everything else that’s negatively affecting us in 2020, lanternflies seem to be a bug too far.

But despair not.

Some help is on the way.

“Experts have a new tool to combat the Asian insects — dogs trained to sniff out lanternfly eggs so they can be destroyed,” Sauro reported in the Sept. 29 LNP.

It’s already our view that dogs are wonderful. But this is another example of them going above and beyond the call of duty.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center have high praise for the sniffing abilities of our canine friends, who have 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,” the center stated in a news release.

That’s important. Humans have gotten better at identifying the visible lanternfly egg masses — a fresh mass looks like a smear of wet putty and an older mass looks like dried, cracked mud. They’re about an inch long and each can contain 30 to 50 eggs, which will hatch in the spring if not destroyed.

But these egg masses can be found anywhere: camping equipment, tarps, plant containers, firewood, storage sheds, shutters, fences, sandboxes and window awnings. It’s a lot to try to detect.

That’s where dogs might be a huge help.

Penn Vet researchers have “taught the dogs to distinguish the masses’ scent from other objects. Then, using a reward-based system, the dogs also were taught to locate hidden eggs and to signal when they are found,” Sauro explained. “Similar methods have been used to teach dogs to sniff out gas leaks, bed bug infestations and even cancer cells.” (Because their impressiveness knows no limits, dogs also now are starting to be deployed to detect COVID-19 in people.)

The hope is that lanternfly egg-seeking dogs will root out the toughest hiding places, such as within tractor-trailer wheel wells.

An 18-month-old German shepherd named Lucky will pioneer the program for the state Department of Agriculture.

“The department plans to put Lucky’s skills to the test in a variety of situations such as roadside stops and industrial property and goods inspections,” said Shannon Powers, a department spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, Sauro also reported that state researchers are testing the use of beauveria bassiana, a native fungus that has been known to attack and kill lanternflies.

The fungus can be spread — including by airplane — onto threatened crops, including at wine-producing vineyards, Penn State’s Leach said. But its overall effectiveness is likely to be limited. It’s not a magic bullet.

So in addition to all of these aforementioned efforts, we can and must continue to play the biggest role in battling this invasive species.

We must smash the lanternflies and ruthlessly seek out their eggs.

Amanda Goldsmith, of the Lancaster County Conservation District, described what we must do with any eggs we discover: Scrape them into a bag before stomping them or smothering them in alcohol or hand sanitizer.

“Do not just scrape them onto the ground — it may not work and the eggs still may hatch,” Goldsmith told Sauro.

Last autumn, when addressing the lanternfly egg-laying season, we wrote about the novelty of citizens armed with fly swatters and sticky tape; of zappers and vacuums; of anti-lanternfly propaganda posters; and even of an inspirational ballad — “Die, Die, Die, Spotted Lanternfly.”

This year, we’ll keep it simpler.

It’s smashing time.