An adult lanternfly.
An adult lanternfly. (Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture)

Lanternflies are back.

The invasive species started creeping into Maryland last year, causing state officials to sound the alarm after it wreaked havoc in Pennsylvania. The Maryland Department of Agriculture said in a statement earlier this month they found small populations of lanternflies in the upper northeast corner of Cecil County and northern border of Harford County while surveying the area.

Advertisement

“Due to its potentially devastating effects on the agriculture industry, treating for this invasive insect now is critical to controlling its spread in Maryland and protecting our state’s agricultural commodities,” Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder said.

Lanternflies were first spotted in Pennsylvania five years ago, causing Maryland officials to be on the lookout because of the close proximity. The invasive species feeds on more than 70 crops and plants, including grapes and oak trees. While Maryland hasn’t seen huge amounts of damage, experts have said in previous years that the lanternfly caused more damage in less time than any invasive insect to arrive in the Mid-Atlantic region

Here’s what experts say Maryland residents need to know:

What is a lanternfly?

The spotted lanternfly, also known as lycorma delicatula, evolves in appearance as it passes through five developmental stages.

During its first few weeks, it resembles a shiny black jewel covered with white spots. The spots are replaced by a brilliant red by midsummer. When the lanternfly reaches adulthood, it’s about an inch long and half an inch wide, and its grayish-brown wings — mottled with black spots — frame a bumblebee-yellow body.

Notoriously poor flyers, lanternflies flash bright red underwings when they hop or run, a practice believed to help ward off potential predators.

The spotted lanternfly is poised to invade Maryland for the first time this spring. The invader has harmed important crops including grapes, fruit trees, hop plants and hardwoods, and left gardens, decks and patio furniture covered in goo.

Where do they come from?

Lanternflies — native to China, Vietnam and parts of India — first appeared in the United States more than five years ago, when a shipment of stone from Asia arrived in Berks County, Pa., with lanternfly eggs attached.

Since then, lanternflies, having no known natural predators in the Mid-Atlantic region, exploded in population in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s agriculture department has placed 14 counties under quarantine as the invasive species continues to spread. Residents of those counties must secure permits before transporting across county lines any of several dozen items, including mulch, tree bark, decorative stone, tractors, barbecues and toys that have been kept outside. So far, Maryland does not have any businesses or homes under quarantine.

The invasive species has started to run so rampant across Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Police Department recently tweeted a plea: stop calling about lanternflies.

“Please do NOT call 911 to report #SpottedLanternfly sightings,” the Sept. 12 tweet said. “While they are a nuisance, they are not a police issue.”

Why are lanternflies a big deal?

The spotted lanternfly appears to have caused more damage in less time than any invasive insect to arrive in the Mid-Atlantic region, and it’s proliferating more rapidly than the researchers trying to learn about it can handle.

It feasts on more host plants than expected, reproduces more quickly than anticipated, and faces no known native predators. It also latches onto a wide variety of hard surfaces, allowing it to travel to parts unknown aboard cars, trucks and trains.

The damage to those species starts with the lanternfly’s feeding style. Rather than consuming leaves, bark or fruit, the lanternfly uses its specialized mouth parts to penetrate a plant’s exterior, then sucks out the sweet, life-giving sap inside. This badly weakens the plants, leaving them vulnerable as winter looms.

Advertisement

For instance, the lanternfly robs grapes of so much sweetness that farmers can’t bring them to market. And the insects’ gooey excretion, or “honeydew,” attracts insects and a form of sooty mold that can finish off the already weakened plants. It also sticks to houses, decks, railings and patios in infested areas.

In 2018, the threat of a lanternfly invasion factored into the failure of a proposal to ban a pesticide in Maryland that has been linked to autism and developmental delays in children.

But earlier this spring and summer, the state’s agriculture department found a “small population” of the invasive species at multiple sites in the upper northeast corner of Cecil County and along the northern border of Harford County while surveying the area.

What’s being done in Maryland right now to treat lanternflies?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with the state and a contractor to treat the invasive species in a quarter-mile radius in parts of Cecil and Harford counties.

There are two treatment types: herbicide and insecticide. Which treatment is given depends upon the size of the tree where the lanternflies are found. Both the herbicide and the insecticide have been found to have no or very minimal health effects on humans and pets, the state agriculture department said.

Anybody who’s property is undergoing treatment is notified prior to spraying. The department said it’s expected the treatment will be finished by the end of September before picking back up again in the spring.

What do they eat?

The pest’s favorite host plant is the ailanthus altissima, a deciduous sumac also known as the tree of heaven. This plant, also native to China, first arrived in the Philadelphia area in 1784 and has since proliferated in much of the United States. Researchers say it’s only one of 70 species on which the lanternfly is willing to gather to feed and reproduce.

Spotted lanternflies feed on more than 70 types of plants and crops, including grapes, hops, apples and peaches as well as oak and pine trees.

What should I do if I think I see a lanternfly?

Experts are asking Maryland residents to become informed on lanternflies and to report sightings early in hopes of tamping down on a possibly disastrous invasion.

Residents can report sightings or view photos of the lanternfly on the University of Maryland Extension’s home and garden information center website.

Sightings can also be reported to the Maryland Department of Agriculture by calling 410-841-5920 or by emailing DontBug.MD@maryland.gov.

Residents can kill lanternflies by scraping egg masses off hard surfaces, double-bagging them and throwing them away, or by placing eggs into alcohol or hand sanitizer to kill them.

Advertisement

It’s encouraged to take a photo of the lanternfly, collect it, put it in a plastic bag and then freeze it. Then, call the state agriculture department. Dead samples from any life stage can be sent to the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection and Weed Management Program at 50 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, MD 21401.

Experts also encourage residents to consider monitoring or getting rid of tree of heaven, which is itself an invasive species to which lanternflies gravitate.

Baltimore Sun reporters Scott Dance, McKenna Oxenden and Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement