What are lanternflies? Everything you need to know about the invasive species that could hit Maryland

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland officials sounded the alarm this week that an invasive species called lanterflies — which has had disastrous effects in Pennsylvania — has been found in the state.

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.

Where do they come from?

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

Since then, lantenflies, having no known natural predators in the Mid-Atlantic region, exploded in population in southeastern Pennsylvania. Experts say that means the bug is all but certain to appear in northeastern Maryland soon. A male spotted lanterfly was recently found in a trap in Cecil County.

Pennsylvania’s agriculture department placed 13 southeastern counties under quarantine this year. 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.

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.

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.

Earlier this year, 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.

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.

Maryland braces for invasion of lanternflies, races to slow their spread »

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.

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 reporter Scott Dance and Jonathan M. Pitts contributed to this article.

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