States urging residents to be on the lookout for destructive invasive species

Cwieders/iStockBy MEREDITH DELISO, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Officials across multiple states are urging people to be on the lookout for an invasive species that can have a devastating impact on agriculture.

In recent weeks, officials in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey have been sounding the alarm about the spotted lanternfly, which currently is in its prime feeding season and can wreak havoc on crops.

For the first time, live spotted lanternflies were also found on Staten Island, New York, state authorities announced Friday.

The first live find is “concerning,” Basil Seggos, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner, said in a statement, adding that the goal is to “prevent it from further entering New York state and limiting any serious threats to our natural resources.”

The spotted lanternfly feeds on more than 70 plant species, which can make the plants vulnerable to disease and attacks from other insects. A Penn State study released earlier this year found that the invasive species cost the Pennsylvania economy about $50 million, including $29 million in direct costs on growers and forest landowners.

People can help limit the spotted lanternfly’s spread by reporting sightings to their state agriculture department or by simply squashing the bug.

The inch-long insect is distinguished by the reddish, polka-dotted wings of adult spotted lanternflies, which mature in late July and August. People should also be on the lookout for the insect’s eggs, which adults begin laying in September. Egg masses are about 1 inch long and resemble mud. To kill them, officials recommend using alcohol, bleach or hand sanitizer, or double bagging them and throwing them away.

People can also help prevent the spread of the spotted lanternfly by not inadvertently transporting the insect or its eggs. Native to Asia, the insect is notorious for hitchhiking and primarily spread through human activity.

Dozens of counties across multiple states are currently under a form of quarantine due to the insect, including 26 in Pennsylvania, eight in New Jersey, two in Maryland and one in Delaware. Typically that means anyone who travels in a quarantined county is asked to inspect their vehicle, luggage, gear, outdoor items and clothing for the spotted lanternfly or its eggs before leaving. It may also mean businesses are required to have a permit to move certain items within or from quarantine zones.

“Its ability to travel easily on any mode of transportation has allowed it to spread,” New Jersey Department of Agriculture Plant Industry Division Director Joe Zoltowski said last week in an update on the state’s actions to eradicate the species. “We are asking residents to do their part by eliminating this bug whenever possible.”

The insect prefers the tree-of-heaven, another invasive species. Since 2018, more than 200,000 trees-of-heaven have been treated on almost 19,000 acres in New Jersey, state officials said last week. Infestations are primarily along the state’s border with Pennsylvania, which had the first reported sighting of the spotted lanternfly in the U.S. Since first detected in Berks County in 2014, the insect has been found in more than a third of the state’s counties.

So far this year, sightings have increased dramatically in Pennsylvania. According to local reports, the state Department of Agriculture received 33,015 reports through July 17, compared to 5,603 for the same period last year: a nearly 500% increase. It is uncertain if the rise is due to an increase in the insect’s population or an increase in the public’s awareness, officials said. Reports may also be mistaken.

Given its proximity to infestations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, New York is at a high risk for its own, state authorities warned. Individual spotted lanternflies have been spotted in more than a dozen counties, but no infestations have been confirmed in New York, according to the state DEC.

Delaware also has been concerned about infestations this year, as a mild winter saw a high hatch rate of spotted lanternfly nymphs, officials said in late June.

The pest has also been detected in Virginia and West Virginia. Most states are considered at risk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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