Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Spotted lanternflies destroying crops in southeast Pa.

A spotted lanternfly
(Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture photo)
Southeastern Pennsylvania is ground zero for an outbreak of an invasive species that's destroying farmers' crops. The spotted lanternfly was first sighted in 2014 and has now spread to 13 counties, including Philadelphia, and has turned up in small pockets of Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland. The native of Southeast Asia, doesn't carry human diseases or bite people, but damages plants by sucking sap. That can hamper photosynthesis and weaken the plants. Also, lanternflies excrete a sticky fluid called honeydew that coats the surface of fruits and plants and promotes mold, Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

It's unclear how much damage lanternflies have caused, though some farmers have reported to state authorities that the pest has destroyed entire fields of crops. Berks County farmer Calvin Beekman, who has 42 acres of wine grapes, said that lanternflies decimated them, even after he sprayed with insecticides. "Last year, he harvested 62 tons, losing an estimated $100,000. This year he expects just four tons at best," Lucia reports. "In addition to sucking the life out of the grapes, the lanternflies consumed nutrients their vines depend on, weakening some to the point where Beekman said they did not survive last winter. Other plants that weathered the cold months didn’t grow properly, some with stunted shoots."

Though the lanternflies largely spared Beekman's 80 acres of apple trees, the flies are considered a threat to fruit trees, grapes, hops and hardwood timber. And because they are less picky about their diet, they could do more damage than pests like the emerald ash borer, Lucia reports.

The state and federal governments are taking the threat seriously: "Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture put forward $17.5 million to help combat the lanternfly in Pennsylvania," Lucia reports. "This money was in addition to state funds of $3 million in the most recent budget. In prior years, government spending to fight the pest in Pennsylvania was in the ballpark of $1.2 million."

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