This Voracious, Unstoppable Bug Is Killing Off Vineyards

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.In Amityville, Pennsylvania, 10 acres of grapevines sprawl across the family-owned Manatawny Creek Winery. Owner Darvin Levengood is no stranger to vineyard pests. But he was met with calamity in the fall of 2017 when grape pickers were bombarded by swarms of a new invasive insect, the Spotted Lanternfly. Winery guests couldn’t drink on the open porch without finding the bug, and its “honeydew,” in their glass.“It’s a misnomer,” Levengood said of the sweet-sounding residue. “Honeydew is a perfectly good fruit. This is nothing more than poop.”
Since the bug was first identified in 2014, it has been devastating vineyards and orchards in the Northeast. Lycorma delicatula, named for the lantern-shaped body of the adult that appears to glow under its dull wings, is used in traditional medicine in China, its native land. In the US, it was quickly considered one of the most destructive invasive species in 150 years.The Spotted Lanternfly is unlike other invasive species in its voraciousness and indiscriminate palate, with a diet that includes at least 70 plants, said Heather Leach, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University—the mothership of lanternfly research.
Apple, nectarine, almond, and cherry trees are among its choice snacks, along with other fruit-bearers like plum and apricot. Other woody favorites include pine, oak, walnut, and poplar trees. But the lanternfly is a vinophile, and prefers grapes above all else. The effects have been devastating for the Pennsylvania wine industry , where some growers have reported a 90 percent grape loss due to lanternfly damage.

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Pennsylvania is an agricultural mecca and the country’s top hardwood producer. The grape, tree-fruit, hardwood, and nursery industries collectively contribute nearly $18 billion to the state’s economy. According to the US Department of Agriculture, pretty much all those industries are in danger as a result of the spread of the lanternfly. Despite heavy quarantines across 14 Pennsylvania counties, the insect is on the move, hitchhiking on vehicles and luggage, and parasailing by swarm on breezes, sometimes showing up in vineyards by the thousands. It has been spotted in Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York, sprawling 6,900 square miles from its original US landing spot.
Invasive species have been a problem since the first ships began moving plants and animals to the Americas, where native flora and fauna had no protection against them. In the early 20th century, Dutch elm disease, a fungus from Asia that is spread by elm bark beetles, killed 75 percent of native elms. Walnut twig beetles from the Southwest started an outbreak of “thousand canker disease” in 2010, causing the long, slow death of black walnut trees all over the US. The emerald ash borer, native to Asia, has been devouring ash trees from the Midwest to Pennsylvania since 2002, and the brown marmorated stink bug, also from Asia, has eaten its way through orchards in 43 states to date.