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Invasive Spotted Lanternflies Spread, But Winchester Still Ground Zero

An invasive species of insect is spreading across Virginia, threatening grape vines and other crops. 

[ambi - crickets, distant industrial sounds]

The Fort Collier Civil War site in Winchester is essentially ground zero for Virginia's infestation of spotted lanternflies. The insects, which are native to Asia, can be found swarming all over tree trunks there.

MARK SUTPHIN: They're feeding on the sap and they excrete a bunch of waste. Their poop is called honeydew, and so that coats everything around. Then a fungus called sooty mold starts growing on that, and that's what we see on these surfaces, on the plants around the tree trunks that's turning everything black.

Mark Sutphin is an extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension's Frederick County office.

SUTPHIN: We also see a lot of other insects start to become attracted to these areas. They're coming for the sugar water in the honeydew. They're coming for the oozing sap and everything that's fermenting; you see lots of yellow jackets, a few European hornets, some ants and other insects. So for this situation in the backyard, it's not really a pleasant experience.

HAGI: Yeah, and there's kind of like a musty smell in the air, is that them?

SUTPHIN: Yeah, it's the fermentation of the honeydew and sooty mold and the oozing sap. At times it will smell stronger, like vinegar.

The bugs were first identified in Frederick County in 2018. The adults are about an inch long, with pale gray wings that have black spots and are rounded at the ends. Usually tucked underneath, their hind wings are a crimson red. They're believed to have been brought to Virginia on a shipment of landscaping stone from Berks County, Pennsylvania, where the U.S. infestation originated.

SUTPHIN: Spotted lanternfly really is a pest on multiple fronts. It's an agriculture pest primarily, and our greatest concern is going to be for grape growers, so, wine grape growers. The Virginia vineyard industry is on high alert and concerned about this pest. We've just seen the first positive vineyards here in Frederick County this year.

Spotted lanternflies also feed on a number of trees, including red maple and black walnut. And they're good at getting around.

SUTPHIN: There's a lot of industry in this region. A lot of goods are moved up and down the I-81 and I-66 corridor, Pennsylvania interstate 70 where there's infestation up there, too. So it's unfortunately a good hitchhiker really at all life stages.

Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, and Warren are currently under a quarantine meant to contain the infestation. So business owners in those localities who transport products like lumber or outdoor household items outside the quarantine area have to go through training from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and inspect their shipments for any spotted lanternflies or their eggs.

SUTPHIN: We would ask that the private citizens and residents adhere to the same kind of best management practices as well … Right now we've got the adults laying eggs, and the egg masses contain 20 to 30 eggs. Those get laid, a lot of times, on the underside of horizontal branches … rusty metal, a fencepost, an outside bench or grill, patio furniture.

Outside of the quarantine area, smaller breeding populations have been identified in Lynchburg and the counties of Shenandoah, Page, Rockingham, Augusta, Rockbridge, Prince William, and Albemarle. One of the most helpful things landowners can do, he said, is to remove an invasive tree species from your property that's the lanternflies' favorite host.

SUTPHIN: Tree-of-heaven, Ailanthus altissima is the scientific name, sometimes people will also call that paradise tree. I've also heard it called by a lot of locals in this region 'shumac.'

Not to be confused with the native species of sumac. With tree-of-heaven --

SUTPHIN: That can be one difficult species to deal with. And that's one we wouldn't recommend just cutting or mowing. Typically you're going to have to include some herbicide in your management plan, otherwise they will sprout aggressively from the cut stump and the entire root system.

If you see spotted lanternflies anywhere in Virginia outside of the quarantine area, contact your local extension agent and let them know.

For WMRA News, I'm Randi B. Hagi.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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