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Tracking the spread of the spotted lanternfly, a successful invader 

In recent years, the eastern United States has been under siege by a large planthopper native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly.

With a seemingly insatiable appetite for both crops and ornamentals, particularly cultivated grapes, this invasive pest has been wreaking havoc on wine-making regions in Pennsylvania and New York – and now threatens important wine hubs on the US Western coast. 

A successful invader 

The spotted lanternfly was accidentally introduced in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 2014, likely alongside shipments of landscaping materials. By 2023, it bad spread to a total of 14 states.

The expansion of this pest has been fueled by its ability to hitch rides undetected on cargo and passenger vehicles. 

The spotted lanternfly has also been promoted by the widespread presence of one of its favorite food sources, the tree of heaven, another invasive species in North America.

Focus of the study 

Researchers and field managers face two main challenges in controlling the spotted lanternfly: determining its current location to target eradication campaigns, and predicting its future locations to invest in prevention practices. 

Both efforts require accurate and extensive knowledge of its past and present distribution. 

However, the data on the spotted lanternfly’s presence is scattered and hard to access due to different practices adopted by state and federal agencies, individual research institutions, and self-reporting tools developed for public use.

How the research was conducted 

To address this issue, researchers at Temple University, led by Dr. Matthew Helmus, have been monitoring the pest’s spread and collecting data from various institutions. 

In a recent study published in the journal NeoBiota, Dr. Helmus, Dr. Sebastiano De Bona, and collaborators from several agencies created a comprehensive dataset of all recorded spotted lanternfly sightings in the US. 

This dataset, derived from control actions, citizen-science projects, and research efforts, contains highly detailed data (at 1 km2 resolution) with yearly information on the presence or absence of spotted lanternflies, the establishment status of the pest, and estimated population density, across over 650,000 observations.

“The lydemapr package will aid researchers, managers, and the public in their understanding, modeling, and managing of the spread of this invasive pest,” said study lead author Dr. De Bona.

Study implications 

The researchers hope that their new tool will facilitate the forecasting of the spotted lanternfly’s spread and foster more effective collaboration between agencies and researchers.

As the spotted lanternfly continues to establish its presence in new territories, the need for effective tools and collaboration becomes increasingly vital. 

More about the spotted lanternfly

The spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) is a colorful, invasive insect native to parts of China, India, Vietnam, and introduced to Korea where it has become a major pest. It is not a fly, despite its name, but a planthopper. 

Adult lanternflies have a distinct appearance with forewings that are grey with black spots and hind wings that are red and black with a white band. They are about an inch long and a half-inch wide.

Life cycle 

The life cycle of the spotted lanternfly involves four nymph stages and an adult stage. The eggs are laid in masses on smooth surfaces, such as tree trunks or stones, and are covered with a mud-like substance. 

The nymphs hatch in the spring and go through four instar stages, molting and growing larger with each stage. 

The first three instars are black with white spots, while the fourth instar nymphs are red and black with white spots. In the late summer or early fall, the nymphs mature into adults, which are active from July to December.

Diet and impact

Spotted lanternflies feed on a wide variety of plants using their piercing-sucking mouthparts to extract sap. 

They have a preference for the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), but also feed on fruit trees, grapevines, hardwoods, and ornamentals. Their feeding damages the plants and leaves them vulnerable to diseases. 

Additionally, as they feed, they excrete a substance called honeydew, which promotes the growth of sooty mold and attracts other pests. 

This results in further damage to the plants and can lead to decreased crop yields and economic losses for farmers.


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