It’s a cold, blustery morning on the western branch of Keuka Lake. A gray pick-up with an orange utility light on top of the cab rolls to a stop in the parking lot of Hunt Country Vineyards. Tyler Johnson and Payton Iacobucci climb out, dressed in warm jackets, high boots and yellow safety vests, and crunch their way across the gravel.
Art Hunt, the owner of the winery, greets them. He gives them a printed map of the farm boundaries and a gator to use. Johnson and Iacobucci thank him. Then they climb into the gator and head off to look for spotted lanternfly.
The partners cruise along the perimeter of the vineyards, scanning the trees. Johnson points. They come to a stop, get out and head into the treeline towards a cluster of sumacs. Johnson and Iacobucci are primarily scouting for tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, which the adult laternfly prefers for laying its eggs. But this plant-hopping insect has also shown an attraction to trees like sumac and black walnut.
“I’m just looking around the area at the base of the trees to see if there are any spotted lanternfly or egg sacks,” says Iacobucci. This is the time of year when adults are flying about, looking for spots to place their eggs; they’re obvious and easy to notice. But the egg masses can be more difficult. They’ve been described as looking like “spackle” or “mud” or “waxy residue.” Over the winter, the waxy look begins to dry and crack, and the masses become even harder to find. The mud-like covering might fall away completely, leaving just the tiny pod-like eggs exposed.
“They don’t fly very far or very well,” says Johnson about the lanternfly. “So what they do is they climb to the top of the tree and then kind of float down to their new host tree. Right now they’re in the later life cycle. So we’re looking for mostly adults that are going to be hanging out at the base of the tree or crawling up.”
Johnson and Iacobucci finish their inspection and step back out of the woods. Johnson snaps a photo of the sumacs with his smartphone. He then starts typing away on the screen.
“We’re using an app thats connected to the New York DEC,” Johnson says. Each time they inspect a tree or group of trees, they open the app and mark that point with GPS coordinates. They upload a photo and enter a description of the trees.
“Every time you see us stop, that’s what we’re doing,” he says.
They didn’t find any sign of spotted lanternfly around this particular group of sumacs. If they had, they would either trap the adult or collect the eggs, then contact their supervisor who would immediately come to their location to put another pair of eyes on the specimen. That specimen would then be rushed to a lab for definitive identification.
“If at all possible, we’d like to get the sample alive,” says Johnson.
He and Iacobucci climb back into the gator. They continue rolling along the perimeter, looking for another possible host.
This same process has been playing out at different locations all around Keuka Lake ever since a live adult spotted lanternfly was found on private property in Penn Yan: teams of two have been deployed to look for any sign of this invasive insect. The visits are part of a coordinated effort between New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Agriculture and Markets to prevent the spotted lanternfly from becoming established in the state.
“We commonly call invasive species a slow moving fire,” says Justin Perry, Chief of the Bureau of Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health for the DEC, and co-commander of the state’s Spotted Lanternfly Incident Command. “If we don’t control this pest, it is a natural disaster similar to fire or a tornado or any other situation that has a huge impact to both the environment and to us.”
Around Keuka Lake, the fear is that as this insect hops from host to host, it will eventually land in vineyards. Spotted Lanternfly feeds on a variety of plants, including grapes, apples, cherries and hops. Over time and as the population increases, their feeding behavior can weaken the vines. Even more immediately, the honeydew liquid these insects secrete causes the growth of sooty mold, which could contaminate and ruin grapes.
Spotted laternfly is a native to China and was first identified as an invasive species in South Korea in 2004. It has been identified as a pest on grapes in both of these countries, and in South Korea it has caused economic damage in vineyards. In 2014, spotted lanternfly was found in Pennsylvania for the first time; by 2016, the insect had already caused damage to that state’s vineyards.
There are over 39,000 acres of grapes in New York, with roughly 6,000 acres in Yates County. A 2012 report prepared for the New York Wine and Grape Foundation put the economic impact of New York-grown grapes at $4.8 billion. In Yates County there are currently 36 wineries. According to a 2010 report from the Yates County Chamber of Commerce, these local wineries produced retail sales totaling $17.9 million, which in turn produced approxiamtely $700,000 in sales taxes or eight percent of the county’s total sales tax revenue for that year. The impact spotted lanternfly could have on the local economy is significant.
“The best way to prevent this bug from establishing itself is to make sure you find it before it has a chance to establish itself,” says Perry.
This is why the state of New York has established an emergency quarantine on specific items coming from Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. This includes:
• Any living life stage of the spotted lanternfly.
• Brush, debris, bark or yard waste.
• Landscaping, remodeling or construction waste.
• Logs, stumps or any tree parts.
• Firewood of any species.
• Packing materials, such as wood crates or boxes.
• All plants and plant parts, including but not limited to nursery stock, green lumber, fruit and produce and other material living, dead, cut, fallen (including stumps), roots, branches, mulch, and composted and uncomposted chips.
• Outdoor household articles, including, but not limited to, recreational vehicles, lawn tractors and mowers, mower decks, grills, grill and furniture covers, tarps, mobile homes, tile, stone, deck boards, mobile fire pits, and any equipment associated with these items, and trucks or vehicles not stored indoors.
• Any other article, commodity, item or product that has or that is reasonably believed to be infested with or harboring spotted lanternfly.
The Department of Agriculture and Markets will be operating compliance checks at different locations around the state. The quarantine requires certificates of inspection issued from the impacted states on all these regulated items to ensure they are free and clear of spotted lanternfly. Vehicles carrying items without the necessary paperwork can be turned back and the owners can be fined. While the current focus of enforcement has been on commercial traffic, the quarantine also applies to individuals.
Perry says the public can play a major role in finding this insect. The adults are not cold hardy and will be dying off in the coming months. But the egg clusters will remain. Individuals can check various host trees growing on their property, as well as their own vehicles, outdoor equipment, outdoor furniture and building walls.
“There seems to be an attraction to rusty metal,” says Perry. “We’re not sure whether that’s a color or just a surface condition that’s conducive for them to lay eggs. But there seems to be a correlation between rusty surfaces and the spotted lanternfly finding those surfaces and laying eggs.”
Whether you find an adult or eggs, Perry says to collect and keep them. Capture the specimen in a ziplock bag or sealable container; put the specimen in your freezer or douse it with isopropyl alcohol to kill it, if necessary. Then report your find to the DEC. It’s essential for the DEC and Department of Agriculture and Markets to have actual specimens in order to verify where this invasive insect has spread to.
“Thankfully at this time, those survey crews have not found any established populations of spotted lanternfly,” says Perry, referring to the efforts around Keuka Lake.
After two hours of searching, Johnson and Iacobucci complete their inspection of Hunt Country Vineyards — and, indeed, find no sign of spotted lanternfly. They climb back into their truck and head off to the next location.
The survey efforts around Keuka Lake ended last week, but additional searches are continuing in other parts of the state. It will be up to the public to remain vigilant throughout the winter and into the spring. Any suspected evidence of spotted lanternfly should be reported by email to email@example.com. Time and staff permitting, additional surveys may be carried out this year.