ERIE, Pa. — Your favorite glass of wine might soon be threatened by the region’s latest invasive species: the spotted lanternfly.
Spotted lanternflies feed on sap from plants and trees which threatens to kill them. One of lanternfly’s favorite snacks, in particular, is grape vines.
Erie County in northwestern Pennsylvania accounts for 72% of grape production in the state, and the Lake Erie Region, consisting of New York and Pennsylvania, is the second largest grape-growing region outside of California. There isn’t a confirmed population in Erie County yet, but in coming years, an invasion may be on the horizon and wineries could be the victim.
Know the enemy. Spotted lanternflies are an invasive species native to China and were first spotted in Berks County, in southeastern Pennsylvania in September of 2014.
In order to eat, spotted lanternflies suck sap from plants and trees, which poses the potential to kill victim plants. Their favorite foods are the tree of heaven and grapevines, but they also target birch, maple, black walnut and fruit trees. Over the last nine years, they have taken over the northeast, migrating to neighboring states like New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, parts of Virginia and across the southwestern part of Pennsylvania.
According to Megan Luke, Erie County Penn State Extension viticulture and tree fruit educator, lanternflies have spread so rapidly over the years because they are hitchhikers, using modes of transportation to travel.
“They can grab onto cars, they can (be in) that space where your windshield wipers are, your bumpers, your wheel wells. They can grab onto any little ledge and hang on,” Luke said.
Luke believes the initial spread of lanternflies can be attributed to trains going in and out of ground zero and into neighboring cities. To create more awareness, she has been going to events around Pennsylvania to educate the public about lanternflies’ travel methods, especially with grape harvest and tourist season in Erie County on the horizon.
Threat to grapevines
Vineyard owner Nick Mobilia has been going to meetings hosted by the Department of Agriculture and Penn State Extension in an effort to plan ahead.
“You don’t want to wait until they’re here and say ‘Oh what are we going to do?’ We need to figure this out before they get here,” said Mobilia, owner of Arrowhead Wine Cellars and Mobilia Fruit Farms in Erie County.
He’s seen what happens when you don’t have a plan. His friend, Calvin Beekman, of Beekman Orchard, in Berks County, had 45 acres of grape vineyards near where the first lanternfly population was found.
Five years after the spotted lanternfly was first discovered in his orchard, Beekman was ripping out his dead vines.
“It was a slow death, and finally (the vines) just came out and started to grow about six inches and collapsed,” Beekman said. “That was the end of it, there was no more.”
Beekman said pesticides worked at first until the lanternfly numbers grew so high, that “you could sweep them up and fill up bushel baskets.”
Lanternflies feed off of trees and wild grapes and live in wooded areas that often surround vineyards. Beekman Orchards, like many, was surrounded by woods. The proximity allowed lanternflies to move into his vineyards in waves that wouldn’t stop coming.
Although pesticides can manage a small population, a large population can be detrimental. Recent findings from Plant Direct, a plant science journal, found that 60 and fewer lanternflies on a vine may have minimal effects, but full-blown infestations of 70 to 200 lanternflies per vine can kill grapevines.
Beekman said it wasn’t until the third year that he noticed a significant change in his vines.
“It looked like you took a firehose and drenched the plants. That’s how much they were taking the fluids and excreting them,” he said. “They were taking the nutrients from the plants. The plants didn’t overwinter. And that’s when we started to see the decline.”
The lanternflies suckomg the sap out of vines weakens the plants going into winter, and in turn, make it more difficult for vines to survive and produce next year’s harvest. In 2018, Beekman ripped out his vineyards because they were completely dead.
The cost of upkeep
Lanternflies aren’t that hard to kill, according to Luke. Although they can jump far, which can make it more difficult to kill them, vineyards can use pesticides and even soap to keep them away from crops.
However, going from spraying pesticides seven to eight times a growing season to every three or four days is tripling the amount of pesticides used in an average year. The cost of upkeep alone can deter farmers from continuing to grow grapes.
“That gets expensive and time-consuming and you just blow through everything that you’re gonna make with your harvest by just trying to keep the bugs out of them,” Mobilia said.
Because lanternflies are hitchhikers, the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association developed a program that requires producers of goods to have licenses to move in and out of non-quarantine and quarantine zones — these zones being counties which the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture deemed to have a confirmed lanternfly population.
Mobilia, who is licensed, frequently checks his truck when moving his goods from Erie County to quarantined zones. He’s also educated all of his other drivers on how to properly inspect their vehicles. The PDA also has lanternfly traps around Arrowhead Wine Cellars and neighboring vineyards and checks them every other week.
Another concern that may require future innovation in the engineering sector is the ability to sort out lanternflies from grapes when using a harvester.
Many wineries in the area use a machine called a grape harvester to shake the grapes from the vines into bins. Since they aren’t handpicked grapes, lanternflies could end up in the bin of grapes, which in turn will require additional sorting, or may affect the quality of the grapes if they are processed with the bugs.
“That’s where we need to figure out if we need to do something beyond what we’re doing now. By putting some type of a little device where the grapes fall through a small hole and then the big bugs just fall off the end or something,” Mobilia said, about adopting features to prevent lanternfly “contamination.”
Currently, Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center are working on toxicology research to test whether lanternflies in grape bins pose a safety threat to grape products after being processed. PSU and Cornell University are also working on a host of other research to determine different ways to manage lanternfly populations that would reduce the risk to grapevines.
Although no confirmed lanternfly populations are in Erie County and other populous grape-growing regions in Ohio yet, there are confirmed populations in Buffalo, New York and New Castle, Pennsylvania., which both sit on major highways leading up to Erie County.
(Reporter Liz Partsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-837-3419.)
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