Every year, invasive plants, animals, and pathogens travel into the United States from all over the world. Insects like the spotted lanternfly (SLF) are among the most troublesome invaders. They colonize quickly, disrupt native ecosystems, and potentially cause problems to human health and agriculture.

Armed with a clear understanding of the risks of infestations and knowledge about how to identify and monitor the pests, people can become citizen scientists right in their own backyards. With help from Virginia Tech entomologists, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the local community, localities across the commonwealth are teaming up to ensure these unwelcome visitors bug off.

Get to know the risks

Spotted lanternflies represent a threat to Virginia agriculture, specifically the grape industry, and can potentially affect trees that grow in the state. Much like the recent Brood X periodical cicadas that emerged this spring in Northern Virginia, SLF can heavily infest an area. In the peak lanternfly season, late summer to early fall, thousands can swarm on the sides of buildings or in backyards. Although annoying, the insects pose no threat to humans. The true threat is their economic impact on businesses reliant on import and export of goods between states.

Fears about spreading the SLF infestation have led to quarantine procedures for goods shipped in and out of some infested regions. Anxiety about the invasive insect may limit business transactions where proper control measures are lacking, which could cause economic and overall hardships for businesses and farms in Virginia.

several lantern flies on a shrub branch with researcher in background

Avoid free rides

SLF is an expert hitchhiker, traveling with people in vehicle wheel wells, on lumber, aboard moving pallets, or along with other plant material. The transportation of just one female adult lanternfly can spread the infestation to a new area. To make matters worse, a favorite host plant of SLF is tree of heaven, another invasive species found along many highways across 30 different states. The prevalence of the tree allows SLF to easily find a home in a new area.

Track the spread

Originating from China, SLF was first found in Pennsylvania in 2014. From there, it spread to Winchester, Virginia, where it was discovered by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Although various state agencies quickly took action in an attempt to contain the pest, SLF has spread to at least seven counties in Virginia and has reproduced in each location.

A great way to involve the public, engage volunteers, increase awareness about a new invasive insect, and assist with early detection and notification.”

Mark Sutphin, Frederick County Extension agent

Control the pests

For the past four years, Frederick County Extension Agent Mark Sutphin has headed up the Spotted Lanternfly Citizen Science Detection program. The project works with established Virginia conservation and education programs, such as the Extension Master Gardener and Virginia Master Naturalist volunteers, to monitor and increase awareness of SLF.

Sutphin describes the detection program as “a great way to involve the public, engage volunteers, increase awareness about a new invasive insect, and assist with early detection and notification.”

Sutphin’s colleague, Virginia Tech entomologist Theresa Dellinger, has developed online courses for people looking to learn more about stopping this pest. These modules are available for anyone interested in SLF and offer helpful information on topics ranging from identification of SLF in all its life stages to overview of the insect’s life history and how to control it. The modules can be found online at ento.vt.edu.

Destroy, document, report

Spotted lanternfly is harmless to humans and pets, but if you believe you have found this pest, kill it. Take a picture if you can, and report what you found. Remember that even one female lanternfly could cause a new infestation in your area. Pictures of your insect can be sent to your local Extension office or to the Virginia Tech Insect Identification Lab.

Virginia Cooperative Extension has set up an online form at ento.vt.edu to easily report any suspected lanternfly sightings. Your local Virginia Extension office has free services designed to help the public with issues just like this. Find your local office online at ext.vt.edu.

Intruder Alert

Learn more about how to keep invasive pests out of your community by visiting ento.vt.edu. For even more information, find your local Extension office at ext.vt.edu.

Keep an eye out for bugs

If you have SLF in your area and you are worried about spread, carefully inspect plant materials, wood, debris, metal, plastic, or any other item that has been stored outside before transporting them elsewhere. If you plan to travel out of your area, be sure to check your vehicles so that SLF isn’t able to hitch a ride with you.

Team up with tech

With the help of the local community, Virginia Tech researchers and Extension professionals can make a real impact in protecting our state from further infestation. Dellinger praised the success of the Spotted Lanternfly Citizen Science Detection program: “We couldn’t keep a watchful eye for spotted lanternfly across Virginia without the help of our vigilant Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists, and the public.”

James Mason is the communications coordinator for Virginia Tech’s Department of Entomology.

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