By GRACE KELLY/ecoRI News staff
A tiny, winged invader is making its way up the Mid-Atlantic Coast. Rhode Island is holding out, but only just so. The spotted lanternfly has already reached other states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York — and experts are worried that it could make its way here.
“There was one interception in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut,” said Cynthia Kwolek, senior environmental planner at the Rhode Island Department of Management’s Division of Agriculture. “An interception is when they find an insect but they don’t find any additional insects or infestations. But it’s usually an indicator that there are shipments going to this area from the infested area, and they usually find more infestations within a few years after an interception.”
Hailing from Asia, the spotted lanternfly made its first documented U.S. appearance in 2014, when a female snuck onto some imported building materials that were brought to Berks County, Pa.
“They are very good travelers, and their egg masses are relatively inconspicuous, so they lay their eggs on pretty much anything,” Kwolek said. “So if somebody is moving to another area from the infested area, they might not notice that they have egg masses laid in some of their tire wells, or in the undercarriage of the car.”
With the spotted lantern fly comes swarming, sap sucking, and general unpleasantry.
“They swarm and aggregate on trees,” Kwolek said. “So there could be a tree with 500 adult insects. They also excrete honeydew, which is a byproduct of their feeding from the sap in the trees. It’s sticky and can attract ants and wasps.”
Kwolek also noted that this can be a nuisance for homeowners. During one of her visits to Pennsylvania, she saw backyard decks coated with the sticky substance.
Another issue the Asian insects bring is their choice of food. While their main target is another invasive species, the tree of heaven, the spotted lanternfly doesn’t stop feeding there. They seem to also like grapevines.
“In the past five years in Pennsylvania, they’ve seen a reduction in grape yield,” Kwolek said. “And here in Rhode Island, we have a couple hot spot vineyards that are great tourist attractions and if this insect was to come here and target those vineyards, it could be harmful to the growers’ income and our tourist economy.”
While there has yet to be a sighting of a spotted lanternfly in Rhode Island, the Division of Agriculture is hosting information sessions — the next one is expected to be held in January — to inform the public on what these tiny invaders look like and what to do if one is spotted. In the meantime, Kwolek asks that the public keep an eye out.
“If you see one, take a photo, and if possible, try to catch and freeze the insect, and then we would be able to identify it,” she said.
To report a sighting of an invasive species in Rhode Island, click here.