Invasive insect arrives in Winchester

The spotted lanterfly, an invasive species, has been discovered in Winchester. Courtesy photo

An invasive insect that threatens grapevines and fruit trees has landed in the area.

A professor specializing in the study of insects confirmed a few days ago the reported sighting of a spotted lanternfly at a business in Winchester.

The professor, Douglas Pfeiffer of Virginia Tech, had visited other parts of Virginia in search of the lanternfly, but this was the first time he has been able to verify its presence.

The spotted lanternfly, which feeds on the sap of vines and trees, first came to the United States from China in 2014. Since then, the insects have been found mostly in Pennsylvania. But Pfeiffer said that it has been expanding where it lives since arriving.

“In 2017, it went from six counties to 13 counties in Pennsylvania and one county each in Delaware, New York and, now, Virginia,” said Pfeiffer, who was accompanied in Winchester by other researchers from Virginia Tech and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The lanternfly could potentially pose problems for agricultural growers in the region.

Pfeiffer said that the insect works by removing the sap from trees and vines, a process that can harm grapevines and fruit trees. That, in turn, can cause farms to lose money from losses in fruit production.

“They can weaken a tree, they can cause wilting and presumably a loss of production, too, if it’s over time,” Pfeiffer said.

It is possible to control the spread of the spotted lanternfly. Pfeiffer said that pesticides can be effective at killing the insects.

But because few in the state have personally dealt with the insects, there are a number of things officials and researchers are going to have to grapple with and figure out.

First, they are likely going to have to figure out which pesticides are appropriate to use, and during what time of the year, in order to get rid of the insects.

Pfeiffer said that state officials will likely also apply to the Environmental Protection Agency to have certain pesticides approved as a “special need” for the area.

Dawn Eischen, a senior public relations specialist for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, stated in an email that the department would work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Virginia Cooperative Extension “to determine the best course of action.”

“Our primary goal, for now, is to determine the extent of the presence of this insect so that we can let affected industries know,” Eischen stated. “The sooner we have this information, the better able we, and those affected, will be to manage it.”

Pfeiffer said that researchers and officials will also have to figure out the best way to eradicate the insects from the region.

One idea for doing that, Pfeiffer said, rests on the insects’ favorite plants. Pfeiffer said that the insects need to eat a particular plant called the tree of heaven.

Potentially, Pfeiffer said, people could remove most but not all trees of heaven from their properties.

“Then, when the bugs come back to concentrate on a few trees, treat those trees,” Pfeiffer said. “And then you can have a more significant impact on the population.”

In order to figure out the specifics of how to respond to the presence of the spotted lanternfly, Pfeiffer said he is going to attend a training session in Pennsylvania from people who have dealt with the insects first-hand.

Pfeiffer expects the training will come into use in other parts of the state and the area.

He expects that the insects will spread further  across the state, despite his belief that the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will spray trees that are known to have the insects.

“By removing all the located ones and heading out trees, that is likely to knock them back, but I’m sure there’s still some out there,” Pfeiffer said. “Dealing with any kind of eradication effort, it takes a concerted effort.”