Michigan experts: Invasive bug a sizable threat

Carol Thompson
Lansing State Journal
An adult spotted lanternfly at Michigan State University. The insects, native to southeast Asia, are moving across the East Coast.

Lansing — By some standards the bugs are pretty, with speckled outer wings, long legs curved delicately inward, a bold splotch of red that flashes when they fly.

In Michigan, they only appear this way: Dead, contained and in expert hands.

It’s unclear how long that will last. The insects are making their way across the East Coast, feasting on the insides of trees, carpeting infested forests in sticky secretions and threatening multi-million dollar agriculture and forestry industries.

They are hundreds of miles away, but with their tendency to lay eggs on vehicles, that doesn’t matter.

The question isn’t if the spotted lanternfly will get to Michigan. It’s when.

Spotted lanternflies, formally, Lycorma delicatula, are native to southeast Asia. The insects landed in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014, and have since slowly radiated outward to New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, New York and Maryland. Those states are busy with trucking, traffic and tourism, three things that could hasten spotted lanternflies’ spread throughout the U.S.

“This is one of those very scary situations where it’s hard to say where they’re going to show up next,” said Joanne Foreman, an invasive species expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Unless everyone takes this very seriously, what can we really do?”

Foreman is among the ranks of entomologists, farmers and state officials mobilizing to teach Michigan residents about spotted lanternflies.

They hope a strong, early outreach campaign will prevent the bug’s arrival for as long as possible, or will help experts detect its presence early enough to contain it before it spreads throughout the state and threatens agricultural crops worth almost $350 million annually.

Spotted lanternflies in Pennsylvania seem attracted to the plants Michiganians cherish — like wine grapes, cherries and hops — but they don’t discriminate. They will eat the innards of practically any woody plant.

To feed, the insects pierce tree bark to slurp the sap as it runs upward while excreting a sweet, sticky waste scientists call “honeydew.”

“People who live in the infested area in Pennsylvania say when the adults are out feeding they become prisoners in their own homes,” said John Bedford, a recently retired Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pest specialist. “If you get underneath these trees when they’re feeding, it’s like it’s raining.”

“Once that honeydew gets on an object a black, sooty mold grows,” Bedford said. “That’s going to be all over the grapes. That’s going to be all over the apples, and it also will cover any object that is under an infested plant.”