Home Wine Business Editorial Battlelines of the Eastern Front of the War on the Spotted Lanternfly

Battlelines of the Eastern Front of the War on the Spotted Lanternfly

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By Paul Vigna

May 6th – Seven years since the Spotted Lanternfly was discovered in a quarry around 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia, it remains a time bomb to the Mid-Atlantic wine industry and a potential threat as far west as California.

A photo of Setter Ridge winery’s Stonehedge vineyard in Berks County. This photo of his Pinot Noir vines was taken in fall 2017. According to owner Rich Blair: ‘The picture shows a vineyard in distress in mid-September – grapevines should never be red; they go from green to gold in the fall. The distress is caused by the spotted lanternfly sucking the sap out of the shoots. These vines do not have enough strength to make it through the winter.’ By the following year, the vines had died and had to be replaced. (Provided)

That’s not to say that the almost $35 million invested by the feds and Pennsylvania through 2020 to control the invasive pest, and the research work by Penn State Extension to understand its behavior, hasn’t had any effects, because it has. Predators are being identified and strategies are being implemented to try to prevent what happened to winery owner Rich Blair’s 9-acre vineyard, which was wiped out in 2017-18, and to Calvin Beekman’s 55,000 grapevines that were destroyed over a period of three years. Both Berks County businesses are located close to where the pest, which likely arrived from Southeast Asia in containers, was first found.

Still, they continue to spread, with Pennsylvania adding eight counties to its quarantine area in March. In all, 34 of the state’s 67 counties are included, and the spread largely parallels the state’s interstate system.

“We know it won’t fly to California, but it does fly farther than we originally thought it could,” says Shannon Powers, press secretary for the state’s ag department. “It travels primarily by hopping or crawling, especially the nymphs,” hopping a ride on the undersides or bumpers of vehicles.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture expanded the state’s spotted lanternfly quarantine zone on March 10, 2021. (PA Department of Agriculture image)

Beyond the damage to vines, the spotted lanternfly feeds on fruit trees, plant nursery and trees. A 2019 Pennsylvania economic impact study calculates that, uncontrolled, the Lanternfly could cost $324 million annually and more than 2,800 jobs.

That has put surrounding states on alert and, in some cases, in fighting mode. 

Joe Fiola, a University of Maryland Extension specialist in viticulture and small fruit, says there have been confirmed populations in counties along the Pennsylvania border and sightings in Washington County in the west. He calls it the “quiet before the storm,” similar to what Pennsylvania’s vineyards have experienced.  

“There are sightings first, then a small manageable infestation as the population in the region grows,” he says. Based on what he has seen in Pennsylvania, the next year “the real threat comes to the vineyard as the population explodes.”

Neighboring New Jersey – with its more than 50 wineries and 1,100 acres of vines – has seen similar activity to Maryland, says Tom Cosentino, executive director of the Garden State Grape Growers Association. Major damage has been avoided, he said, due to wineries being educated on what to see and kill.

John Cifelli is the general manager of Unionville Vineyards in Ringoes, a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania line, says they expected to spend a day this week 

combing tree lines and fence rails, any horizontal surface with an underside that is often a spot where the lanternfly lays its eggs. “We will scrape them into a bucket of brandy, giving our best attempt to reduce the population that we may need to spray for later in the season.”

Thirteen miles north is Beneduce Vineyards, which credits some “well-timed insecticide applications” last year with reducing the damage, Mike Beneduce says, “The good news is that the crop protectants do work, but in my opinion they aren’t a sustainable option in the long run from an economical or environmental aspect.” Teams from both Cornell and Rutgers are running various experiments in their vineyards to “hopefully give us some new, lower impact options for treating them.”

Farther north, New York reported its first infestation last year on Staten Island, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation website, which says its goal is to educate while finding and destroying infestations early. John Wagner, founder of Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery, one of the region’s oldest, says that to date there have been only several isolated cases of lone adults and one small cluster spotted in the Finger Lakes. Meanwhile, wineries in his area are consuming everything they can learn about the pest. “We know things could change rapidly and are doing our best as a region to stay vigilant,” he says.

The Lanternfly was spotted in Winchester, in northern Virginia, in 2018. A year later, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) established a quarantine for Winchester and Frederick County. It was expanded to Clarke and Warren counties in February 2021. So far, says Tony Wolf of the Virginia Cooperative Extension, none has become established in a Virginia vineyard. But, he adds, “It’s only a matter of time.” 

Meanwhile, you don’t have to look too hard to find more available webinars and overall awareness of this problem on the West Coast. 

The pest has gained notoriety in Pennsylvania, partly through the state’s public awareness campaign and also via social media as more Philadelphia and suburban homeowners have walked outside to swarms of them the last two summers. Indeed, the Department of Ag’s directive to residents has been short and sweet: “Kill it. Squash it, smash it. Just get rid of it.”

Perhaps, in the end, they will fade into the background like previous invasive pests such as the stink bug, but it might take a while. Powers says that while Pennsylvania has found ways to control it, “This one is a much bigger challenge to eradicate for a variety of factors.”

Adds Beneduce: “I think this bug has a few things going for it – not very tasty to any natural predators, effective at multiplying quickly to enormous populations, and there’s a wide range of host species around for their dining pleasure [vineyards being one of their top preferences].”

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