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Invasive spotted lanternfly could weaken Midwest crops and trees

USDA via Flickr

An invasive bug recently found in Kansas could spell trouble for agriculture in the Midwest if more are confirmed.

An invasive bug recently found in Kansas could spell trouble for agriculture in the Midwest if more are confirmed. 

The spotted lanternfly has bright red hind wings with black spots. It may look pretty, but Robin Pruisner, state entomologist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, said the spotted lanternfly could weaken nursery stock – woody plants like trees, shrubs, raspberries and grapes. 

“They tend to leave behind a sticky substance while they’re feeding,” Pruisner said. “And that substance is really good at growing mold. Then you can have other plant pathogens or diseases move in. It reduces the quality of the crop.” 

Native to Asia, the spotted lanternfly was first seen in Pennsylvania in 2014 and is a skilled hitchhiker that can catch a ride on household belongings, furniture or camping equipment being moved from one part of the country to another. 

The spotted lanternfly has been reported in 10 states - from Connecticut to Indiana. Kansas is the farthest west it’s been confirmed after a specimen was found in a 4-H project. State and federal officials are investigating.

“First, there was a lot of surprise,” said Pruisner about the Kansas find. “We’ve known about this since it was first found in Pennsylvania. We have definitely been on the lookout.”

Since the spotted lanternfly was found in Kansas, Iowa’s agriculture department beefed up its public outreach, asking people to turn in any insects that could be the invasive pest. The Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri agriculture departments have received possible sightings of the insect, but so far they've all been false alarms. 

Donald Lewis, an Iowa State University entomology professor, said the spotted lanternfly could feed on the sap from dozens of different kinds of plants, making it unlike the emerald ash borer, another recent invasive insect. By comparison, the emerald ash borer is a picky pest, only attacking ash trees. Since the Asian beetle was first discovered in the United States in 2002, it has spread to 35 states. 

“The emerald ash borer has caused huge losses of trees, but they have caused damage to only one kind of tree,” Lewis said. “The spotted lanternfly, on the other hand, will damage lots of different plants.”

Lewis said the fact that one spotted lanternfly was recently found in Kansas is “an indication of how far and how easily they can be transported.” 

“It appears the distribution, the spread of this insect, is going to be spotty. It’s going to be random,” Lewis said. “That means we just don’t know where it’s going to show up next.”

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Katie Peikes