Invasive lanternflies devour vineyards, swarm the plants around homes, and invade new areas: ‘They’re little Draculas’

Spotted Lanternfly
Visits from spotted lanternflies have prompted a different kind of quarantine in some states.

  • Lanternflies are devouring vineyards and alarming winemakers as they spread through the country.
  • They’re a nuisance for homeowners since they eat certain plants, crawl on people, and defecate everywhere.
  • States have even quarantined certain lanternfly-infested counties to stop the invasive species’ spread.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The first thing Amy Korman notices about the trees blanketed with thousands of lanternflies is the sour, putrid stink. The bugs also squirt out honeydew – a sugary, translucent excrement that falls into her hair and which she can hear hitting the leaves like rain.

An infestation like this isn’t rare anymore, Korman, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University, said.

“Lanternflies are getting worse in geographic distribution,” she said. “Every year there are more.”

In Pennsylvania, a state at the heart of the lanternfly outbreak and the fifth largest wine-producing region in the country, the bugs’ voracious appetite for grapevines has wreaked havoc on vineyards, and winemakers in the region have had to dig deep into their pockets to kill the bugs occupying acres of their fields.

“They’re a big threat,” Richard Wooley, the owner of Weathered Vineyards & Winery, said. “They’re little Draculas. I call them that because they come in and suck the life right out of the vine.”

The bugs slurp sap out of grapevines with their straw-like mouth, a diet that prevents the fruit from fully ripening and steals the source of energy the plants need to survive the winter. The bugs can grow up to an inch long and a half-inch wide and are usually marked by patches of red and black.

On top of the 50,000 lanternflies he estimates are currently feeding in his field, others are flying and hopping around his house, his car, and his outdoor tasting room, where he occasionally hears screams when an insect lands on an unsuspecting guest.

“They’re a pain in the ass,” he said.

His vineyard is close to ground zero of the lanternfly outbreak in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where lanternflies were first discovered in the US, likely after a mass of the insects’ eggs hitchhiked in on a shipment of stones from Asia, George Hamilton, chair of the entomology department at Rutgers University, told Insider.

As with other invasive species, the lanternfly’s natural enemy didn’t follow the insect across the ocean, allowing the bugs to multiply unchecked by other insects. Now, they’ve exploded to at least 11 states, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest.

In Larry Shrawder’s lush vineyard at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the millions of bugs fluttering around his fields cost $50,000 a year to treat with pesticides, which eats up about 10-15% of his yearly revenue.

vineyard in Pennsylvania
Larry Shrawder, who owns Stony Run Valley Vineyards, has dealt with lanternflies for the past five years.

At one point, the lanternflies destroyed a sixth of his vineyard, with the plants’ doom marked by a thick cover of the bugs around the vines followed by yellowing leaves before finally succumbing to the winter.

While the insects can be devastating for winemakers, they’re also a nuisance in residential areas.

Korman has recieved panicked calls about lanternflies carpeting the sides of buildings and swarming birthday parties. They feed on over 70 plant species, including some commonly found in gardens, like maple trees, cucumbers, and basil. They also defecate on everything from patios to kid’s toys.

The bugs’ brazen destructiveness has also spawned a wave of hatred in affected states, with officials in some states even actively encouraging people to kill the bugs.

Though the insects can fly and jump, they mostly travel to new areas by hitching rides on cars and trucks. The insects lay eggs on flat surfaces, such as the sides of cars, and since the gray or white egg masses usually aren’t longer than a couple inches, people often unwittingly transport the insects to new areas.

Though governments in states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey have issued quarantines for lanternfly-infested counties and have ordered travelers to check their vehicles for egg masses before traveling into non-quarantined areas, Hamilton said the problem will get worse before it gets better.

Hamilton anticipates that the bugs’ explosion will peter out once a predator in the US realizes that the lanternflies are a source of food.

With the lanternflies’ spread seemingly inevitable, Shrawder is taking calls with winemakers from as far away as Colorado, all worried about the next place lanternflies will invade and looking for a way to deal with them.

After learning from experience and new research from nearby universities, Pennsylvania vineyard owners know how to control the lanternflies better than they did a few years ago, Shrawder said.

“I think it’s something we’re all going to learn to live with,” he said. “But there’s always anxiety from something new feeding on your livelihood.

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States are begging Americans to kill spotted lanternflies as scientists struggle to keep the pests from spreading

spotted lanternfly
A spotted lanternfly at a vineyard in Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

  • Spotted lanternflies, which resemble polka-dotted moths, are spreading across the eastern US.
  • Experts are telling people to kill the insects, as lanternflies are a destructive invasive species.
  • Americans have spotted the pests, which first arrived from Asia in 2014, in seven states so far.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Don’t be fooled by its colorful palette. The spotted lanternfly may merit a photo or two, but states across the eastern US are begging residents to bludgeon the bugs instead.

“If you see a spotted lanternfly, squish it, dispose of it, and report it to us,” the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation tweeted Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture similarly told people to “Kill it! Squash it, smash it… just get rid of it.” Maryland wants the creatures turned into its department of agriculture “Dead or Alive.”

While calls for mass insect murder may seem unnecessarily vicious, they’re critical to stopping the spotted lanternflies’ spread, according to Julie Urban, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University.

“If you don’t feel comfortably violently killing it, stick it in a container or plastic bag and throw it in the freezer,” Urban told Insider. “Otherwise you might transport it.”

Adult lanternflies hitchhike on clothing and in cars, and large masses of their eggs can be found on any smooth surface, including trees, buildings, and shipping containers.

While they’re not harmful to people – these insects don’t sting or bite – spotted lanternflies are a pernicious invasive species that prey on 70 different species of trees and plants, and can spell doom for grape vineyards and apple orchards.

Fast-spreading sap vampires

Spotted lanternflies are native to southeast Asia, originally found in India, China, and Vietnam.

But about seven years ago, they hitched a ride across the Pacific Ocean in shipping containers. The pests likely made their way to North America on slabs of cut marble, Frank Hale, a horticulturalist at the University of Tennessee, told Insider.

spotted lanternfly
An adult spotted lanternfly on a wooden rail in southeastern Pennsylvania in October 2019.

“The eggs remain dormant over the winter until they hatch out in the spring,” Hale said, adding that the rows of eggs look like smears of dried mud.

People in Berks County, Pennsylvania, noticed the first spotted lanternflies ever found in the US in 2014.

As of July, residents in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Connecticut, Ohio, and Indiana have reported seeing lanternflies, Hale reported in The Conversation. Last month, the pests sparked a federal investigation in Kansas when a boy displayed a lanternfly carcass at the state fair’s insect exhibition.

The insects are particularly active in late summer, which could explain why New Yorkers and folks in New Jersey have been seeing and stomping droves of lanternflies over the last few weeks.

Between July and December every year, lanternfly nymphs mature into adults, which not only spread out to feed but also immediately lay eggs that will become the next year’s brood.

spotted lanternfly nymph
A spotted lanternfly nymph climbs the leg of Pennsylvania state Sen. Vincent Hughes at Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, on July 9, 2021.

Adult spotted lanternflies, known as Lycorma delicatula, are sap eaters. They pierce the bark of trees and vines with their straw-like mouth, called a proboscis, and suck out the nutritious sap inside.

But the removal of all those nutrients can stress out the plant, Hale said, especially if a single tree gets overwhelmed by a multitude of lanternflies.

“The trees use that energy to eventually make new leaves in the spring,” he said. “If the plant doesn’t store enough nutrients over the winter, then it could die.”

Grapes, apples, and hardwood trees are particularly vulnerable to lanternflies.

What’s more, the pests release a sticky residue known as “honeydew” onto bark and leaves when they feed. The coating can promote the growth of fungus or black mold, and block out the sunlight plants need to survive.

Using parasitic wasps to target lanternflies

spotted lanternfly
Spotted lanternflies gather on a tree in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, in September 2019.

Urban said she’s heard of people using flamethrowers or salt pellet guns to exterminate a spotted lanternfly infestation. But her group at Penn State is working with the US Department of Agriculture to develop more effective ways of targeting the invasive species.

“It’s not one silver bullet,” she said.

The most promising ways of killing the pests “involve their natural enemies,” she added.

spotted lanternfly
A spotted lanternfly carcass photographed in 2017.

Urban’s group is looking into using two types of parasitic wasps – one that targets lanternfly eggs and another that attacks nymphs – to bring the pests under control.

Insecticides and pesticides are also useful, she said, though these methods can cause harm to other insects like butterflies and bees.

“The thing that’s concerning is we don’t want people applying pesticides everywhere,” she said. “We don’t want people to preventatively treat their trees before they see the threat.”

Hale said he thinks it’s too late to eradicate the lanternflies from the US, but a combination of insecticides and other biological controls could stop their future movement westward and north into Canada.

“They could spread across the continent if we don’t do enough,” he said, adding, “We’re probably always going to have them in North America.”

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Experts say climate change is bringing out more bugs, in more places, more often. That could mean big business for pest control companies.

DC Pest Control
Pest Control Officer Gregory Cornes, from the D.C. Department of Health’s Rodent Control Division, uses a duster to pump poison into rat burrows

  • Experts say rising temperatures and other climate change phenomena may trigger more pest problems.
  • This could result in pests having more offspring and showing up in places they haven’t been before.
  • Pest control companies could see an uptick in business as a result.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Scorching heat waves are still sweeping much of the US, and a new climate report says global temperatures will climb at least 2 to 3 degrees between now and 2040.

While billions feel the negative effects of climate change, one industry could potentially benefit from it: pest control specialists. Hotter temperatures, alongside other patterns spurred by the climate crisis, could spell big business for pest control companies.

“As extreme weather becomes more frequent, warmer temperatures and increased precipitation can affect pest populations, usually causing an increase in populations or an expansion in the habitats that insects can thrive,” Brittany Campbell, a staff entomologist and research scientist for the National Pest Management Association, told Insider. “Warmer temperatures lasting longer and seasonal fluctuations like more early springs has allowed for some insect populations to reproduce more and have increased generations of offspring per year.”

Changes like these have already stretched out the typical busy season for pest control companies.

Charles Evans, the owner of Evans Pest Control in Philadelphia, says his business now treats for some insects in seasons in which they don’t typically appear.

“Now we’re getting calls throughout the winter for ants,” he said. “That was unheard of at one point.”

Evans says “unseasonably warm weather” is to blame.

“With the longer summers and warmer winters, things tend to stay alive,” he said. “It seems like everything’s more active now.”

Stacy O’Reilly has seen similar business trends at her company, although she notes that climate change can also decrease business in some cases. O’Reilly is the owner and president of Plunkett’s Pest Control, which is headquartered in Minneapolis and operates in 21 states.

“We’re getting calls earlier in the summer and later in the fall than we used to,” she said. “Our season to control insects is longer in Minnesota in my estimation than it was 20 years ago.”

It’s not just the time of year. Pests are also popping up in geographical ranges they don’t typically inhabit.

“The pests we see in our Southern territories are now more prevalent in our Northern territories,” she added. “It’s slowly expanding, the opportunity for Southern pests to reproduce in more Northern climates.”

Read more: The climate crisis is already upending American real estate – with trillions at stake

Warmer temperatures are often a factor.

“When we have those warmer temperatures that can cause insects to be able to change where they can actually live and survive because they’re going to have optimal ranges of temperatures that they live in,” said Wizzie Brown, an entomologist and specialist with Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Extension Service. “If it’s normally 65 degrees somewhere, and it starts to be 85 degrees there, then insects that have that new range can then move into new places that they might not have been before.”

Rising temperatures could also mean pests have more generations of offspring.

“When it’s cooler outside, it usually takes longer for insects to kind of get through their life cycle, going from egg to adult,” Brown said. “When it’s warmer, that can actually speed up the rate of development.”

The combined result of these developments is that “climate change is acting as a major catalyst for the rise in demand for pest control services across the globe,” according to a 2020 report on the global pest control service market.

In the meantime, pest control specialists will have to stay on their toes as climate change continues to affect their businesses.

“We just have to remain aware of the climate’s impact on insects and do the best we can,” O’Reilly said.

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Why raccoons are so hard to get rid of

  • Raccoons, which can digest just about anything, are attracted to the huge amounts of garbage that build up in urban areas.
  • These highly intelligent, dexterous critters figure out ways of thwarting human efforts to stop them.
  • In 2016, Toronto spent $31 million to fend off a raccoon invasion, but the critters continued to swarm the city.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: In 2016, Toronto spent $31 million to fend off a raccoon invasion. The masked critters were everywhere, pooping on porches, stopping traffic, and infesting attics, and they’re not just taking over Toronto. Reports of raccoon vandalism have plagued cities like Portland, Chicago, and New York City, and as raccoon-ridden cities know, we can’t seem to stop them.

Between the 1930s and 1980s, the US raccoon population increased twentyfold, and it’s still going strong. From 2014 to 2015, raccoon complaints in Brooklyn nearly doubled, so how are these masked bandits making it in big cities?

Well, for starters, they can digest just about anything from fish and acorns in the forest to dog food and pizza on the street, and just like humans, raccoons usually prefer the pizza, which is why they flock from woodland to city in the first place.

In Brooklyn, for example, captured raccoons sometimes get relocated to Prospect Park and nearby forests, but wildlife biologists report they often head right back to the dumpster-packed city streets.

It’s just about impossible to stop them, as Toronto discovered after it spend millions on raccoon-proof waste bins. Unlike traditional bins, the lids had special gravity locks, which open when a garbage truck arm turns the bin upside down. The idea was that if you cut off their major food source, they would skip town, but that didn’t happen. In fact, one year later, a wildlife-control business reported that raccoon-related work had doubled.

Finally, a clever raccoon was caught on camera jailbreaking the new bin. How did she outwit an entire city? Well, study after study has revealed that raccoons are considerably smarter than your average medium-sized critter. Turns out raccoon brains have more neurons packed into their brains than other animals of the same size.

In fact, they have the same neuron density as primates, who are notoriously smart, and their clever brains help explain why raccoons can open complex locks, solve puzzles with ease, and even come up with solutions to problems that scientists didn’t think of. Add to that their ultrasensitive hands, er, paws, which have four times as many sensory receptors as their feet. This helps them to feel subtle textures like special trashcan lids in Toronto and even open locks without looking.

And unfortunately for us, driving them away is a fool’s errand. Studies show that after mass removal, populations tend to rebound to their previous levels in a year. After all, females can start giving birth at just 1 year old and can have as many as eight kits in a single year. This quick breeding is also why experts say mass cullings aren’t a long-term solution.

And while they’re awfully cute, the damage they can cause is not. When raccoons nest in buildings, they can destroy insulation, chew up wires, and tear holes through walls, and it can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars to repair that kind of damage. One raccoon was even caught destroying over $3,000 worth of artwork, and just removing them can cost $300 to $500 a pop.

Plus, the poop they leave behind can contain roundworms and other parasites, which can enter your lungs when you breathe or get tracked into your home by your pets. Even worse, raccoons can transmit diseases like canine distemper and, in rare cases, rabies.

So it’s understandable that cities are trying to find some way, any way, to manage them.

Man on broadcast: Can’t do a thing about it, just chase them off. They come back.

Narrator: If nothing else, it’s a lesson learned. We may have built the cities, but we don’t necessarily rule them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in May 2019.

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Why cities can’t get rid of rats

  • Cities across the US are getting more infested with rats. As hard as we try to get rid of the pests, they always seem to find a way back.
  • In many ways, rats are better suited for living in cities than people. They can climb brick walls and “tightrope walk” over telephone cables.
  • Their incisors grow 14 inches a year, which lets them gnaw into anything – including everywhere you don’t want them.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Wormtail. Professor Ratigan. The R.O.U.S. Pop culture has given rats a bad rep. And it’s understandable why.

Take northeastern India’s rat flood. Twice a century, rats swarm when bamboo forests drop about 80 tons of seeds. After they devour the seeds, they devastate local agriculture. In the 1960s, the resulting famine was so bad, it lead to a major political uprising.

It’s no wonder that the technical term for a group of rats is a “mischief”! And they’re not just a problem for farmers. These crafty rodents are the ultimate urbanites.

Meet your average city rats: Rattus rattus and Rattus norvegicus. These rats live pretty much wherever we do. Especially in cities. Take New York City, for example. We don’t know exactly how many rats call the Big Apple home. But a 2014 study gave a ballpark estimate of 2 million rats.

That means for heavily-infested areas you could have several rats per person! And in some ways, rats are better suited for living in cities than people. They can climb brick walls, “tightrope walk” over telephone cables, and their incisors grow 14 inches a year. Which lets them gnaw into anything – including everywhere you don’t want them.

But their most powerful ability? Rats are clever. Too clever. Scientists have shown that rats can learn to use tools. And when offered the choice between a chocolate and freeing a trapped friend. Rats chose to free their friend over chocolate!

Translate those smarts to the real world and rats easily avoid traps. Trying to poison them won’t help much either. Rats are extremely patient when it comes to new foods. They’ll taste just a tiny portion at first, wait to see if that food makes them sick and only then, consume the rest if it’s safe.

This is called “delayed learning” and it’s why rats are notoriously difficult to poison. Plus, they can develop resistance to many poisons over time so even outwitting them might not work in the long run.

Another major issue is that rats reproduce quickly. A single doe usually has 8-12 pups every 8 weeks! And those babies can have pups of their own after only 5 weeks!

So as long as they have access to food, rat populations will rebound from just about any attack. The only attack they can’t handle is improved sanitation.

And cities are using that to their advantage. In 2017, for example, New York City launched a $32 million war plan against its rats. Eliminate 70% of the rats in its 10 most-infested neighborhoods.

The plan is simple. Cut off their food source.

You see, NYC produces around 33 million tons of trash a year – more than any other city on Earth! The trash piles aren’t getting any smaller but the city can at least make it harder for rats to reach by replacing traditional trash compactors with a mailbox style opening.

Will NYC succeed by the end of 2018, as proposed?

Judging by the thousands of years where rats came out on top, it sounds a little too optimistic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in July 2018.

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