spotted lanternfly An adult spotted lanternfly is beautiful, but incredibly destructive to agriculture. (Photo: Amy Lutz/Shutterstock)

The spotted lanternfly was first found in the United States in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014. The destructive pest, which is native to Southeast Asia, most likely hitched a ride on something imported from Asia to Pennsylvania. Since 2014, the pests have spread to Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.

The pests spread in many ways — they can attach to live plants, metal on vehicles, and wood that has been cut down and transported such as firewood or Christmas trees.

NJ.com tells the story of a woman who wound up with hatched spotted lanternflies inside her Warren County, New Jersey, home in early January 2018 when her Christmas tree was still in the house. An inspection of the tree uncovered two egg masses on the trunk with the potential to hold up to 100 eggs. It's no surprise that the insects found their way into a home via the holiday decor. It's estimated that are up to 25,000 bugs on most Christmas trees, although most of them are microscopic.

The good news for the homeowner is that the spotted lanternfly isn't harmful to humans, so while it was certainly unsettling to find strange insects in her home, no one was in danger. The insects don't bite or sting humans or animals.

The bigger concern is that the egg masses were on her Christmas tree. If the eggs hadn't begun to hatch inside her house, when she was done with the tree it would have been put outside where the eggs could have hatched and the insects could have spread. It's spreading populations of the spotted lanternfly that have agriculture experts on high alert — and urging residents to be on high alert, too.

Be on the lookout

Even if you don't have a live Christmas tree or any Christmas tree at all, you should know more about the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula). The short video above shows all the stages of the spotted lanternfly to help you identify it from egg mass to adult.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sees the pest as such a threat that it has allocated $17.5 million in emergency funds to help the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture fight the infestation with a focus on a three-mile perimeter that surrounds the core infested area.

There are currently 13 counties in eastern Pennsylvania under quarantine, including Berks where the first lanternfly was spotted and Philadelphia where the insects have been found in the city and elsewhere in the county. Everyone in the quarantined counties, including residents, must inspect all wood and vegetation that leaves the county as well as inspecting vehicles, trailers and other mobile equipment before they leave the county, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

The concern is that the spotted lanternfly population will become large enough to do the same damage here that it has done in Southeast Asia. The USDA says these trees and plants are at particular risk: almonds, apples, apricots, cherries, grapes, hops, maple trees, nectarines, oak trees, peaches, pine trees, plums, poplar trees, sycamore trees, walnut trees and willow trees.

Both nymphs and adults feed on the stems and leaves of these plants, sucking sap from them. That causes a reduction in photosynthesis that can weaken or kill a plant. The damage can also cause the plant to grow mold that can attract other harmful insects.

What you can do

family shops for Christmas tree In addition to making sure your tree is the right size and shape, check the trunk to make sure no spotted lanternflies are hitching a ride. (Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

It seems that the spotted lanternfly population is most often spread when it transported by humans. That Christmas tree in New Jersey was purchased in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, according to a press release from the Winemaker's Co-Op sent last spring. The co-op was alerting supporters of New Jersey wine to be vigilant and report any signs of the spotted lanternfly.

Citizen vigilance is going to be an important part of combatting the potential devastating effects of this insect. If you find egg masses, eggs, or hatched spotted lanternflies at any stage of development, here's what you should do.

  • If you can, collect a specimen at any stage of life that can be taken to your state's agricultural extension lab for verification.
  • With the GPS function turned on, take a photo with your smartphone or camera of any stage from egg mass to adult. Submit it to your state agricultural extension lab.
  • Destroy any egg masses, eggs or insects by scraping eggs or putting insects into a plastic bag and filling it with rubbing alcohol, as shown in video above.
  • This interactive map can help you find an agricultural extension in your state.

You can also call these spotted lanternfly hotlines with questions or to report sightings in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

  • Pennsylvania: 1-888-422-3359
  • New Jersey: 1-833-223-2840

For now, the spotted lanternfly seems to be isolated to the East Coast, but if the insect spread from Southeast Asia to the East Coast of the United States, it can certainly spread to other parts of our country.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

A destructive pest may be hitching a ride on your Christmas tree
You may want to check your Christmas tree for spotted lanternflies before you take it home.