They’ve jumped on Collingswood resident Jeff Wilson’s head and been on his shirt. His wife won’t even walk the dog anymore near the Tree of Heaven on their property.
But there’s nothing heavenly about the invasive spotted lanternfly that’s attracted to the tree. Wilson first noticed the insect in his backyard last summer but the population has been growing.
“I actually had a lady from Ithaca, New York stop yesterday, looking at my tree like a tourist,” he said. “There’s thousands of them.”
Robert Hastings, the tree official for the Collingswood Public Works Department, says the borough may only be a few square miles in size but he’s getting calls about spotted lanternflies daily.
“I always tell them, you think you’ve seen a lot, but you haven’t really,” he said.
The insect won’t harm people or animals directly, but its impact is tremendous because it feeds on 70 plant species.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Doug Fisher says the spotted lanternfly creates honeydew, mold grows on it and that can kill vegetation in the area.
“It absolutely has the potential to do damage,” Fisher said.
“The Jersey fruit industry is very concerned about them because they will destroy peach orchards, apple orchards, they especially like grape vines,” Wilson said. “My neighbor across the street has grape vines behind his garage. He’s got a bunch of them.”
Fisher says the state has been fortunate so far because it hasn’t had any significant losses, but the spotted lanternfly is here to stay for a while.
Joe Zoltowski, the state’s tree expert, explains the insect is native to Asia. Experts think eggs came in on a stone shipment from Korea to Pennsylvania in 2014.
“These insects like to hitchhike; they like to get on people’s cars or trucks, they don’t really care,” Zoltowski said.
“They kind of hang there, and then when a truck stops at a truck stop, or a rest stop, or a fueling stop, if they want to get off they get off. That’s how we help them spread faster.”
They made their way to the Garden State two years ago and New Jersey has been working to get rid of them ever since.
“We already have quarantine in eight counties. And we know that it has the potential to spread across the state,” Fisher said.
“Our quarantine zones are pretty much the heaviest populations we have and it goes right along the railroad,”
Zoltowski says that’s because there are a lot of trees of heaven around the rails.
Residents are urged to inspect their cars before leaving quarantine zones to help slow the spread. Crews are working to treat impacted areas, but he says they need the public’s help to kill them if they spot any.
“We have pesticide recommendations that were developed by USDA and Penn State over their course of their dealing with this insect,” Fisher said.
“I’ve been killing 20 a day on that tree until this week because I looked up at the tree and saw there were 10,000 of them. I was like, what’s the use? I got to get the tree gone,” Wilson said.
State experts say that’s not a bad idea, but it’s not an easy task. Trees of heaven are an invasive species, but you have to treat the cut with chemical treatments to kill the roots or it’ll grow back in force and continue to attract the spotted lanternflies.