A cute but invasive species has state’s agriculture community worried

They are pretty looking bugs, with an insatiable appetite for trees and fruits.

“A lot of people say they are a pretty bug and how can a pretty bug be so bad? But they are bad,” said Department of Agriculture Division of Plant Industry Director Joe Zoltowski.

Meet the Spotted Lanternfly. It’s an insect about an inch and a half long that has been discovered in several New Jersey counties. It is known for feeding on trees and then moving on to fruits, which it decimates by eating the sugar and interfering with photosynthesis. Grapes, strawberries, pears and New Jersey’s growing wine industry could all be impacted.

“It starts out the size of a small tick around the beginning of May and they kind of grow to three-quarter of an inch in size. Then they turn into a red form […] and they’re red with white dots on it so that’s what you’re looking for now. But they are now rapidly turning into adults, which are the pretty form,” Zoltowski said.

The State Department of Agriculture is working to stop any infestation from spreading.

“Their primary host is tree of heaven.. That’s the primary host, but they’ll feed on anything, any kind of small fruits and vegetables. They can feed on herbs, so any kind of plant. They can impact pretty much the whole agriculture community that we have in this state,” Zoltowski said.

The Spotted Laternfly was first discovered in 2014 across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. They were found by a businessman in the stone trade industry. He found them on stones he imported from Korea. The bug is native to Asia.

After four years, 13 counties in Pennsylvania now have wide infestation. To avoid that fate, New Jersey has quarantined three counties: Mercer, Warren and Hunterdon.

“These bugs are really good hitchhikers. They can easily land on your vehicle if you’re parked underneath a tree and you can accidentally transport that to the new county or just to a new location. The same thing with egg masses. They will start laying egg masses soon. And the egg masses look like a splotch of mud, and they will lay them on pretty much any smooth surface,” said Anne Nielsen, assistant extension specialist in the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University.

The state is asking residents to check their car before going anywhere. The Department of Agriculture is also treating the bugs’ favorite trees with a chemical to kill them, hoping to capture them in collection bins.

So while many may consider the Spotted Lanternfly cute, looks can be deceiving. They are happy to feed on a key state industry.