The spotted lanternfly, an Asian pest that attacks grapevines, fruit trees and other nursery plants, has arrived in New Jersey from its stronghold in eastern Pennsylvania.
New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture Douglas H. Fisher announced Tuesday the pest was found in Warren County recently on its preferred host, ailanthus, also called the tree of heaven. Warren County is in northwest New Jersey.
“In my mind, it was always a question of when,” said Joe Zoltowski, the state Department of Agriculture Division of Plant Industry director. “It was not surprising.”
The bug was first found in the United States in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 2014, and has since spread to 13 counties in Pennsylvania, in spite of the state’s attempts to contain it with quarantines and other measures. Last year, the insect’s population exploded there.
So far they have not been found in South Jersey, but that may not last.
“Would it surprise me if we did find them (in South Jersey)? No,” said Zoltowski.
A survey crew hired with a federal grant to look for the insect found a small population recently in Warren County, he said. But he declined to say what town they were in.
The pest a good hitchhiker. Especially in the nymph stage as it is now — when it’s black or red with white spots and a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch long — it’s easy for spotted lanternflies to jump on people’s hats and clothing. It can also hitch a ride on a vehicle.
“People can be accidentally moving them and not know,” Zoltowski said.
They damage plants as nymphs and as adults, he said. But the larger they get, the more damage they do. As the nymphs get bigger, they also turn from black to red with white spots.
A lot of transportation takes place between New Jersey and the Pennsylvania counties with the outbreak. That includes 36 bridges between New Jersey and the Pennsylvania counties of Delaware, Philadelphia, Bucks, Northampton and Monroe — all of which have spotted lanternfly.
So New Jersey has been conducting surveillance along the border of the two states, at truck stops and other high-use areas of major highways from Warren to Salem counties. It is also conducting a public education campaign so people know what to look for and how to report it.
No one knows for sure how it got to Pennsylvania, but the theory is it came on a ship from Asia.
The lanternfly has no known predators here.
Penn State Extension materials say the lanternfly “feeds upon over 65 species of plants and as such, is projected to become a serious pest of timber, ornamental trees, tree fruit orchards, grapes, stone fruit, and other small fruits such as blueberries. It can kill hops and feeds on several types of vegetables.”
Pennsylvania recently received $17.5 million from the federal government to contain the outbreak and eradicate it.
Dead spotted lanternflies were found last year in New York and Delaware, and a small infestation of live ones was found in Virginia.
Surveillance will continue in the immediate area as well as along the Delaware River border, according to the agriculture department.
Anyone who travels to and from Pennsylvania is asked to inspect vehicles for the insect before entering New Jersey.
The Department of Agriculture is also asking for help identifying areas where low numbers of this insect may be.