ITHACA, N.Y.—An adult spotted lanternfly—a pest that poses a major threat to the Finger Lakes’ wine industry—was discovered in Ithaca at the top of the Seneca Street Parking Garage on Sunday night. This marks the first time a lanternfly has been found far outside of the initial infested area in Ithaca, which will likely recalibrate the management efforts underway by the City of Ithaca.

The spotted lanternfly has a voracious appetite for grapevines. The adult spotted lanternfly pierces into plants and sucks sap from leaves, stems, branches, or even a tree’s trunk. It’s able to feed on over 70 different plants, with maple trees being another one of its favorites alongside grapevines. Infestations of lanterfly have devastated vineyards in places like Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where some grape growers have lost around 90 percent of their vines

These devastating cases are likely confined to vineyards where the spotted lanternfly wasn’t treated for with pesticides, according to Brian Eshenaur, who is a Senior Extension Associate for New York State Integrated Pest Management Program and has been helping to lead the education outreach around spotted lanternfly in New York.

Still, setting aside the scenario of utter destruction at a vineyard, chemically treating for lanternfly adds expense to grape growers and they’ll likely deal with lasting damage to their operations. Grapevines exposed to spotted lanternfly infestations are vulnerable to winter damage, disease, and grape yield and quality is reduced. 

The spotted lanternfly arriving in Ithaca—at the doorstep of the Finger Lakes Wine Region—has spurred pest management efforts led by the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, with support from the City of Ithaca’s Park and Forestry Division. The Department of Agriculture reported that they searched the area of the Seneca Street Parking Garage on Tuesday and did not discover any egg masses or other adult spotted lanternflies.

The Seneca Street Parking Garage. (Jimmy Jordan / The Ithaca Voice)

Earlier management efforts began when the lanternfly was first discovered in Ithaca in the fall of 2020 along the 700 block of Stewart Avenue. The Department of Agriculture responded by launching a granular search effort to find and destroy lanternfly eggs within a square mile area of the original sighting. This may seem like a small area to scour, but the lanterfly does not travel well and is a poor flier despite having wings—though it is an impressive jumper. Management efforts also included the removal of about 50 trees infested with spotted lanternfly eggs along Stewart Avenue. Inspectors from the Department of Agriculture also ventured a couple miles outside of this area to search locations that would be ideal sites for lanternflies to lay their eggs.

Despite all this work to suppress the spotted lanternfly’s population, the pest’s re-emergence doesn’t surprise Jeanne Grace, Ithaca’s City Forester. She said, “We knew that the best effort we put in couldn’t have gotten 100 percent of the population in the first shot.” But it’s presence in downtown Ithaca makes Grace think that the efforts to remove the spotted lanternfly may have to be reevaluated.

The Seneca Street Parking garage is about a mile from the Stewart Block site, suggesting to Grace that there may be another area where the invasive is established in the City. “I guess that’s kind of the thought process I’m at now,” she said.

One strategy which the Department of Agriculture may choose to double down on is targeting a preferred host plant of the spotted lanternfly with pesticide treatments, i.e. the tree of heaven

The tree of heaven is not nearly as noble as it sounds. It’s an invasive tree that grows like a weed and carries a litany of its own ecological impacts. It’s highly tolerant of poor soil conditions and can even be seen growing out of the walls of gorges. 

The tree of heaven comes from the same region of east Asia that the spotted lanternfly calls home. The lanternfly has evolved to feed on sap from the tree of heaven, and the tree of heaven has evolved to tolerate the lantern fly’s taste for it. Targeted pesticide treatment on the tree of heaven can result in that poison being passed onto the lanternflies that feed on them, cutting their lifespan short before they can do most of their egg laying. 

Grace said that this practice will likely ramp up, but some experts recommend fully removing the tree of heaven as one of the best methods for controlling spotted lanternfly. Research has shown that feeding on the tree of heaven improves the spotted lanternflies reproductive capabilities, so depriving the pest of that edge may be a good rationale for uprooting every tree of heaven in sight. But this plan of attack doesn’t seem realistic to Grace. 

Complete removal of it means cutting the tree down, treating the stump with herbicide, and removing the sprouts that emerge from the root system to replace the old tree. 

“We’ve got tree of heaven growing along in the gorges,” said Grace. “I mean, the logistics of doing something like that—people rappelling down the side of a cliff to treat a stump with herbicide. It would be a nightmare to try to do that.”

The invasive tree does grow in easy to reach places, like in many people’s yards. Though, Grace’s assessment is that the benefit of reducing the lanternfly’s reproductive capabilities may not be worth the daunting effort to remove the sheer number of trees of heaven.

The lanternfly has only been in the United States since 2014, and although there is a large effort coming from many corners of the scientific and agricultural communities, the best practices for managing spotted lanternfly infestations are still being established. What is agreed on in the expert community is that the best way to fight a spotted lanternfly infestation is to start before it happens: destroy their eggs and kill the adults and nymphs before they can establish the base population they need to increase exponentially from.

As future strategies for fighting the spotted lantern fly in Ithaca are evaluated, the heartier winters of upstate New York may offer a reason to hold out hope, according to Eshenaur. He said, “There are some areas where the growing season may not be long enough to support the spotted lanternflies’ lifecycle.”

Tompkins County is currently the northernmost area with a confirmed spotted lanternfly infestation. The spotted lanternfly’s egg laying season begins around September and ends in December. Eshenaur said lab studies have shown that egg masses can survive temperatures of below freezing, but the adults laying those eggs are unable to withstand consistent freezing temperatures. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture produced a macro-level study of suitable environments for the spotted lanternfly across the United States. In it, the Finger Lakes and all of New York’s grape growing regions are depicted as being suitable environments for the spotted lanternfly, but Eshenaur said that this study is not necessarily definitive.

Map of Areas Suitable for Spotted Lanternfly’s Establishment in U.S. from 2019. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

He explained that the variation among micro-climates are not considered in this study, such as the somewhat milder weather seen in the areas along the shores of the Finger Lakes. Eshenaur said that these areas, which unfortunately are also best suited to grape growing in the region, are likely to be suitable to lanternfly populations. Areas that experience more frequent freezes, such as the southern portion of Tompkins County, may prove to be less hospitable to the pest. Although the spectre of a warming climate could be the tarnish for this potential silver lining. 

Eshanaur said that researchers are still refining their maps of where in New York spotted lanternfly may be able to establish populations, and that a final map will be ready for the public in the late fall. At this point it appears that regions like the North Country and the Adirondacks won’t ever have to contend with the lanternfly woes that seem to be looming over the Finger Lakes.

You can fill out this report to alert the New York State Department of Agriculture if you believe you have found a spotted lanternfly or it’s egg masses.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn