ITHACA, N.Y.—Grape growers and winemakers in the Finger Lakes have been on the lookout for the spotted lanternfly’s red, flashy, and bespeckled wings ever since it appeared in Pennsylvania in 2014. The invasive species has a destructive appetite for grape vines, posing a major threat to the tourism and agriculture economies built around wine in the region. 

The spotted lanternfly has infested or at least been sighted in 14 states and it seems that it’s only a matter of time before the spotted lanternfly spreads widely across the country. Yet, experts are beginning to feel more hopeful.

The lanternfly has not made serious inroads into the Finger Lakes as fast as experts had expected, like Brian Eshenaur of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM). He thinks the grape growers in the area have up to a few more years before spotted lanternfly populations warrant pesticide treatment.

The spotted lanternfly has established itself in Broome County, and now near the vineyards of the Hudson Valley, but management techniques to deal have developed, says Eshenaur. The fear that they might impact apple trees has also subsided.

While the lanternfly is still a major threat, there is a little room for relief. Eshenaur said, “Overall, we’re less concerned about it than we were a few years ago.”

And financial support for combatting the pest continues to ramp up. The federal government committed $200 million to containing the spotted lanternfly, which will be distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Speciality Crops Pests program. 

“I don’t think that my livelihood is in danger at this point. Six years ago, seven years ago, when [the spotted lanternfly] first popped up, nobody really knew,” said Paul Brock, co-owner and winemaker at Silver Thread Vineyard on Seneca Lake.

The type of devastation that some Pennsylvania grapegrowers experienced — losing around 90% of their vines in some cases — isn’t expected to repeat itself.

Still, for Alex Alvarez, the husband of the husband-and-wife team behind the micro farm and winemaking venture Usonia, the spotted lanternfly is encouraging a pivot he had been considering in light of the variability climate change has brought to weather patterns. 

Usonia is pushing to make wines mixing other fruit fermentations, like raspberries or blueberries which spotted lanternfly don’t go after like they do grapes. 

“I think spotted lantern fly is just one more data point that is pushing us towards a much more varied farm model,” said Alvarez. 

Larger vineyards and grape growers don’t seem like they’re going out of business anytime soon, but the spotted lanternfly is going to mean more work. The sapsuckers start feeding as adults during New York’s harvest season for grapes, and continue into the early fall, adding on the need for labor as vineyards would normally be trying to wind down the year’s harvest.

Brock, who tries to avoid using traditional pesticides on his vines, said he’s excited about a biopesticide that utilizes a fungal pathogen that’s being studied at Cornell University and Penn State University. The pesticide is already showing promising results at killing the lanternfly and offers an effective alternative to traditional pesticides.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Ithaca Voice

Removing the tree of heaven from their acreage is a top priority for many grape growers, though it may feel like an uphill battle. The tree of heaven (or as some call it the tree of hell) is a naturalized invasive from the same region of eastern asia spotted lanternfly has traveled from. Its an ideal plant for the spotted lanternfly to feed on, and lay its eggs making it a ticking time bomb, and they grow tenaciously.

The tree of heaven is notorious for its ability to grow almost anywhere. Along the precipitous walls of gorges in the Finger Lakes, in the cracks and spoiled soils of urban areas, the tree of heaven perseveres. Its incredible will and endurance earned it a place as the central metaphor in the classic American novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” 

Turning the literary icon into pulp is easier said than done. It is able to sprout backup if a good chunk of its root networks remain. Sawing the tree of heaven down to a stump and pumping pesticide into the base is regarded as the best bet on killing it.

Lanternfly eggs on their own are a daunting issue to contend with too. Unless destroyed with a tough scrape, they can withstand nature’s harshest conditions when left untouched. Spotted lanternfly can lay these gray little masses on almost any surface too. Checking cars, bags, shoes — anything that’s leaving an area where there’s an infestation of lanternflies should be protocol.

Except for a few highly sympathetic individuals, the goal for most has been to fulfill a death warrant on the spotted lanternfly. Kill first, alert officials later; those are the instructions of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. 

“In the end, there’s nothing we can do. It’s gonna show up,” said Brock. “We just have to be prepared for it.”

Correction 08/25/2022: This article originally reported a biopesticide utilizing fungal pathogens to kill spotted lanternfly as being already available on the commercial market. This product is still being studied by researchers at Cornell and Penn State Universities.

Jimmy Jordan

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