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Local vineyards on the alert for invasive species spotted lanternfly

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The inch-long spotted lanternfly has a particular fondness for apple trees and grapevines.

For a quarter century, Chris Pearmund’s eponymous vineyard in the foothills of eastern Fauquier County has survived a feared invasion of stinkbugs, record-breaking rainfall and unseasonable hailstorms. Now, like other vineyard owners in the area, he’s preparing for what could be another threat to his livelihood and the burgeoning wine industry in Northern Virginia: the spotted lanternfly.

The inch-long insect, an invasive pest with a particular fondness for apple trees and grapevines, has been steadily spreading across Northern Virginia for the past three years. Although it has not appeared in any Virginia vineyards yet, knowing the lanternfly’s potential for destruction, agricultural experts are imposing quarantines and taking preventative measures. Pearmund said it may be only a matter of time before the pest arrives in Fauquier. “Hopefully we’ll have something to control it,” he said.

In an effort to curb the spread of spotted lanternfly, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has imposed a quarantine-zone on all areas where the pest has become established. The quarantine-zone, originally limited to the Winchester area, was expanded in mid-March to include neighboring Clarke and Warren counties. According to the new regulations, businesses in affected areas are required to complete special training and take steps to ensure their shipments are free of spotted lanternflies.

“It’s a strange pest,” said David Gianino, program manager for the department’s Office of Plant Industry Services, referencing the lanternfly’s tendency to hitchhike on human transport. “It can be on stone, on pallets or on a truck, so it’s a challenge to get all these different businesses engaged.”

Indigenous to southern Asia, the spotted lanternfly was accidentally introduced to the U.S. through trade. In 2014, the pest was first detected in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Infestations quickly spread throughout the region. By 2018, the first spotted lanternflies were found in Winchester and have since become an increasingly common sight in the area.

The pest primarily seeks out tree-of-heaven, another invasive species native to Asia, to lay its eggs. In Southeast Pennsylvania, where infestations remain the most severe, lanternflies have destroyed entire sections of vineyards and cost local growers $13.1 million, according to a Pennsylvania State University report.

In swarms numbering in the thousands, lanternflies drain large amounts of sap from grapevines and other plant species, excreting a sugary substance called honeydew. “Vines are either killed outright or weakened so they don’t survive the winter,” said Doug Pfeiffer, a fruit entomologist at Virginia Tech. The excreted honeydew, said Pfeiffer, breeds a fungus called sooty mold, which covers the feeding area with a black sticky substance.

“Over the past year, everyone in the vineyard industry has become more focused on spotted lanternfly,” said Skip Causey, president of the Virginia Vineyards Association, who has consulted Pfeiffer on the issue. “If it hits like it did in Pennsylvania, it’s going to have a huge impact on the wine industry across Virginia.”

The Virginia Cooperative Extension, an outreach program run through Virginia Tech, has been active in addressing spotted lanternfly in the state. In addition to removing egg masses and setting traps, extension agents engage in public outreach and help growers to develop pest management practices. “It’s going to take the whole community doing its part to slow the spread of this insect,” said Mark Sutphin, an extension agent based in Winchester.

But for growers like Pearmund, who must weigh the lanternfly’s threat against possible side effects of pest management practices, it’s more of a waiting game at this stage. “Currently, all we can do is stay informed,” said Pearmund. “Being in communication with the experts who are researching [this pest] and listening to the science is our best resource.”

Pearmund, whose favorite pen is emblazoned with ‘Stomp Spotted Lanternfly,’ likened the insect’s unpredictable threat to a hurricane. “It might miss us; it might dissipate; or it might turn our way and run us down.”

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