Mottled lanterns feast on vines and endanger vineyards

It’s 2 p.m. in Pylesville, Maryland, and Mike Fiore is patrolling the vineyards he’s owned since 1975 in search of an insect that has recently begun to wreak havoc on his property: the invasive spotted lanternfly.

“If we don’t destroy them, [they’ll] destroy us,” said Fiore, a 78-year-old Italian immigrant whose family has been in the wine business for more than 300 years. “It’s the most destructive insect.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the vampire-like leafhopper feeds on a wide range of ornamental, fruit and woody trees, including vines. Fiore Winery is among those suffering the destructive effects of the insect, having already lost around 50% of its production this year to the lanterns, according to its owner.

“We’ve never seen anything like it,” Fiore said.

The spotted lantern is native to Asia and was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014. It has since spread to 14 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia.

A group of mottled lanterns on a vine.

Penn State University

The exact number of insects that ravage crops across the country remains unknown. But according to Julie Urban, associate research professor of entomology at Penn State, it’s probably in the billions.

“It’s possible that the lantern fly could be among the most serious things that could impact a vineyard,” Urban told CNBC. “The real story is going to depend on how far it spreads.”

Mottled Lanterns don’t fly very well, but do hitchhike. Researchers say they traveled across the United States clinging to the wheel arches of cars and jumping onto trains or planes, and laying their eggs along the way.

In Kempton, Pennsylvania, Larry Shrawder owns one of the first vineyards hard hit by insects. Years later, he is still recovering.

“They cover the whole trunk and you get to the point where you can’t even see the trunk anymore,” the owner of Stony Run Winery told CNBC. “They’re just side-by-side lanterns that suck all the juice out of your plant.”

When it comes to vines, experts say the insects target the vine rather than the grape. And Shrawder said the insects continually bled the plant of nutrients.

Penn State associate research professor Julie Urban is conducting field research to combat spotted lanterns.

CNBC

“This eliminates the plant’s ability to ripen fruit and store carbohydrates over winter and most deaths occur the following year when the plant does not wake up in the spring,” he said.

Shrawder said it’s been four years since Mottled Lanterns began feasting on his vines.

“For quite a while we thought we were just going to be bankrupt,” he said. “The 15% of the vineyard that we have lost translates to about 30,000 bottles per year and about $525,000 of produce per year being blown away by flies.”

To try to ward off insects, Shrawder wrapped his vines in special white netting. It didn’t work, but he said spraying the trees surrounding the vineyard with insecticide helped.

“It’s not completely successful – but we certainly reduce insect bloat in the vineyard this way,” he said.

A major concern is that the leafhopper will invade the nation’s largest wine-producing vineyards in New York and California.

Left photo: Healthy vines bearing grapes. Photo on the right: Vines destroyed by the dappled lanterns.

Larry Shrawder

“It’s not a matter of if — it’s a matter of when,” Urban said. “For the moment, the lantern is not yet implanted in the vines [in New York’s] Long Island or… in the Finger Lakes. Certainly, if they go to the wine regions of the west coast, it could have a… very serious economic impact.”

It is not yet known how much damage the Dappled Lanterns will cause as they continue to spread. But Fiore said her advice to other vineyard owners is that early detection is key.

“Don’t let your guard down for a minute,” Fiore said.

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