Vineyards feel an advantage in the fight against the spotted lanternfly

ITHACA, NY—Finger Lakes grape growers and grape growers have been on the lookout for the red, flashy, speckled wings of the Spotted Lantern since it first appeared in Pennsylvania in 2014. The invasive species has a destructive appetite for vines, posing a major threat to tourism and agricultural economies built around wine in the region.

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

The lantern didn’t make a serious foray into the Finger Lakes as quickly as experts had expected, like Brian Eshenaur of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM). He thinks grape growers in the area still have a few years before populations of spotted lantern flies warrant pesticide treatment.

The spotted lantern has established itself in Broome County, and now near vineyards in the Hudson Valley, but management techniques to deal with it have developed, says Eshenaur. The fear that they could have an impact on the apple trees has also faded.

While the Lantern is still a major threat, there is a little wiggle room. Eshenaur said, “Overall, we’re less concerned about this than a few years ago.”

And financial support to fight the pest continues to grow. The federal government has committed $200 million to contain the spotted lanternfly, which will be distributed through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crops Pests program.

“I don’t think my livelihood is at risk at this point. Six years ago, seven years ago, when [the spotted lanternfly] first appeared, no one really knew,” said Paul Brock, co-owner and winemaker of Silver Thread Vineyard on Seneca Lake.

The kind of devastation that some Pennsylvania grape growers have suffered — losing around 90% of their vines in some cases — is unlikely to be repeated.

Yet for Alex Alvarez, the husband of the husband-and-wife team behind the Usonia micro-farm and winery, the spotted lanternfly encourages a pivot he had envisioned in light of the variability that climate change has brought to weather patterns.

Usonia pushes to make wines mixing other fruit fermentations, such as raspberry or blueberry that the mottled lantern does not attack as it does for grapes.

“I think the spotted lanternfly is just one more data point that pushes us toward a much more varied farm model,” Alvarez said.

Big wineries and grape growers don’t look like they’ll be shutting down anytime soon, but the spotted lanternfly is going to mean more work. Sapsuckers begin feeding as adults during New York grape harvest season and continue until early fall, adding to the need for labor as vineyards would normally try to slow down the harvest of the year.

Brock, who tries to avoid using traditional pesticides on his vines, said he’s excited about a biopesticide that uses a fungal pathogen that’s already commercially available in the United States. The pesticide is already showing promising results in killing the lantern and offers an effective alternative to traditional pesticides.

Credit: Casey Martin / The Voice of Ithaca

Removing the Sky Tree from their acreage is a top priority for many grape growers, although it may seem like an uphill battle. The Tree of Heaven (or as some call it the Tree of Hell) is a naturalized invasive species from the same region of East Asia that the Mottled Lantern has travelled. It is 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 known for its ability to grow almost anywhere. Along the steep walls of the Finger Lakes gorges, in the fissures and degraded soils of urban areas, the tree of paradise lingers. His incredible willpower and endurance earned him a central metaphor spot in the classic American novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Turning the literary icon into pulp is easier said than done. He is able to sprout a backup if he has a good chunk of his root networks left. Sawing the Sky Tree down to a stump and pumping pesticide into the base is considered the best bet to kill it.

Lanternfly eggs alone are also a big deal. Unless destroyed by a hard scratch, they can withstand nature’s harshest conditions when untouched. The Mottled Lantern can also lay these small gray masses on almost any surface. Checking cars, bags, shoes – anything leaving an area where there is a lantern infestation should be protocol.

With the exception of a few very friendly individuals, the goal of most has been to execute a death warrant against the spotted lanternfly. Kill first, alert officials later; these are the instructions of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“At the end of the day, there’s nothing we can do. It’s going to show up,” Brock said. “We just have to prepare for it.”

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