Penn State researchers have launched a search for native wildlife that kills and eats the non-native spotted lanternfly, which has spread to at least 26 counties in Pennsylvania.
“Because the spotted lanternfly is a non-native insect, it doesn’t have natural enemies in the U.S. to keep its numbers in balance,” said Kelli Hoover, professor of entomology in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Finding predators that live in our environment would be a great biological control option and useful in guiding management practices.”
Hoover and Anne Johnson, a doctoral candidate in entomology, are spearheading a study into the potential for native birds and insects to feed on the spotted lanternfly, which is an invasive insect from Asia that first was found in North America in Berks County in 2014.
Economists have estimated that the invader could cause losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the Pennsylvania’s agricultural and landscaping sectors, as well as making backyards less enjoyable to homeowners.
The researchers are aware that several predators, including a parasitic wasp, keep the spotted lanternfly population in check in its native range in Asia. But importing new species into the U.S. to combat the lanternfly would require several years to make its way through the regulatory process.
In the meantime, “if we can find native species that will prey on spotted lanternfly and ways to encourage this behavior, then we can use these species in control programs more effectively,” explained Johnson.
They want to learn more about the types of birds that will eat lanternflies and their feeding behaviors, such as eating mainly nymphs or avoiding eating the wings on adults.
They also want to know if the lanternfly’s preferred diet –tree of heaven — influences how it might taste to birds. They theorize that the chemicals in tree of heaven might cause the insect to have a “bitter” flavor, especially in later life stages when the pest is eating profusely.
“Insects have developed ways of protecting themselves, and one involves colorful markings,” Hoover said. “Colors are a warning sign that signals to predators, ‘Stay away, I taste bad.’ This could be the case with the spotted lanternfly, which displays red and black markings as the insect matures.”
The team, which includes Margaret Brittingham, professor of wildlife resources, and Allison Cornell, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, will study spotted lanternfly specimens that have been raised in a quarantined laboratory with tree of heaven as their food source.
They will analyze the insects for chemical compounds in each of the insect’s life stages, while examining tree of heaven sap as the potential source of these chemicals.
They also plan to deploy bird feeders at The Arboretum at Penn State and Millbrook Marsh Nature Center in Centre County, and at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center in Huntingdon County. The feeders will offer ground lanternfly adults that have fed on tree of heaven or grapevine in side-by-side placements, with video cameras recording birds that visit the feeders to eat the suet.
In addition to their controlled studies, the researchers are enlisting the help of citizen scientists, preferably bird watchers, in Pennsylvania’s spotted lanternfly quarantine zone to post reports, videos and photos of birds they see feeding on spotted lanternflies, where and when they saw them, and whether tree of heaven was located nearby. They also are encouraged to provide information about the birds’ behavior, such as swiping their beaks or shaking their heads after eating a spotted lanternfly.
“Birds are essential in helping to keep plant-eating insect populations under control,” Brittingham said. “We are eager to learn more about their potential in helping with the spotted lanternfly problem.”
For more information about taking part in that citizen-scientist component of the research, send an email to email@example.com.
Another phase of the research will investigate the potential for other insects to suppress spotted lanternfly populations.
Earlier this year, PennLive asked members of several nature- and gardening-related groups on Facebook to report their observations of any animals killing or eating spotted lanternflies. From hundreds of responses, the No. 1 and 2 reports were of praying mantises seen eating adult lanternflies and garden spiders at least snaring lanternflies in their webs and killing them, if not eating them.
Others reported yellow jackets, gray catbirds, wheel bugs, hornets, fishing spiders, green frogs, dogs, cats, goldfish, koi and ducks eating the invasive insects. Some chicken owners reported that their birds ate lanternflies, while others said the chickens avoided the insects after one taste.
— Marcus Schneck, PennLive via Associated Press