HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - In mid-September, state and county health and agriculture officials noted the rising presence of the Spotted Lanternfly in this region, as it can hold dire consequences for local agricultural producers already struggling with economic activity during the pandemic.

Concerns over the species’ continued spread and an update on protocols to county officials and the greater community was delivered to the freeholders Sept. 15 by Dr. Megan Muehlbauer, Hunterdon County Agent for Agriculture & Natural Resources for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

Muehlbauer spoke about the Spotted Lanternfly (SLF), an invasive insect that feeds on hardwood trees and various agricultural crops. She explained that major concerns are for grape growers and winery fields in Hunterdon County, a thriving sector of western New Jersey “agribusiness,” which often serve as event venues and tourist attractions.

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“Research has shown that SLF can be devastating to hops and also to grapes,” she said. “The populations of Spotted Lanternfly appear to be rising here in Hunterdon County based on the phone calls and emails we’ve been getting into the Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, but the Department of Health Services has also received calls. I have specifically been working with wine-grape growers in Hunterdon County which are numerous and continuing to increase, as the popularity of local wineries has multiplied in recent years. Those specific farms continue to grow and expand in our county, and we’re working to protect those vineyards against this insect.”

According to the webpage of Rutgers University New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, the Spotted Lanternfly was first reported in the state in western Central New Jersey - Warren and Mercer Counties - in the summer of 2018. As a result, on July 31, 2018, the State Department of Agriculture announced its quarantine of the two affected counties as well as Hunterdon County, which is between Warren and Mercer counties, to prevent the spread of the Spotted Lanternfly.

This year, the list of counties for quarantine and inspection of vehicles where the bug could be “hitch-hiking from” expanded to include Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Somerset Counties.

The Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station website notes how a spotted lanternfly, an invasive species native to China, feeds on more than 70 plant species, including cultivated and wild grapes, fruit trees and hardwood trees common in woodlots and as landscape plantings.

“In the USA, Spotted Lanternfly is an invasive species that could be very devastating to some New Jersey crops and hardwood trees,” the website noted. “This insect was accidentally introduced into Pennsylvania – inside a shipment that arrived – and was confirmed in the state in September 2014. At first it was only found in Berks County, however, today it has spread throughout Pennsylvania and to neighboring states, including New Jersey.”

Since 2018, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, specifically the USDA-APHIS (Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service). Joint efforts led to several crews working to treat areas where infestations have been reported in the state.

Over the summer, treatment coordinated by NJDA took place at Bull's Island, part of the Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park in Hunterdon County.

NJDA Plant Industry Division Director Joe Zoltowski said a Spotted Lantenfly’s ability to travel easily, attached to any mode of transportation, truly allowed it to spread.

“We are asking residents to do their part by eliminating this bug whenever possible,” he said.

County specialists said the state Department of Agriculture is well-versed in what conditions are for the bug’s presence throughout the state.

“We are targeting areas where severe infestations have been confirmed, and we also encourage residents to destroy the Spotted Lanternfly if possible when they see it,” Douglas Fisher, New Jersey Department of Agriculture secretary, said. “We’ve been working diligently to slow the advance of this bug. It will take a combined effort to help keep this pest from spreading,”

The State Department of Agriculture announced in an Aug. 12 press release that the enlisted crews may seek permission to come on to a residential or commercial property where large infestations exist.

The adult Spotted Lanternfly began laying egg masses in early to mid-September. The NJDA advised that residents can also take action, as the “gray looking egg masses can be scraped off trees, double bagged and then thrown away.”

Egg masses can also be placed into alcohol, bleach or hand sanitizer to kill them.

“We are targeting areas where severe infestations have been confirmed, and we also encourage residents to destroy the Spotted Lanternfly if possible when they see it,” Fisher said. “It will take a combined effort to help keep this pest from spreading. Crews will have proper identification and follow proper safety protocols. The crews will need to check only the specific areas outdoors where the Spotted Lanternfly has been found. Treatments will only occur on the Tree of Heaven, which the Spotted Lanternfly prefers and is believed to need to reproduce.”

Since summer 2018, no less than 20,000 Trees of Heaven have been treated for eggs on almost 19,000 combined acres statewide.

The latest guidance Hunterdon County officials have on protection measures are being posted on Rutgers University’s Plant and Pest Advisory, and those will be transferred onto the Hunterdon Rutgers Cooperative Extension website soon.

At the Sept. 15 freeholders meeting Tadhgh Rainey, Division Head of Mosquito & Vector Control Services with the county Department of Health Services, spoke on continued reporting needs.

“Historically when the county has had these sort of invasive insect outbreaks, what we found to be an effective tool to get residents on board and knowing what to and what not to do is to put a survey out, especially online,” Rainey said. “We will certainly post this survey on our Hunterdon County Health Department website or perhaps we can do so on the county’s main page. That will allow residents to log in their problems and there would be a few questions identifying the extent of the problem.”

Data collected from local residents and those growing crops here would develop a baseline, he said, to provide information that Hunterdon County officials can relay to the State Department of Agriculture. This reporting will also help identify certain parts of the county needing further assistance.

“In my experience with 90 percent of calls received, people are just looking to register their problem, as they were told they need to call somewhere about the Spotted Lanternfly but they don’t know where,” Rainey said. “We are trying to get the flow of information organized. The remaining 10 percent of calls would need assistance in some form such as a grape grower with a large problem, or residents with the insect present in their yard. We take those on a case-by-case basis.”
Rainey added that the information gathering and disbursement online is an iterative process, and both the county agricultural agent (Muehlbauer) and himself would be open to the freeholders’ suggestions and ideas.

Rainey explained that a Spotted Lanternfly site specific for Hunterdon residents was in development throughout the month. Meanwhile, the state Department of Agriculture’s Jeff Wolfe noted that residents reporting a Spotted Lanternfly sighting should call 609-406-6943 or
email slf-plantindustry@ag.nj.gov with information.

“Our strategy right now is to use both the State Department of Agriculture and the Rutgers University resources to educate the public in Hunterdon County about this insect,” Muehlbauer said “That includes explaining that it does not harm humans.”