Fun­gus shows prom­ise in killing spot­ted lantern­flies

Half of in­va­sive in­sects die in early Mont­gomery Co. tri­als

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHELLE MERLIN

A nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring fun­gus that’s com­mer­cially avail­able as an or­ganic biopes­ti­cide spray could spell doom for the spot­ted lantern­fly pop­u­la­tion.

The fun­gus, Beau­ve­ria bassiana, is the fo­cus of a study in Mont­gomery County. Re­searchers from Penn State and Cor­nell Univer­sity are spray­ing the in­va­sive spot­ted lantern­flies at the 695-acre Nor­ris­town Farm Park with the fun­gus and then col­lect­ing the in­sect corpses they find.

With luck, the lantern­flies will grow a white, fuzzy coat of the same strain of fun­gus that was sprayed on them, show­ing that the biopes­ti­cide was ef­fec­tive at killing them and not some other fun­gus or en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tor.

Although it’s early in the study and re­searchers are work

ing to con­firm the fun­gus, about 50% of the spot­ted lantern­flies sprayed were killed.

“We’ve got some, at this point, re­sults that are promis­ing that it could be an ef­fec­tive tool,” said Den­nis Calvin, an as­so­ciate dean and direc­tor of spe­cial pro­grams at Penn State.

Re­searchers have been scram­bling to come up with ways to com­bat the spot­ted lantern­fly, an in­sect na­tive to Asia that was dis­cov­ered in Berks County in 2014. With­out na­tive preda­tors, the bizarreloo­k­ing in­sect spread to 14 coun­ties in Penn­syl­va­nia and sev­eral sur­round­ing states over the past five years.

It’s dam­aged or­chards, grapes, hops and hard­woods along the way, harm­ing the plants by feed­ing on their sap and by ex­cret­ing a sticky sweet sub­stance that leads to sooty mold.

Lit­tle was known about the in­sects when they first came here, and there are stud­ies un­der­way to learn more about their food pref­er­ences and how to con­trol them.

Re­searchers came up with a list of pes­ti­cides that could kill the lantern­flies, ad­vo­cated for the use of sticky bands to trap the in­sects, and dis­cov­ered that cre­at­ing trap trees for the bugs could be ef­fec­tive. But they were also la­bor-in­ten­sive and risked harm­ing other an­i­mals and in­sects. (It’s now rec­om­mended that any sticky bands are also wrapped in chicken wire to keep squir­rels, birds and other an­i­mals from get­ting stuck on them.)

“When any in­va­sive pest comes in, our first line of defense is usu­ally chem­i­cal con­trol be­cause we don’t have bi­ol­ogy or be­hav­ior re­ally fig­ured out,” said Heather Leach, a spot­ted lantern­fly ex­ten­sion as­so­ciate at Penn State. “A chem­i­cal con­trol is ef­fec­tive, but we also rec­og­nize there could be a lot of non-tar­get or en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age.”

The fun­gus could rep­re­sent a safer al­ter­na­tive that doesn’t harm an­i­mals or lower water qual­ity. It’s pos­si­ble the fun­gus could be sprayed from planes or drones once it’s prop­erly re­searched and vet­ted.

In early July, re­searchers set up for plots in the Mont­gomery County park in ar­eas in­fested with lantern­fly nymphs, ac­cord­ing to a story on the Penn State web­site. Us­ing sprayers 30 feet in the air, some sec­tions were sprayed with the biopes­ti­cide con­tain­ing the fun­gus, while oth­ers were sprayed with water to be used as con­trols.

They set tarps on the ground and col­lected any dead bugs for test­ing to see if the fun­gus they sprayed was re­spon­si­ble for their death. They’re also hop­ing to see how the com­pound af­fects other in­sects, in hopes there are few un­in­tended ca­su­al­ties.

Leach said the nymphs died about five to seven days af­ter spray­ing. Re­searchers haven’t yet stud­ied the im­pact of a sec­ond round of spray­ing, which is sug­gested on the la­bel for other treat­ments.

Leach was op­ti­mistic about the spray, as­sum­ing it was re­spon­si­ble for killing 50% of the lantern­flies.

“That’s pretty ex­cel­lent in re­duc­ing our chances of spot­ted lantern­flies jump­ing on a ve­hi­cle and hitch­hik­ing to a new area or re­duc­ing pressure in quar­an­tine zones,” she said.

Re­searchers are in the midst of test­ing the fun­gus on the adult, winged spot­ted lantern­flies.

They dis­cov­ered that two nat­u­rally-oc­cur­ring fungi, Beau­varia bassiana and Batkoa ma­jor, killed lantern­flies at a Berks County park last year.

The for­mer is eas­ier to study be­cause it’s al­ready com­mer­cially avail­able. It’s com­monly used against in­sects like aphids in green­houses.

The fun­gus spreads by con­tact.

Re­searchers said it’s too soon to rec­om­mend that the gen­eral pub­lic use Beau­varia bassiana against lantern­flies, but they should have more de­fin­i­tive in­for­ma­tion this win­ter.

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