With California’s citrus industry on full alert against the Asian citrus psyllid, another Asian visitor may be poised to marshal its destructive forces against the state’s dynamic wine industry. The assault could amount to wine tasting at its worst.
The latest invader is the spotted lantern fly, a Chinese native that has been seen to spread to apple trees and other plants from its original citing in NewYork, moving to Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia. Experts at the University of California, Riverside believe it might be on its way to California and wine country.
Long before the lantern fly’s potential arrival the researchers have a good idea about how to control it, but the likeliest control agent is a tiny parasitic wasp, also from China, which will need to be imported. These wasps called anastatus orientalis feature a needle-like appendage they use to lay their eggs inside the eggs of the lantern fly. As they develop they eat and kill their hosts, emerge through holes they chew in their egg dwelling places, and seem to have no intent on harm once they are free.
Mark Hoddle, director of the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside, received $544,000 from the California Department of Food & Agriculture to try to prevent the spotted lantern fly from shedding too much light, especially in California’s wine industry. Recognized as the fourth largest producer of wine, the state’s industry sold an estimated $35 billion domestically and exports $1.5 billion annually.
Not a biting or sucking pest, the colorful lantern fly damages grape vines by secreting what Hoddle calls “copious amounts” of “honeydew,” It is a waste product that encourages a black sooty mold that damages a plant’s ability to grow. If that weren’t enough, the honeydew attracts insects such as ants and hornets. Growers generally are aware of honeydew produced by several insect pests, know where and when to look for it, but apparently not at the volumes Hoddle has warned about.
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Hoddle explains why a wholesale immigration of the beneficial wasp that eats lantern fly eggs with such relish is not an immediate solution. ”We can’t just release a Chinese parasite into the wild in California. Chances are low it will harm the wrong targets, but we have to be sure.”
Nevertheless, Hoddle expects to be prepared if the lantern fly books passage on a California bound freighter. He is overseeing the rearing of the predator wasp in secure facilities at Riverside. Its effectiveness as a biological control agent is being evaluated among heavy lantern fly populations on the East Coast.
He has issued warnings to East Coasters traveling to California to inspect the less obvious areas of cars they will drive, looking for the honeydew masses that identify the lantern fly. One of the pest’s characteristics is laying its eggs on nonbiological materials such as train cars, motor homes, wooden pallets and trucks.
Anyone out walking and feeling inspired to identify the dreaded lantern fly can look for a pink tinged insect with wingspan of about an inch and a half. The species can fly a few hundred feet, particularly if aided by the wind. It may be flying nowhere in particular, but if it locates a grape vine it can be expected to settle down. And then the production of ugly honeydew and damage to the grape vine begin.
Hoddle’s views about the lantern fly were presented by Jules Bernstein, an information specialist at Riverside, and were published in the August issue of the respected and widely read American Vineyard publication, which prints monthly in Clovis.