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This invasive pest could travel to NC on Christmas trees
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This invasive pest could travel to NC on Christmas trees

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If you're getting ready to start your Christmas decorating with a live tree, beware the spotted lanternfly.

The invasive pest is encroaching on North Carolina, and while the insects are "indiscriminate egg layers" with a wide variety of host vegetation, experts say they could travel to the state on Christmas trees from nearby Virginia, where a small infestation was recently detected.

The spotted lanternfly generally doesn't kill the trees they prey on, but they can cause significant damage to agricultural crops and reduce yields.

Officials with the North Carolina Forest Service are encouraging the public to keep an eye out for the spotted lanternfly on their Christmas trees this year and to report if they see one.

The News & Observer talked with Larry Long, forest health monitoring coordinator with the N.C. Forest Service, and with Kelly Oten, an assistant professor and forest health specialist at N.C. State University, to learn more about the spotted lanternfly, the risks they pose and the proper steps you should take if you see the pest this holiday season.

Here's what we learned.

What is the spotted lanternfly?

The spotted lanternfly is an invasive pest that is non-native to the United States.

— It is native to China, India and Vietnam, and was introduced to Korea in 2004.

— It was first found in the U.S. in eastern Pennsylvania in 2014 and has since been spotted in New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland, Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Indiana and Massachusetts.

— It is a planthopper. Planthoppers are a group of insects that generally bear some resemblance to leaves or other plants. They generally "hop" for quick transportation.

— It is a sucking insect. This means the insect has mouthparts intended for piercing and sucking, which they use to feed on nutrients from the plant. This weakens the plant, reducing photosynthesis and making plants more susceptible to other stressors. Note: spotted lanternflies are not known to bite or sting at any life stage.

— Spotted lanternflies can attack and prey on a wide variety of hosts, including about 70 species of woody plants. They have a strong preference for tree-of-heaven plants.

Pest activity of spotted lanternflies

The spotted lanternfly is a pest in three main ways:

— Agriculturally. Spotted lanternflies pose a risk to agricultural crops, including grapevine, fruit trees and hops. In grapevines, a spotted lanternfly infestation can reduce crop yield by as much as 90%, and the quality of the remaining grape crop will likely be much worse, too.

— Targeting ornamental plants. In addition to targeting agricultural crops, the spotted lanternfly can target ornamental plants — those you use for decorative or landscaping purposes. These include tree-of-heaven, sycamore, American beech, dogwood, oak and maple trees.

— As a nuisance pest. Spotted lanternflies tend to congregate in large groups, often by the landscape plants of businesses or homes. Oten said the pests have been known to cluster on the main door of restaurants, forcing establishments to only use side doors for days at a time. The insects might also affect tourism, especially at vineyards — if grapevines are infested with spotted lanternflies, they could become less desirable visually, and the taste of grapes could be affected as well.

Because spotted lanternflies consume so many nutrients from trees and plants, they are also known to excrete large amounts of honeydew, a sticky, sugar-rich liquid. This may cause sooty mold to grow at the base of plants, which can prevent photosynthesis and be aesthetically displeasing.

Spotted lanternfly feeding sites may also ooze plant sap and be accompanied by a fermented smell, which can attract other insects, including yellow jackets, bees, ants and flies.

"Everyone's going to know and loathe the spotted lanternfly if it becomes established in North Carolina," Oten said.

Is the spotted lanternfly in North Carolina?

Dead adult spotted lanternflies have been spotted in North Carolina, but the pest has not been seen alive in the state and has not been "established" here yet, but forest experts warn that the live pests could be on their way to North Carolina soon.

According to the N.C. Forest Service, a small, isolated infestation of spotted lanternflies has been identified in Hillsville, Virginia, about 15 miles from the North Carolina-Virginia state line and about 20 miles from Mt. Airy.

Long said that forest officials in Virginia are managing the infestation.

Prior to the pest being discovered in Hillsville, the closest established spotted lanternfly population to North Carolina was in northern Virginia, Long said.

Why are Christmas trees a concern?

As Christmas approaches and Christmas trees begin to be shipped across state lines, there could be an increased risk of the pest entering North Carolina from Virginia.

"Spotted lanternflies are indiscriminate egg layers and while Christmas trees are poor hosts for feeding, spotted lanternflies will readily lay their eggs on them," Long said.

Long said Christmas tree producers are being encouraged to inspect their trees for the pest this holiday season.

The public should also inspect their trees for spotted lanternfly eggs and nymphs, either before purchasing or after the tree is home — especially if you buy one that was grown in Virginia.

"Sometimes those eggs will hatch once the trees are brought inside and begin to warm up," Long said.

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