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Spotted Lanternfly Could Be Worst Invasive Species In 150 Years


International trade brings us a variety of goods but also invasive species. Pennsylvania is a battleground against the spotted lanternfly, which probably hitched a ride from Asia. Some say it could be the worst invader in 150 years. From member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Susan Phillips reports on the rush to kill it.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: The port of Philadelphia's inspection station is a giant warehouse that smells surprisingly of pineapples. Workers unload large tractor trailers carrying boxes of potato chips, barrels of honey and pallets of tires. Logan Alcala looks through boxes of Central American plantains, carefully examining each one, not for cocaine but for bugs and seeds.

LOGAN ALCALA: Not a lot of people are willing to be on their knees all day, and that's the downfall, but once you find those bugs, it's kind of like a little addiction because it's just so satisfying.

PHILLIPS: Armed with a biology degree and a good flashlight, Alcala works for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And last year, she and her colleagues found 475 potentially harmful bugs and seeds coming in through the port of Philadelphia.

ALCALA: One of my favorite things is looking at wood pallets. And my second is vessel boarding because I'm looking after - trying to get the Asian gypsy moth or, like you mentioned, the lanternfly.

PHILLIPS: First discovered near Reading, Pa., in 2014, the spotted lanternfly has spread across 13 counties in the state, munching on suburban maples, grapes and orchards. It likes to eat everything, which means it could be more devastating than the invasive emerald ash borer. And the worse thing is it's not very tasty, so it has no real predators here in the U.S.

DAVID PAAR: There are no birds coming and picking the nymphs off the trees.

PHILLIPS: David Paar first saw the brightly colored red and black moth-like insect while grilling on his deck in suburban Philadelphia in the spring of 2015.

PAAR: And I looked up, and I saw an adult, and said, oh my word. This is the spotted lanternfly. Kids, come take a look at it 'cause I trapped it and I put it in a jar.

PHILLIPS: Paar is an arborist, trained to spot pests.

PAAR: And they said, oh, yeah, Dad, we know. They're all over our trees.

PHILLIPS: This time of year, the young nymphs are crawling up those trees. They look like beetles with white or red spots. Later in the summer, they will develop colorful red wings with black spots. A big challenge is the adult lanternflies will lay their eggs on everything - furniture, rocks and cars - which easily transport them across the country. Fred Strathmeyer is a deputy secretary at Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. Strathmeyer says if it continues to spread, the pest could cause an estimated $18 billion to $20 billion in damage to agriculture and forestry just in the state of Pennsylvania. But a big fear is what it might do to grapes and the wine industry.

FRED STRATHMEYER: You can only imagine if the spotted lanternfly were to end up in the Napa Valley, for instance - not be a good moment.

PHILLIPS: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending $17 1/2 million to fight the lanternfly in southeastern Pennsylvania. State and federal officials hope to at least contain it, but Paar says getting rid of the lanternfly won't be easy.

PAAR: I can guarantee by the time the adults come out, I would look at the Finger Lake region of New York. I would look at the Baltimore region of Maryland and Washington, D.C., for it to be there.

PHILLIPS: And in fact, this spring, a thriving population of spotted lanternflies were discovered in Virginia for the first time. For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Phillips