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Lanternfly discovered by Franciscan students

THE TEAM — From left, junior biology major Melody Vetrovec, biology Professor Chris Payne and junior biology major Max Wilson surveyed 3,000 trees in the area and discovered the spotted lanternfly is back in Ohio. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture figures the lanternfly infestation has cost the commonwealth hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — Student researchers monitoring area woodlands for the dreaded spotted lanternfly struck pay dirt Oct. 2 near the rail line in Goulds.

Franciscan University of Steubenville Juniors Melody Vetrovec and Max Wilson discovered the invasive pest, which has the potential to do millions of dollars in agricultural damage across Ohio.

“They’re pretty destructive when they get the opportunity,” Biology Professor Chris Payne said. “Each one will lay 30-50 eggs (at a time), so all of a sudden you’ll have a population that will balloon pretty quickly and when it does, it attacks upwards of 80 to 90 or 100 species of plants and trees.”

The lanternfly was first sighted in Ohio near some railroad tracks in Mingo Junction in October 2020, but it was thought to have been eradicated shortly after by Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pest Control inspectors.

After learning about the threat, Vetrovec, supervised by Payne, designed a research lanternfly monitoring project aimed at high-traffic routes — the river, rail lines and major east-west transportation corridors.

Since May they’ve surveyed more than 3,000 trees in eastern Jefferson County and border counties in West Virginia, banding about 70 trees in Mingo Junction, Steubenville, Weirton and Chester with sticky traps that they monitor every 10 days for longer-term tracking of the insect’s invasion into the state.

Vetrovec said they’d just started setting up the plot and were going through counting and visually inspecting trees when, “halfway through I looked down and, waist high, there was a lanternfly looking up at me.”

Wilson, who joined the project in August, said he “wasn’t exactly surprised” to find a lanternfly in Mingo Junction, given that one had been found a few miles away a year ago.

“We had a fairly good idea the bugs were going to come in, probably from that area since it had happened before,” he said. “I was really excited. It was really, really cool but it was also really, really bad.”

Payne said the project is geared at supporting state agencies trying to monitor for and slow the lanternfly invasion — Ohio’s Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources. Since the university is located “so close to the eastern state border and to both vehicle and train routes coming from infested states farther east, we have a unique opportunity to serve as ‘gatekeepers’ for the whole state.”

Vetrovec pointed out the spotted lanternfly is native to southern China, a climate similar to what we have in the Upper Ohio Valley — one reason it’s flourished here. It arrived in Berks County, Pa., in 2014, and quickly exploded into a full-fledged infestation: They’ve now been identified in 100 counties in at least 14 states.

The lanternfly causes oozing sap, wilting, leaf curling and dieback in trees, vines, crops and other types of plants. Vetrovec said when the insect feeds, it also leaves droppings that cause a fungus that kills plants, “so you have depletion of plant resources through them feeding, but also through the fungus.”

“Pennsylvania estimates hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural losses,” he said, saying the potential for damage to Ohio’s agricultural system is cause for concern.

He said the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s plant pest control inspectors will be back in Jefferson County to help search for and eradicate the lanternfly.

Vetrovec said in the past, DOA has used chemical sprays on trees where they’ve been spotted. “Another option is developing chemical traps and lures using methyl silicate, they’re seeing some success with (it), and it works OK, but other evidence suggests they don’t communicate with pheromone like a lot of other insects do, they communicate using vibrations” so researchers are looking into that possibility.

Payne said there’s also evidence to suggest organisms that already live here, like chickens and the grey catbird, will eat the lanternfly, as well as a wasp brought over to help battle the gypsy moth.

“We have to figure out how to best control those things so as they move into additional states like Ohio, we have a better chance of fighting them before they spread out of control,” he said.

Funding for the project came from the Franciscan Institute of Science and Health, a nonprofit started through FUS to support research across all sciences and engineering at the university.

“We could use more funding to keep this going in the spring,” Payne added. “This is not a battle that will end today, this is an ongoing project that will keep going as long as we can keep people interested in it.”

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