An invasive insect is bringing an early and unwelcome present to Christmas tree growers in eastern Pennsylvania.
The state Department of Agriculture announced its largest expansion yet of the spotted lanternfly quarantine on Nov. 3, meaning growers in the 13 counties now affected will need paperwork from the state to move trees out of the area.
Carbon and Schuylkill, two of the state’s top Christmas tree producers, are among the counties newly added to the quarantine.
“Make the pest your enemy,” said Ruth Welliver, the Agriculture Department’s bureau director for plant industry.
The state isn’t aware of lanternflies feeding on conifers, and if any adult lanternflies stow away in baled trees, they will die as the weather gets colder.
The state’s main concern is preventing the lanternfly’s gray-brown egg masses from being transported to other counties or other states.
“Unfortunately, this pest lays its eggs just about anywhere and everywhere,” said Fred Strathmeyer, a state deputy secretary of agriculture and a York County Christmas tree grower.
Christmas trees, as well as firewood, machinery and anything else stored outside, are fair game.
The lanternfly situation is similar to what Christmas tree growers once faced with the gypsy moth, Strathmeyer said.
Growers routinely found gypsy moth egg masses on the trees, and those trees had to be either scraped of their egg masses or, more commonly, not shipped, Strathmeyer said.
There is one major difference: Gypsy moths generally laid their eggs on the trunks of trees. Lanternflies aren’t that predictable.
Growers in the quarantine zone should be scouting their fields for adult lanternflies and egg masses, and they should call the Department of Agriculture to develop a compliance plan.
That’s the documentation required to move trees and other outdoor items out of the area.
This paperwork is already required when shipping to certain parts of the country, so “this is not something that’s uncommon,” Strathmeyer said.
By now, many growers know where they’ll be shipping trees, so the planning process should be fairly easy. The department’s goal is to keep commerce moving, Strathmeyer said.
People moving materials within a quarantined county need a permit to help ensure egg masses or insects are not spread beyond already-infested areas.
The spotted lanternfly, native to Asia, was found for the first time in the United States in 2014 in Berks County.
It feeds on a wide range of economically important plants, including apples, grapes and hardwoods.
Since its discovery, the fly has gradually spread into Bucks, Chester, Lehigh, Montgomery and Northampton counties, which are all under quarantine.
The additional counties quarantined last week — Carbon, Delaware, Lancaster, Lebanon, Monroe, Philadelphia and Schuylkill — border the counties where the lanternfly’s presence has already been confirmed.
The state had previously been quarantining only municipalities where the fly was found, but it is expanding to a county approach to encourage vigilance in a broader area, Welliver said.
The quarantine now covers all but one of Pennsylvania’s counties that border New Jersey. The pest hasn’t jumped the Delaware River yet, but it could easily hitch a ride there.
“We’ve been surveying regularly, especially those counties next to the river,” said Jeff Wolfe, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.
Wolfe said New Jersey residents are encouraged to check for spotted lanternflies on anything they bring back home from Pennsylvania, including Christmas trees.
Growers and consumers both have a responsibility to inspect their Pennsylvania Christmas trees, killing any adults or egg masses they see, said Emelie Swackhamer, a Penn State Extension educator.
“Spotted lanternfly is really a community problem,” she said.
That goes for produce growers, grain farmers and other ag producers too. Lanternfly adults have been found among produce and other commodities, Welliver said.
The state is also working with landowners to destroy the tree of heaven, the lanternfly’s preferred host and an invasive species itself.
The Department of Agriculture does have the authority to penalize, but that would happen only if someone were maliciously trying to move lanternflies, Welliver said.
“There are going to be mistakes. There is going to be a learning curve,” Welliver said. “Our enemy is the pest, not the people that might be moving it. We want them to help us.”