Graduate Student Aids Eradication Effort for Damaging Pest

Posted by: Elizabeth Richardson on August 9, 2017, No Comments

The exotic-looking spotted lanternfly has the potential to do serious damage to Pennsylvania’s vineyards, fruit trees and timber industry, which is why the research that Kelly Murman, an East Stroudsburg University graduate student, is doing is so important.

Murman, a master’s degree candidate in biology, is working this summer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture on a study that could help find ways to eradicate the lanternfly before it can spread across the state.

“They’re very striking, beautiful insects but they’re still pests,” Murman said.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture the lanternfly poses “a significant threat to the state’s more than $20.5 million grape, nearly $134 million apple, and more than $24 million stone fruit industries, as well as the hardwood industry in Pennsylvania which accounts for $12 billion in sales.”

Murman, of Avoca, Pa., is monitoring the growth and habits of the insect at seven sites around Berks County, which is the county where the invasive species was first seen in the United States in September 2014. The insect is native to such Asian countries as China and India and USDA officials suspect it arrived in the United States accidentally through international trade. To date, lanternflies have also been found in parts of Bucks, Lehigh, Northampton, Chester and Montgomery counties.

The lanternflies at Murman’s research sites are enclosed in big mesh bags surrounding nine different types of plants so they can’t get out. Murman reports on what they are eating, how many survive and other aspects of their life cycle. The idea is to figure out how to disrupt their life cycle.

“Ideally, it’s better to understand what’s going on, especially in the immature stages so you can control the fly before it’s a reproductive adult,” Murman said. “If you can kill a pest before it has a chance to reproduce, that’s just a bonus.”

Murman was recommended for the volunteer job by ESU Professor of Biology Matthew Wallace, Ph.D. She had asked Wallace, an entomologist, if he knew any suitable projects for her to get some independent study credits and he checked with his contacts in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. They passed the request to a USDA research entomologist who is running the lanternfly program.

Wallace was glad to recommend Murman for the work. “She’s one of the best students I’ve ever had,” Wallace said. “This is an important project. I wouldn’t have suggested her if I didn’t think she could do it. It’s very important data she’s collecting.”

It’s critical for researchers to understand which plants are most likely to be harmed by the lanternfly.

“They all suck sap from various plants and that’s where the problem comes in,” Wallace said. “They feed on economically important crops.”

The pests also excrete a substance called “honeydew” and a kind of sooty mold grows on the honeydew which can coat the leaves to the point where the plant can’t get enough sunlight to photosynthesize, Murman said. “So they can cause damage to the plant in that way,” she said.

At some point in their life cycle, the insects need to feed on a shrub called “Tree of Heaven,” which is also an invasive species.

“The way that this pest spreads a lot of the time is called hitchhiking,” Murman said. “If someone parks in a parking lot near a tree line and leaves his or her window open even a crack because of the heat, that person could leave with a spotted lanternfly in the car and transport it someplace else.”

That could be a big problem when people tour different wineries and could spread the lanternfly from one to another, she said.

Hops farmer Ashley Deitrich is allowing plants on her small farm in Rockland Township, Berks County to be part of the research project. Deitrich had seen the bugs on her parents’ property in Oley Township and was glad to volunteer her land to help advance the eradication efforts. Murman has been great to work with, she said.

“It’s important to make the environment better,” Deitrich said. “If you can be part of the solution, why not?”

Marshalling resources to eradicate an invasive species is no easy task but Murman thinks the public will be able to understand the importance of the work.

“I think we stand a good chance because people love their wine and they love their beer,” Murman said.

Murman said after graduating with her master’s next spring, she hopes to find a research job — “whatever gets me outside and anything that promotes the understanding of our planet and the various species that inhabit it.”