A boy showcasing his bug collection at the Kansas State Fair last week didn’t know it, but he had a rare and dangerous specimen lurking in his midst.
His find has triggered state and federal investigations.
The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, is an invasive species that has been wreaking havoc for years out east. But no infestations have made it farther west than southeastern Indiana, and that one is limited to a single county, according to a map from the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program.
That’s what made last week’s discovery so shocking for officials trying to figure out how an adult spotted lanternfly ended up more than 850 miles from the nearest known infestation. The 4-H participant, who had been collecting, positioning and labeling specimens all year, found the bug at his home in Thomas County, which sits in the northwestern part of the state, said Wade Weber, state leader for the Kansas 4-H program.
While assessing entries Thursday, one of the fair’s entomology contest judges recognized the insect as an invasive species and knew of the requirement to report sightings to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weber told The Washington Post in an interview. The agency is now trying to figure out how the insect got to northwestern Kansas.
The boy told government officials he found the dead lanternfly on his patio in May, according to Erin Otto, national policy manager for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Since adult lanternflies usually start emerging in July and the specimen was “worn and desiccated,” officials said the boy’s insect may have died last year, Otto wrote in a statement to The Post.
The spotted lanternfly feeds on a variety of crops, including grapes, apples, hops, walnuts and hardwood trees. The waste it excretes encourages a fungal growth called sooty mold, which can kill plants by blocking sunlight from reaching their leaves. Experts fear the continued spread of spotted lanternflies could severely hurt the country’s grape, orchard and logging industries.
Since sneaking into Pennsylvania in 2014, presumably in a shipping container from Asia, the spotted lanternfly has spread throughout eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey and crept into New York, Maryland and Virginia. It appears poised to launch an offensive on the Washington, D.C., area.
The presence of one specimen doesn’t mean there’s an infestation, Otto said. Officials with the USDA and the Kansas Department of Agriculture plan to keep surveying Thomas County for more spotted lanternflies. If they find any, “they will work quickly” to contain and destroy the pest, Otto added.
Weber said the boy’s discovery is an extreme example of what the 4-H exhibits are all about: sharing knowledge with others to improve local communities.
“It’s the excitement of a kid learning about their world, putting it on display, and sure enough, they discovered something that adults were like, ‘Wow, this is really important for us to be aware of,'” Weber said. “He has alerted us to a threat we weren’t aware of, and we’re really thankful.”
But the boy had help along the way. While he correctly identified his specimen as a spotted lantern fly, which helped him earn the exhibit’s second-highest honor, a blue ribbon, he didn’t know it was an invasive species that had rarely, if ever, been spotted in Kansas. That took an adult with more knowledge about entomology and the government quarantines in faraway places. And once the 4-H people knew what they had, they hailed state and federal agricultural officials, Kansas Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Heather Lansdowne told The Post.
“It’s really a great example of … collaboration,” she said.