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The Finger Lakes braces as the spotted lanternfly threat looms 

click to enlarge The spotted lanternfly, an invasive species of Chinese planthopper, has already done extensive damage to Pennsylvania vineyards. Soon, it will more than likely take hold in the Finger Lakes.

PHOTOS BY MAX SCHULTE

The spotted lanternfly, an invasive species of Chinese planthopper, has already done extensive damage to Pennsylvania vineyards. Soon, it will more than likely take hold in the Finger Lakes.

The grape vines at Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery creep like spiderwebs over 20 acres of a picturesque hillside in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive northeast of Philadelphia.

There, the climate closely mimics that of the homelands of heralded Noble and Old World grapes, giving vineyards like Clover Hill ample opportunity to experiment with New World terroir.

John Skrip III carries on the family business his father began there in the 1970s, tending to varietals like vignole and pinot noir and, in the process, lending to the growing prestige of Pennsylvania wine.

The vineyard is a vibrant green and healthy, thanks to the spraying of pesticides multiple times a week to stave off an insect invader that is the scourge of agriculture and that experts say is headed to the Finger Lakes. It wasn’t always this way.

In 2015, as Skrip and his team took to their annual harvest, they noticed an odd, vibrantly colored bug fluttering around the garage doors at the rear of the winery. The next year, a couple more popped up.

By 2017, the proverbial locusts of Armageddon had hit.

“It was an absolute disaster,” Skrip said. “Every plant had about between 30 and 50 bugs. When we would spray them, when they die they fold their wings out, and their wings are red, so it looked like red mulch beneath the trellis.”

“They would all die, they’d be all gone,” Skrip continued. “And then, three days later, it looked like it did right before we sprayed it, like a brand new crop came in.”
click to enlarge John Skrip III, owner of Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery, has been able to contain much of the threat of the lanternfly through an endless cycle of spraying insecticide. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • John Skrip III, owner of Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery, has been able to contain much of the threat of the lanternfly through an endless cycle of spraying insecticide.

That bug was the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species of planthopper native to China that made its first appearance in the United States about 20 miles from Clover Hill in the early 2010s. Experts figure the bug hitched a ride to the area on imports of granite and other stone slabs.

Since then, the bug has spread like wildfire into nearby states, including New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Michigan, devastating crops in their path. In New York, populations of the spotted lanternfly have taken hold on Long Island and in New York City. They are creeping into the Hudson Valley, and have been spotted in Ithaca and near Syracuse.

The development has Finger Lakes wineries bracing. Along stretches of road heading into the wine region, signs beg for the bug to be reported to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) if spotted.

The reality of the situation has become clear in the Finger Lakes: it’s not a matter of if the bugs invade, but when.

WHAT DOES THE SPOTTED LATERNFLY DO?

The spotted lanternfly is a brightly-colored insect that looks like an alien interpretation of a moth. Their attack on fruit crops, like grapes, can best be described as vampiric.
click to enlarge The spotted lanternfly is an invasive pest from China which attacks all variety of agricultural products, but has a particular affinity to grape vines. - FILE
  • FILE
  • The spotted lanternfly is an invasive pest from China which attacks all variety of agricultural products, but has a particular affinity to grape vines.

The harm to crops like grapes comes not from the insects attacking the fruit itself, but from taking hold on the vines. The lanternfly digs into the plant using its proboscis, sucking out sap and excreting a saccharine waste known as honeydew.

The damage is two-fold. Draining a vine of its sap weakens the plant, leaving them more susceptible to climate shifts and weather. Honeydew, meanwhile, is a perfect vector for fungal infections like sooty mold, which can further drop yields or even kill vines when frost settles in.

“Spotted lanternfly is different (from other pests) in that it causes a lot of damage after the harvest,” said Brian Eshenaur, a Cornell University researcher focused on raising awareness of the lanternfly. “Most growers wouldn’t be looking at their plants after the fruit is harvested, because that’s normally what you need to protect, but this insect taps into the pipework of the vine.”

The lanternfly will feed on everything from hops to kiwis, but grapevines are a favorite. Researchers at Penn State University have studied the insect’s invasion of vineyards since 2017. They found that while many ornamental trees, flowers, and crops can feed the lanternfly, grapevines were unique in that they could support the bug at every stage of its life cycle. The results of an infestation can be devastating to plant yield.

In crevices of the wooden posts supporting his vines, Skrip would find blotches of what looked like dried mud. These were, in fact, eggs, awaiting the spring season to hatch and begin the cycle anew.

During Skrip’s hellish bout with the lanternfly, he said he was forced to pull six acres of vines. At 861 plants per acre, and at an estimated cost of $4 per vine, that worked out to a loss of $20,664. Some values are unquantifiable, however, like the nearly 20-year-old pinot noir vines Skrip had to remove.

After the infestation, pinot noir was off the menu for good at Clover Hill. The grape had been cultivated at the vineyard since 1997.

“I planted those vines, so I felt kind of attached to them,” Skrip said. “The next spring, the sun came up over it, and I felt like we did our part…we did everything we could, but we couldn’t save everything.”

click to enlarge An overhead view of Clover Hills shows where new vines were planted to replace those destroyed by the lanternfly. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • An overhead view of Clover Hills shows where new vines were planted to replace those destroyed by the lanternfly.


‘I’M ABSOLUTELY DREADING IT’

On the edge of Seneca Lake just outside of the town of Hector in Schuyler County, Forge Wine Cellars sits perched atop a hilly overlook, granting one of the most pristine views of viticulture to be found in the Finger Lakes.

It was there that Rick Rainey, a former wine seller for esteemed French vintners, pushed the potential of New York’s wine region by demanding wines that rivaled Old World wineries.

Vines of riesling, cabernet franc, and pinot noir, grapes that take particular care to thrive in an environment so far from their native land, roll across Forge’s modest vineyard.

The inevitable arrival of the spotted lanternfly has sounded the alarm bell for Rainey and other winery owners in the Finger Lakes.

“Everybody’s concerned, like mad,” Rainey said. “People are talking about it, but it’s when you know something is inevitable, it’s just…everybody’s waiting to see.”
click to enlarge Rick Rainey of Forge Wine Cellars said he's dreading the arrival of the spotted lanternfly. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Rick Rainey of Forge Wine Cellars said he's dreading the arrival of the spotted lanternfly.

For now, Rainey is simply resigned to stand by, anxiously awaiting the first day the lanternfly flutters into his vineyard. His pinot is particularly at risk because it is a delicate vine, sensitive to environmental changes.

It is well-known to vintners that pinot noir is simply a pain to grow. When asked why he even bothers growing it, Rainey smiled.

“It’s an addiction,” he said.

There’s a certain set of unique circumstances that make the insect’s arrival in the Finger Lakes inescapable. For one, the bug is particularly adept at clinging to transportation. In fact, it is known colloquially to farmers and researchers as “the hitchhiker bug.”

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Agriculture has attempted to control the spread by developing a quarantine program under the Plant Pest Act of 1992.

But controlling the spread has been complicated by what could be called a perfect storm of ecological invaders.

Ailanthus, known commonly as the tree of heaven, is an invasive species of tree that is native to China but that is today found across the United States. It was first brought to the Americas in the late 1700s as a beautiful, easily tenable garden tree that resembles sumac, but it quickly overstayed its welcome. The plant derives its name from its ability to grow three feet upward every year.

Tree of heaven, sometimes referred to as “tree of hell,” is a cocktail of everything awful in an invasive plant. It can grow in virtually any environment — the tree was one of the only ones found growing in the rubble of London following the bombings of World War II— and it produces a chemical that blocks root growth of native plants. Not to mention that it reeks. The tree emits a smell that government agencies have described as “well-worn gym socks.”

If that weren’t enough, the tree of heaven is the pinnacle host plant of the spotted lanternfly. Researchers long speculated the lanternfly had to live on the tree of heaven at some point in its life cycle.
click to enlarge Specimens of the spotted lanternfly at its four life cycle stages from Cornell University. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • Specimens of the spotted lanternfly at its four life cycle stages from Cornell University.

“It is a very vigorous tree, and you do get a lot of sprouting from the stump that needs to be treated so you don’t wind up with a much thicker population of Tree of Heaven,” said Chris Logue, director of the division of plant industry for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Logue suggested that some tree of heaven could be preemptively removed to help alleviate the stress on vineyards.

But researchers are also eyeing the tree as a possible Trojan Horse of sorts to beat back the lanternfly.

“One possible way of controlling the lanternflies is injecting insecticide into trap trees,” said Hans Walter-Peterson, a viticulture specialist at Cornell. “Bugs will feed off of the sap, that also has some insecticide in it, and that kills them.”

That process becomes a unique challenge, though, given that tree of heaven closely resembles some native plants.

While discussing the tree of heaven on his winery deck, Rainey spotted an outcrop of foliage at the edge of his vineyard. He swiftly headed down and plucked a branch of leaves from one of the plants and snapped a photo, running it through an app that identifies plants.

With a sigh of relief, he said it was a staghorn sumac, not a tree of heaven.

“That really would have been something, wouldn’t it?” Rainey asked.

SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS


No one, from government to academia to the farmers in the field, is under the illusion that the lanternfly will spare the Finger Lakes. The only question is how much damage the insects will do.

In 2019, as Pennsylvania grappled with infestations, a report from Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences estimated the bugs could cause $325 million in economic damage, from tourism hits to crop loss, in a worst case scenario.

“The impact of the spotted lanternfly in the quarantine zone is already significant and its spread throughout the state could be potentially devastating for Pennsylvania’s agriculture and forestry industries,” the report read.

In New York, Sen. Charles Schumer announced in August plans to grant $22 million to the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets to attempt to ward off the threat of the lanternfly, saying that an infestation was already afoot.

But for people on the ground, despite the fear of the unknown, there is hope and confidence.

Eshenaur, the researcher at Cornell, said New York should be able to learn from the plight of Pennsylvania, where vintners were completely blindsided.

“There’s kind of no stopping it, it’s coming through,” Eshenaur said. “But, on the upside, we might not lose plants, we think that vineyards and even backyard growers will be able to protect their vines and we’re not going to lose plants.”

What exactly protecting plants looks like is something that most farmers are familiar with — a lot of work, and a lot of spraying of insecticide.

If there’s any upside to combatting the spotted lanternfly, it’s that the bug is a wimp. It can’t fly very far and generally stays close to a single host plant. Nearly any insecticide will kill it, which is how places like Clover Hill Vineyards & Winery in Pennsylvania have managed the pest.

But doing so has required diligence and vigilance.
click to enlarge John Skrip III of Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • John Skrip III of Clover Hill Vineyards and Winery.

Skrip, the owner at Clover Hill, didn’t mince words: Wineries in the Finger Lakes are in for a rough few years, but they can pull through.

“Just keep your foot on the gas,” Skrip said. “It’s going to suck.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.
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