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 on 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 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. Because 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.
Even though they have wings, the adults don’t fly far. But they are effective “hitchhikers," and residents in quarantined counties are encouraged to inspect vehicles and goods for transport to make sure neither the insects nor their eggs are aboard. One USDA video encourages people to “look before you leave.”
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.
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 lanternfly, 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.