Since it was first noticed in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 2014, the spotted lanternfly—a one-inch-long plant hopper that resembles a moth and is native to parts of Southeast Asia—has been wreaking havoc on East Coast lumber, tree fruit and wine industries. It has spread to at least 26 Pennsylvania counties as well as parts of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
The invasive, plant-killing insects are known to lay their eggs on almost any surface, including vehicle exteriors. These egg masses “are most concerning because they can go very far, by hitchhiking,” says Maureen Tang, a chemical and biological engineer at Drexel University. Tang is coordinating a project that asks the pubic to help halt the lanternfly’s spread: anyone who spots an egg mass can submit photos, with which Tang’s team will train a sophisticated algorithm that scanning devices can use to search for the eggs. (You can contribute photos here.)
Adult lanternflies can fly but prefer to hop. They feast on more than 70 plant species and leave behind “honeydew” droppings, which attract wasps and other stinging insects, and which breed a black, sooty mold that can be fatal to vegetation. The mature insects die in the cold, but their egg masses, which can hold between 30 and 50 eggs and look like a grayish putty, withstand winter temperatures and release a new generation in the spring.
The team currently has about 400 crowdsourced photos for its data set and anticipates thousands by winter’s end, says Drexel mechanical engineer Antonios Kontsos, who is building the image-processing algorithm. Once fully trained, it will let scanning devices detect significant infestations in real time, Kontsos says. The system will first be put to work in high-risk areas such as rail and shipping yards, where storage containers often sit around for long periods of time and it is difficult and dangerous for a human to check underneath them for egg masses, Tang says. The lanternflies’ favorite tree, Ailanthus—native to areas the bugs came from—tends to grow near railroad tracks.
Drones already use computer vision to scan for signs of pests, by flying over crops and treescapes to check for significant areas of damage. But Tang says her team’s type of discrete, close-up egg detection system is new.
“;We’ve seen a lot of ingenuity come from spotted lanternfly [research], and this is another great example,”; says Heather Leach, who studies these insects at Pennsylvania State University and is not involved in the photo initiative. Any methods that improve the ability to detect and reduce spread of the bug, especially in areas where it’s not yet established, offers a better chance at controlling it, Leach says.
The team aims to finish the algorithm and start using it to search for eggs before the bugs begin emerging. Egg masses are much easier to contain than jumping nymphs or swarming adults, notes Karen Verderame, Drexel’s curator of entomology. Researchers will first target top-priority areas using a portable scanning device that can search for egg masses in visible, infrared and ultraviolet light, Kontsos says. He anticipates someday using a version of this device in a “precision-agriculture framework,” installing it on a drone for efficient, large-area scans.
“From an environmental perspective, [this multidisciplinary effort is] the way of the future,” Verderame says. “You have to take an out-of-the-box perspective. It really will take a collaboration of the sciences.”