An invasive species is threatening Ontario’s wine and grape industry. Here’s what you need to know

Experts say an invasive insect species could cause millions of dollars in damage to Ontario’s grape and wine industry.

The Mottled Lantern was recently detected in New York State, not far from the Niagara wine region

There’s cause for concern, and this insect “really likes to feed on vines,” said Emily Posteraro, program development coordinator at the Invasive Species Centre, a Canadian non-profit organization.

“It has caused a great deal of destruction to vines and other tender fruit trees and other types of plants in the United States.”

The spotted lanternfly is “an invasive hopper native to Southeast Asia,” according to the Invasive Species Center website. The insect was first detected in North America in Pennsylvania in 2014 and has since spread to a number of other states. It has yet to be detected in Canada, but industry experts say it’s only a matter of time before it crosses the border.

Mottled Lanterns often cluster together, especially on its favorite nesting plant, the equally invasive Sky Tree. (Courtesy of the Invasive Species Center)

It’s a “hurry up and wait” situation, Debbie Zimmerman, CEO of Grape Growers of Ontario, told CBC Toronto.

“We know it’s invading upstate New York and will eventually make its way to Canada,” she said.

The spotted lanternfly sucks sap from the vines, causing them to collapse, Zimmerman said.

She said she was worried because if left unchecked, the bugs could devastate entire vineyards, each costing more than $45,000 to replant.

“It’s a much more aggressive pest than what we’ve seen in the past,” she said.

In fact, the species has caused millions of dollars in damage in Pennsylvania.

Millions of dollars in damage

A 2019 study from Pennsylvania State University estimated the annual statewide economic damage caused by the insect to be between US$43 million and US$99 million, based on US Census data from the State. 2017 and a survey of crop production experts.

Researchers said grape growers have been particularly hard hit, but the figures also include nurserymen and Christmas tree growers.

Early detection is key to mitigating damage, Posteraro said. That’s why she and other experts are spreading the word, in hopes Ontarians can keep an eye out for bugs.

“It’s easier to get it under control, and it’s also a lot cheaper at the prevention stage,” she said. “Once you get to the management stage…it has proven to be very difficult to control and eradicate.

An adult Mottled Lantern can be identified by its black and gray spots, as well as its bright red underwings. (Courtesy of the Invasive Species Center)

The spotted lanternfly can be found in all three of its life stages.

The Invasive Species Center describes its eggs as “brown, seed-like, covered in a gray mud-colored secretion.” They are found clustered in an upright formation, usually on trees, but can be landed on any surface, including cars.

The nymphs develop in four stages, starting with black and white spots. As they mature, they acquire red spots with distinctive black and white flecks.

Adults have wings about an inch long. They have black and gray spots, but appear bright red when the wings are open.

The insects are most often found on or near the Tree of Heaven, a common plant that is also invasive in this area.

Group of mottled lanterns on a tree. Insects can be identified by their black and gray spots. (Courtesy of the Invasive Species Center)

If spotted, Posteraro says to take photos, note the location and report the sighting to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Zimmerman suggests a more extreme approach.

“Just step on it,” she said. “Because it’s the only way to stop it.”

Liette Vasseur, a professor of biological sciences at Brock University, said the impending invasion is an example of a larger problem related to climate change.

A longer growing season and warmer winters caused by rising temperatures allow more invasive species to spread into the area and live longer.

This is a growing problem for all crop growers, Vasseur said.

If a species can survive here, it can reproduce here, and if it can reproduce here, it can eventually establish a population, she explained.

“We know we have a few more species of leafhoppers…which come over time because the species distribution is moving north because it’s warmer,” Vassueur said. “That’s the big challenge we have to face.”

“We have new species that we didn’t have before.”

The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs said in a statement to CBC Toronto that it is currently researching Mottled Lanterns in high-risk areas to help with the early detection.

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