Monster bugs have invaded

By Valerie Battaglia

Aedes aegypti, known as the yellow fever mosquito, is also known to transmit the zika virus. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High fever, stiff neck, headache, and lethargy. These are the symptoms that occur within three to 10 days of contracting Eastern Equine Encephalitis (E.E.E) from a mosquito bite, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reports. Few people rarely recover without being disabled by neurological disorders, and approximately one third of those who contract the virus will die.

More than 200 species of mosquitoes are native to North America, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. While most individuals have experienced the itchy, red bumps their bites leave behind, many are unaware of the deadly viruses that mosquitoes can spread to humans and animals.

A survey of 24 students on the Marple campus revealed that none had heard of Triple E, despite the majority saying they were familiar mosquitoes.

“I’m from Puerto Rico, so I’ve heard of most [mosquito-borne diseases],” said Sophia Chanye, a DCCC general business major. “Triple E sounds familiar, but I don’t know much about it.”

E.E.E. is a rare alphavirus that’s directly transmitted through mosquitoes to people, birds, and in some cases, horses as well as deer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who live in or frequently visit wooded areas are at the greatest risk of contracting E.E.E. due to their increased exposure to mosquitoes.

Once patients begin expressing symptoms of Triple E, further laboratory testing can confirm whether they have the virus within four to 14 days. If it hasn’t spread to the central nervous system, complete recovery from the illness takes up to one or two weeks.

Although most cases of E.E.E. have been reported from the Atlantic or Gulf coast, cases of the virus have appeared around the tri-state area, one victim being from Luzerne County, Pa.

Over the last decade, E.E. E has affected 72 individuals throughout the United States and claimed 30 lives, the CDC reports. Three to 15 cases of E.E.E. are reported in America annually, with Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Jersey seeing more reports than any other state.

However, mosquito-borne diseases aren’t the only threat currently plaguing the Commonwealth. The spotted lanternfly is a destructive pest that has the potential to cost our state $18 billion due to environmental damages, according to the Penn State Extension.

Invasion of the Monster Bugs starring spotted lanternflies and mosquitoes with E.E.E. Photos courtesy of Tribune News Service, graphic of Valerie Battaglia.

Despite recent alerts that have been circulated by PSE and local government officials, only 12 percent of the students surveyed on campus were familiar with spotted lanternflies.

“$18 billion… for a bug?” asked Charlie Verra, a DCCC computer science major. “That seems excessive.”

The spotted lanternfly has invaded 14 counties since its initial sighting in Berks County five years ago, PSE warns online. The lanternfly is now present throughout Delaware and Chester county, as well.

“Our best estimate of how the spotted lanternfly first got here comes from understanding a little bit about their biology,” said Heather Leach, the spotted lanternfly associate with PSE. “They lay egg masses on any surface, which includes wooden pallets and stone. The eggs are really cryptic because of how well they camouflage.”

Experts presume landscaping stone or wooden pallets from northern China with egg masses on the surface were imported to Berks County, which is how they began spreading throughout our state, Leach said.

She further explained difficulties that arise in documenting damage from this pest, but experts know it threatens the timber industry, tree fruits, grape vineyards, and other agricultural ventures that are cumulatively valued at $18 billion in Pennsylvania.

“[$18 billion] is not necessarily the damage we expect to see from spotted lanternflies,” she said. “It’s more so reflective of how we value the industries that are at threat. Part of that estimate comes from having a hard time understanding what the actual damage is likely to be.”

Spotted lanternflies feed on the sap of over 70 plants, according to Leach. Some of their favorites to feed on include oak, maple, willow trees, Tree of Heaven, as well as grape vines.

Most invasive insects currently in Pennsylvania have a visible impact on our environment, she continued, adding the damage can typically be seen immediately. This is not the case with spotted lanternflies.

“They suck on plant sap, causing more indirect harm since they’re sucking the life out of these plants,” Leach said. “The damage isn’t as immediate, which is part of the reason why we have issues understanding what their threat is.”

Symptoms of a spotted lanternfly invasion in your backyard include oozing sap, wilting leaves, tree decay, and a black sooty mold that results from the sugary substance these insects excrete, states an alert recently issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Spotted lanternflies aren’t difficult to spot, although they’re often confused with moths or butterflies by those who’ve never encountered one before. Adult lanternflies are an inch long and have a wingspan of about one and a half inches, according to Leach.

“The most distinct characteristic is how they’re really strong jumpers,” she added. “If you poke it and it jumps up several feet or glides away on its wings, that’s a good indication that you’re looking at a spotted lanternfly.”

The most effective way to prevent this insect from spreading or damaging our environment is exterminating them, Leach said.

“I mentioned that they’re strong jumpers, but they’re not great flyers,” she explained. “They’re kind of a dorky insect. Once they hop away, I feel they have to ‘power up’ again like a video game; the first jump will be really strong, but the second will be shorter. They’re pretty easy to smack with a fly swatter or your shoe, if you’re able to catch them.”

For those who are dealing with hundreds or thousands of lanternflies in their backyard, the extermination process may be more complicated, so it’s also important to eliminate their eggs, she continued.

This is an undated photo of a spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect from Asia, which has been confirmed to exist in Delaware County. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

“Female lanternflies will lay their tiny, brown, bead-like eggs in rows or columns on trees, stones, or picnic tables in autumn,” Leach said. “Then they lay a waxy-like covering overtop of that, which is brown and grey.”

Their eggs can either be squashed with a hard, flat surface, or be scraped into a container to soak in rubbing alcohol, according to Leach.

“You can scrape the egg masses with a putty knife, credit card, or one of our Spotted Lanternfly scraper cards [from our awareness events],” Leach said. “You can get a lot of them that way. Then, you have to submerge them in rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer, which won’t kill the eggs immediately. You’ll have to allow them to soak permanently.”

While PDA and PSE have joined forces in quarantining affected counties, raising awareness among residents, and exterminating the lanternfly, E.E.E is still an issue with little resolution. There’s no way to tell if a mosquito is carrying Triple E without being bit, and there are currently no approved medical treatments for the virus in the United States, according to a study published in a journal of Antiviral Research two months ago.

Their research on a potential vaccine, ML336, yielded positive results in protecting mice from encephalitic antiviruses, including EEE. However, this treatment option is still being studied and has yet to receive approval for clinical use.

“[E.E.E] sounds so scary,” said Brittany Dike, a DCCC mathematics and natural science major. “The symptoms sort of mimic the flu and you could die if you don’t realize what’s going on.”

Currently, the most effective treatment against Triple E is prevention by protecting your skin while spending time outdoors.

“I recommend citronella oil and bug spray,” Chanye said. “Citronella is great for warding off mosquitoes.”

If you believe you may have contracted E.E.E., it’s essential to seek medical attention as soon as possible, because hospitalization is often necessary to recover, says PADOH.

As for the PSE and PDA’s mission to protect Pennsylvania from the spotted lanternfly, experts will continue to host events that stress the importance of stopping the invasion to residents.

“Our main focus during these events is raising awareness,” Leach said. “We teach residents how to identify and understand the threat of spotted lanternflies, explain why they should care and why the issue matters to everybody. We’re trying to show people how devastating this insect can be.”

After encountering a spotted lanternfly, the PDA encourages you to check the location through their interactive map online to verify whether the area has already been quarantined for the pest. To report sightings in areas that haven’t been quarantined, they request you call their hotline: 1-888-4BAD-FLY.

Contact Valerie Battaglia at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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