How Invasive Insects Travel by Hitchhiking  

Whether you’re on embarking on a cross-country road trip or crossing state lines for a professional development workshop, you probably haven’t considered checking your vehicle for unwanted guests of the pint-sized, winged variety before crossing state borders. Invasive insects are nothing if not persistent — and sometimes they take creative liberties to get from one place to the next. 

While they may not stick out a thumb and ask for a ride, invasive insects do have other methods of transporting themselves from place to place. In this article, we discuss three invasive insects that have hitchhiked their way across the globe and are leaving environmental chaos in their wake.  

Shoo, Fly — Don’t Bother Me: The Spotted Lanternfly 

The Lycorma delicatula, better known as the spotted lanternfly, is a beautiful sight to behold. They may only be one inch in length, but when they open their wings, they reveal a rainbow of color that rivals a fireworks show. Spotted lanternflies boast a colorful yellow and black abdomen and bright red hind wings and cream-colored front wings both adorned with dalmatian-esque spots. 

But behind their elegant exterior lies a very invasive species that has perfected its hitchhiking abilities. While the spotted lanternfly originated in China, it found its way to Pennsylvania in 2014, hitchhiking to 11 other states in the years since. So how did this planthopper find its way so far from home? Camouflaging egg-laying abilities.  

Spotted lanternflies lay their eggs in clusters that often appear as a smear of mud and are easily dismissible to most. These adept egg-laying skills have made it challenging for even the most trained eye to spot their eggs on a variety of transportation methods, like railroad boxcars and passenger vehicles. 

There are multiple implications of this invasive insect making itself at home in states across the U.S., including

  • Feeding on over 100 species of fruit, ornamental and woody trees. 
  • Reducing the health of plants and even causing their death when consumed in large numbers. 
  • Attracting other insects like wasps, yellowjackets and ants by producing honeydew, a sugary liquid waste. 
  • Causing a change in human management strategies, which could disrupt other native insects in affected areas. 

The Emerald Ash Borer: Luminous, Yet Lethal 

What’s half an inch long, has a metallic green shell and has destroyed over 20 million ash trees in the Midwest? They’re called emerald ash borers, and while their shiny exterior shells might make them appear harmless, the millions of trees they’ve burrowed through — and killed — would beg to differ. 

Originating in Asia, emerald ash borers were first spotted in southeastern Michigan in 2002 but probably arrived years earlier. While entomologists don’t know precisely how they found their way to the U.S., they’ve deduced that their hitchhiking method of choice likely involved stowing themselves away in wooden shipment crates or other wooden materials shipped from Asia. Now that this invasive species has arrived, they conveniently catch rides to new locations by burrowing beneath the surface of ash trees that are being transported for the purpose of making firewood or lumber. 

The larvae of emerald ash borers feed under the bark of the ash trees and make curved tunnels that alter the flow of water and nutrients throughout the tree. If enough larvae reside in one tree, they can kill it within one to three years

While it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to completely eradicate the emerald ash borer, there are steps we can take to slow their hitchhiking methods, including: 

  • Using firewood only if it’s native to your state (to avoid bringing any unwanted stowaways). 
  • Planting a variety of trees and shrubs rather than only one species to ensure that these hitchhiking pests don’t destroy an entire community of trees at once. 
  • Not using insecticides as a preventative method, as they can disrupt the native insect and nematode populations. 

The Little Spongy Moth That Could 

Formerly known as gypsy moths, spongy moths found their way to Massachusetts in 1869 via an amateur entomologist. Since their introduction to the U.S., they’ve decimated millions of acres of trees in forests across approximately 20 states

Their expansion in areas beyond Massachusetts has been fueled by their ability to lay 600 to 1,000 eggs at once, in places like the sides of houses and the undersides of bark flaps. When spongy moths lay their eggs on wooden materials that are being transported, the larvae from those batches of eggs wind up in entirely new locations. 

Spongy moths cause the most damage during the larvae stage of their life cycle, eating the foliage from over 300 unsuspecting species of trees, including oak, maple, birch and more. With enough defoliation, the trees can die, causing ecological impacts, including: 

  • Altering forest tree composition. 
  • Affecting the success of oak tree regeneration. 
  • Reducing the amount of foliage available for other dependent species. 

At the University of Florida, we boast the number-one entomology and nematology program in the world. We offer five 30-credit online master’s degree programs and four 15-credit online graduate certificate programs tailored to your specialized interests and professional goals, including: 

  • Medical Entomology  
    Identify biting arthropods and learn their biology, dissect the biology of mosquitoes, develop management options for their diseases and more. 
  • Landscape Pest Management  
    Learn about foundational entomology principles, study management options for landscape pests and integrate pest management practices into landscape maintenance practices. 
  • Urban Pest Management  
    Focus on the biology, identification and management of urban pests using basic principles of entomology. 
  • Beekeeping  
    Dive into the sweet world of honey bees, including their biology, predators and the theory of practice and apiculture. 

For the master’s degree program, you can also select the broad program of study in entomology.  

Our courses are tailored for working professionals. We provide 100% of our classes entirely online so you can complete them anywhere at a pace that works for you. Take the first step and learn more about our graduate certificate programs or our master’s degree in entomology today. 

Sources: 
https://www.michigan.gov/invasives/id-report/insects/spotted-lanternfly
https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/resources/pests-diseases/hungry-pests/the-threat/spotted-lanternfly/spotted-lanternfly
https://www.treehugger.com/invasive-spotted-lanternflies-hitchhiking-in-us-6502089#citation-1
https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/resources/pests-diseases/hungry-pests/the-threat/emerald-ash-borer/emerald-ash-borer-beetle
https://mdc.mo.gov/sites/default/files/2022-03/W00004%20HitchhikingBugs8Pager.pdf

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