Temple is researching invasive species

Biology professor Matthew Helmus will lead research on the economic effects of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species from China that has disrupted some of the state’s landscape.

Matthew Helmus, a biology professor, reviews data with a student assistant in the Science Education and Research Center. | LUKE SMITH / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration awarded nearly $1.3 million to 13 institutions across the state, including a $42,601 grant to Temple University, to study an array of agricultural issues.

Biology professor Matthew Helmus, along with two student assistants, was awarded the grant to lead the university’s research on the economic impacts of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect species from China, India and Vietnam. Wolf released grants to the university in May.

The species is believed to have been accidentally imported on landscaping rocks that were brought into Berks County around 2012 but was not identified until 2014. The insects have disrupted the state’s landscape by consuming native plants at a disproportionate rate.

Helmus started research after the grant was approved, and it will be conducted through September.

“It is critical that we invest in research on important issues affecting the future of Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry, and [the] spotted lanternfly is certainly one of those issues,” said Casey Smith, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “It is a pest that threatens approximately $18 billion in commodities and could have a far-reaching economic impact if not combatted.”

Using data from the state’s Department of Agriculture, Helmus and his team will create a model to show how the species spread and estimate the economic impacts of the spotted lanternfly invasion.

The model will specifically predict which counties will be invaded by the insect and when and predict the economic cost of its invasion. This information will then be used by the state to potentially find a solution to control the pest.

Evan Zangakis, a junior physics major who is assisting Helmus, believes that their findings could save a lot of businesses and small family farms, which is “really important and fulfilling.”

Zangakis added that it is important for more people to be aware of the issue because “even though it doesn’t really affect most people day to day, it could affect them in the long run.”

“One of the big things that we’re looking at is the economic loss of the Pennsylvania state agriculture,” he said. “Essentially, if the agriculture is affected by this insect, that means that there wouldn’t be a lot of food available, not only in Pennsylvania, but to whoever we export to.”

The spotted lanternfly has been rapidly spreading since being introduced to the state’s ecosystem in 2012. The insect has been seen all throughout Pennsylvania, with reported sightings in Delaware and Northern Virginia.

“I do think that more attention and more focus needs to be put on this because it can affect all the plants that you can think of,” Helmus said. “It can affect the apple trees in your backyard and your local vineyard and your Christmas tree that you want to cut down.”

As an invasive species, the spotted lanternfly doesn’t have any native predators or pathogens, so it cannot be kept in check, Helmus said. Potential predators cannot eat the insect because it is toxic from the sap that it eats from the Tree of Heaven, another invasive species brought in from Asia about 100 years ago, spreading across the US.

The Bureau of Plant Industry within the state Department of Agriculture has engaged in extensive surveillance and eradication efforts, working with businesses and residents to ensure they are doing their part to prevent its spread, Smith said.

“I do think that eradication is possible, but I think there is going to have to be a lot more focus by both the public and the government,” Helmus said. “Because at this point, the state is doing the best that they can to control them but it’s still spreading really rapidly.”

“I certainly think that eradication is possible, but it is going to take a lot of work,” he added.

Other universities included in the grants awarded by the Wolf administration include Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania. Each institution will focus on a different issue in agriculture.  

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