Beware of alien invaders this Christmas, and be prepared to kill them on sight.

That’s the warning the state Department of Agriculture has issued regarding the latest non-native insect to come to our region.

This image from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture shows the life stages of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive pest that feeds on 70 types of vegetation, including the kinds of trees used in homes at Christmas.

If part of your holiday tradition involves venturing to a local farm and picking the perfect-sized tree on which to display your ornaments, watch out for unusual gray blobs on the bark of your ideal pine or fir. These gray clusters could contain around 30-50 eggs of an invasive species known as the spotted lanternfly, a winged insect native to China, that the state of New Jersey is encouraging residents to destroy immediately if discovered.

Mercer County is currently under quarantine along with seven other New Jersey counties because of this colorful planthopper pest that has infiltrated the state.

The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, has spread throughout Southeast Asia and Korea and more recently the east coast of the United States—mainly Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“While it is not harmful to humans or pets, (the lanternfly) does feed on 70 different types of vegetation and prefers the Tree of Heaven, which is an invasive plant that is present in much of New Jersey,” said Jeff Wolfe, an official from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture.

He calls the spotted lanternfly, which is gray and red with wings bespeckled with black dots, “an excellent hitchhiker on any kind of vehicle or transportation.” That’s exactly how it entered the United States from overseas.

Apples, almonds, grapes, hops and a wide array of trees, such as oak and maple, are among the types of vegetation that may be in jeopardy from the spotted lanternfly, which gather in masses on its host of choice.

It is as much as a threat to Christmas trees as it is to any other of the 70 crops on its hitlist, Wolfe said. However, he said the spotted lanternfly has not yet been found on a tree grown in New Jersey. The first confirmation of a spotted lanternfly sighting in Mercer County was in July of 2018, according to a press release from the NJDA.

Last year, there were media reports that a woman in Warren County, which is also currently under quarantine, found spotted lanternflies throughout her home after they hatched from two egg masses on the bark of her Christmas tree. It has not been reported as to where she had gotten the tree from.

The egg masses are typically laid on smooth surfaces.

The spotted lanternflies have been found mostly along the counties bordering the Delaware River, though some small populations have been confirmed in other counties, Wolfe said. Warren, Hunterdon, Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, Salem and Somerset counties are the other areas that are currently under quarantine.

The spotted lanternfly was originally seen in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014, according to the NJ Department of Agriculture.

A map, which was last updated on Sept. 30, released by the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program shows that the bug has also been reported in New York, Delaware, Maryland, Virgina, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

These destructive insects attack trees by sucking out its sap through their sharp mouths, piercing through the bark. Sap seeps out of the areas they feed on, which attracts harmful insects such as ants, bees, hornets and wasps. They leave behind a honeydew excrement that eventually becomes moldy and kills the crops they attack.

Although Wolfe said there has not yet been any reported crop damage in New Jersey, he believes “it is important that we remain vigilant in attempting to eliminate this pest,” to prevent that from occurring.

State officials are urging residents in the quarantined areas to check their vehicles for any signs of the species before traveling abroad to prevent the spread of this insect.

“The secretary of agriculture may temporarily designate any non-quarantined area in New Jersey as a quarantined area, if the secretary has reason to believe that the Spotted Lanternfly is present based on positive confirmation of any life stage of this insect by the Department, or by agents of the USDA APHIS,” states the New Jersey Spotted Lanternfly Quarantine Rule in the N.J. Register.

A checklist is available online listing for items that should be examined thoroughly for spotted lanternfly eggs.

The checklist states, “Before you move outdoor items from the quarantine area, check for spotted lanternfly egg masses, adults and nymphs. Make sure all items are pest free before you move them. Help keep this pest from spreading.”

After a spotted lanternfly hatches, it is first characterized as a black nymph with white spots before it transitions to being red with white spots before adulthood.

The NJDA in their reporting guidelines classifies adult spotted lanternflies as one inch long and a half inch wide. “The hind wings have contrasting patches of red and black with a white band. The legs and head are black; the abdomen is yellow with broad black bands. Immature stages are black with white spots, and develop red patches as they grow.”

The checklist suggests examining recreational/camping items such as bicycles and campers, outdoor household items such as firewood and trash cans, building materials such as bricks and cinder blocks, yard and garden items such as barbecue grills and lawnmowers, and children’s playthings such as bicycles and scooters.

When asked how the quarantined areas are being enforced, Wolfe did not directly answer.

“We ask that during the winter months that people and businesses checked for spotted lanternfly egg masses, as they will hatch between 30-50 new spotted lanternflies in the spring,” he said. “The spotted lanternfly can lay its egg masses on almost any kind of surface. The adult spotted lanternflies cannot survive the winter weather, but the egg masses do.”

The state is asking all residents who spot an egg mass to destroy them by scraping them off and placing them in a double bag and throwing them away. They also can be destroyed by placing them in bleach, alcohol or hand sanitizer, according to the NJDA.

Wolfe said that is is important for New Jersey businesses and individuals that transport items across state lines to Pennsylvania and New York to have permits in case the location they are delivering to asks about the spotted lanternfly.

“The permit shows that the business or individual understands the necessary precautions in preventing the spread of the spotted lanternfly,” he said. Businesses and individuals “are also encouraged to allow state and federal survey and treatment personnel to conduct their activities on their properties.”

Information for permit exams and permit trainings for businesses are available online, as well as a list of New Jersey businesses that have been trained on standards listed in the quarantine order.

Wolfe said residents are also encouraged to allow state and federal survey and treatment personnel to conduct their activities on their properties. The USDA can enter areas within the quarantined counties or with any Notice of Infestation-Treatment Order to investigate signs of life for the spotted lanternflies and eradicate them if needed.

But residents are the first line of defense against the pest. Wolfe said anyone who sees a spotted lanternfly should first kill it if possible, and then report the exact location by emailing SLF-plantindustry@ag.nj.gov or calling (833) 223-2840.