The Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association says the pest does not appear to eat conifers.
Bundled in a heavy coat to fight off the cold, Jeremy Colello is cutting down a Christmas tree on a Berks County farm, his family gathered around him, a Black Friday tradition they’ve observed for several years.
The silver saw slices quickly through the trunk, and in minutes he’s loading it onto a tractor-pulled cart making its rounds through rows of conifers at Plow Farms in Robeson Township.
The Colellos – Jeremy cutting, wife Karen assisting and children Lauren, 11, and Jake, 9, watching – have driven 45 minutes from their home in Wayne, Delaware County, ignoring the unusually cold weather and fears, spread on the internet, that Christmas trees could be tainted with eggs laid by the spotted lanternfly, the Asian sap-sucking pest that’s infested Berks and neighboring counties in southeastern Pennsylvania.
State officials and Penn State experts have attempted to allay those fears with public assurances that the trees are safe. Christmas trees are a big business in Pennsylvania, which ranks fourth in the nation in the number of trees cut annually – more than 1 million.
The state has more than 1,400 Christmas tree farms, with sales generating
$22 million a year.
Growers inspect their trees at the urging of the Department of Agriculture, which provides training and information on the spotted lanternfly and a host of other farm pests, according to the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association, a Harrisburg association of tree farmers.
While spotted lanternflies eat more than 70 types of plants, they do not appear to eat conifers, according to the association. And while the insects lay their eggs on a variety of outdoor surfaces in the fall – firewood, grills, sheds, vehicles and the trunks of a number of trees – the eggs aren’t commonly found on Christmas trees.
Even if a resident discovers eggs on his or her tree – the spotted lanternfly lays between 30 to 50 eggs in one mass, noticeable for its waxy gray or muddy inch-long covering on the trunk – it’s unlikely they’ll hatch in your home, according to Tanner Delvalle, a Penn State Extension educator.
And if they would hatch, newborns pose “no threat to humans or animals, and will die quickly,” said Delvalle.
Want to be sure your tree is egg-free? Inspect it before you buy it, Delvalle said.
Families swarm the farm
On Friday, the Colellos joined others who swarmed Plow Farm, hunting trees on about 30 rolling acres along Route 10 near Mohnton. The farm expected to sell 200 to 300 trees on Black Friday, the first day of sales this holiday.
“I have no issue at all with it,” said Jeremy Colello, who had heard claims connecting Christmas trees with the pests.
Big green tractors pull large wagons filled with potential customers around Plow Farms. Many of the customers are families that have made the post-Thanksgiving, tree-buying excursion a family tradition.
Crews cut and bundle trees for customers, or offer hand saws for more ambitious buyers. Some freshly cut trees stand on spikes near the entrance, while others, already neatly tied, sit in piles awaiting purchase.
Farm employees see every tree that leaves the business, and no egg masses have been spotted, said Preston Eshelman, whose family owns the farm.
He doubts fears regarding spotted lanternfly eggs will hurt business.
“It hasn’t yet,” said Eshelman, observing the bustle of customers and employees at the farm. “I think people realize it isn’t a threat.”
At Plow Farms, John Kane of Downingtown strapped an 11-foot fir into the bed of his pickup truck, undeterred by fears of spotted lanternfly eggs. His sons L.J., 3, and Conor, 1, brought toy chainsaws to help cut down a tree.
“It didn’t affect our decision,” said Kane. “It doesn’t seem like the trees are affected.”
The scare didn’t stop Bonnie and John Lauer of Morgantown from cutting down a tree for their home, a tradition they’ve practiced for 25 years.
“They don’t really take to the pine trees at all,” said Bonnie. “We’re not really worried about it.”
‘Whole lot about nothing’
At Geissler Tree Farms of Leesport, owner Rick Geissler laments what he considers a scare based on a lack of knowledge about the spotted lanternfly. He sells Christmas trees that he grows on about 40 acres, and while the insects have buzzed around Berks since 2014, this is the first time he’s seen a panic.
“This is the first year that it got on social media, and they run with it,” Geissler laments.
“It’s really a whole lot about nothing,” he said. “Christmas trees aren’t the type of tree that spotted lanternfies want. Nothing’s certain, but the chances of a tree having eggs on it are as close to zero as you can get.”
In New Jersey, where the spotted lanternfly recently has spread to three western counties, media have reported that eggs on a Christmas tree purchased in Pennsylvania hatched in a resident’s living room, an account questioned by some local growers. One report said the insects were flying around the room, and another warned that the bugs could eat the tree itself. Newborns have no wings; experts said the pests don’t seem to feed off the evergreens.
In the back of his shop where he sells Christmas trees, Geissler is conducting his own experiment: In a box, he keeps a section of trunk from a Tree of Heaven tree, the insect’s preferred host, that once stood on his property. Four or five egg masses cling to the trunk. After a few weeks indoors, they haven’t hatched.
“Even if they’re on a tree, I don’t think they’d hatch,” said Geissler.
Contact Jim Lewis: 610-371-5059 or firstname.lastname@example.org.