Among the most aggressive invasive insect pests in the Mid-Atlantic, spotted lanternflies damage fruit trees and grapevines, posing serious economic threats to farmers. While efforts to control them have been hindered in part by a lack of knowledge, University of Maryland researchers have just contributed important new information about what they eat and what plant species host them at different stages of their life-cycle.
In work published recently in the journal Insects, UMD entomologists added 13 new species to the list of plants that may provide nutrition to the insects in the very early stages of their development (in the first of four nymph stages) and should be monitored for the presence of spotted lanternfly nymphs. The team developed a new method of identifying the recent meals of first-stage nymphs by extracting plant DNA from the gut contents of multiple individuals all at once.
“Very little was known about the host plants of these first-stage nymphs, known as first instars,” said Alina Avanesyan, an assistant research scientist from the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology. “They are very small at this stage, and they consume sap, so the challenge was to be able to detect plant DNA in such small concentrations.”
Scientists had previously identified the food sources for adult spotted lanternflies and later-stage nymphs, largely by observing the brightly colored insects feeding on plants and from DNA analyses of gut contents. First instars were thought to have a much wider range of host plants, but at less than half-a centimeter long, they are more difficult to observe and contain too little gut contents for conventional DNA analyses.
By combining samples from multiple individuals and modifying their methods to handle very small amounts of diluted DNA material from the nymph’s piercing mouth parts, the team identified 27 different plant species, including 13 plants that were not previously known to host the spotted lanternfly.
Other UMD researchers on this paper include Professor of Entomology William Lamp and Research Assistant Cameron McPherson.
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