WESTCHESTER COUNTY, N.Y. (PIX11) — A tool that’s better known for ridding homes of dust bunnies on the floor or pet hair on the sofa is now being used on trunks and branches in the fight to save trees and fruit crops from an insect infestation.
Vacuum cleaners have now been deployed in Westchester County Parks to help reduce populations of spotted lanternflies. It’s a move that parks management says is necessary to prevent the invasive species from endangering trees and shrubs across its 50 parks and recreation areas.
Taro Ietaka, the Parks Department conservation supervisor, said that the lanternflies are also a menace to backyards and businesses.
“The real threat is going to be to agricultural crops,” Ietaka said. “Grapes and apple orchards.”
A close look at many trees in the Tri-state region — particularly trees of heaven, the bugs’ favorite dish — often reveals hundreds of the bugs that arborists call an environmental danger.
The insects camouflage well, but they’re definitely present. Also, standing under one of the infested trees for a while can leave a person sticky and wet. That’s because the spotted lanternflies excrete a liquid called honeydew. It’s a sugar water that’s a byproduct of the sap that the bugs suck out of trees. The honeydew ends up coating leaves, which in turn promotes the growth of a dark tree- and vine-killing mold.
The fact that the bugs congregate on trees of heaven — themselves an invasive species — could potentially reduce the threat to native plant life that trees of heaven pose. However, the lanternflies are also fond of many other types of vegetation. Ietaka said that he’s already gotten reports of lanternflies on cherry trees and other fruit trees in the parks for which he’s responsible.
He’s now using one of a handful of the specialized backpack-style vacuum cleaners to suck up the bugs from the surfaces of tree trunks, branches and leaves.
The vacuum pulls each insect into a transparent plastic chamber that has a spinning element in its center. The high-speed centrifugal motion kills or injures each bug.
Ietaka said that it’s vital to reduce the lanternflies’ population.
“Each female we kill is 50 fewer the next year,” he said, in an interview after he demonstrated how the vac-pack device works. Each unit costs between $500 and $600, and Westchester County Parks leaders said it’s worth it to keep the population under control.
The county is also immediately north of the city with the greatest amount of parkland in the country, New York City.
In response to a PIX11 News inquiry as to whether or not the city might use vacuums to reduce its lanternfly population, the New York City Parks Dept. advised consulting with the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which sets policy regarding the bugs’ removal.
That state agency is the same one that Westchester County consulted months ago, leading to the deployment of its vacuum cleaners this week.
“We work closely with New York State Department of Ag and Markets,” Ietaka said, using the nickname for the agency, “the [Dept. of Environmental Conservation] and the Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.
Ietaka said that they collectively recommended the vacuuming strategy.
PIX11 News tried out the device, which is lightweight, and easy to carry. It had a narrow slotted attachment on it, in which a lanternfly get stuck during PIX11’s test of the equipment.
Still, the supervisor, Ietaka, said, the vacuum cleaner works well, and that every tool — including people stomping any lanternfly they see — helps to reduce the threat. The vacuum, he said, is an effective tool.
“So we can vacuum up dozens at a time,” Ietaka said.
Once the bugs are collected in the vacuum’s chamber, its payload is emptied into an airtight plastic bag. A cotton ball soaked in alcohol-based sanitizer is dropped into the bag, and then it’s sealed.
“The alcohol fumes will finish off any bugs that made it through the spin in the canister,” Ietaka said.
Each vacuum is powered by a rechargeable battery, which lasts about five hours, according to the Parks Department.