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Helen Vance: NCDA&CS Field Technician

I never thought I would receive so much satisfaction from spending my summer squashing bugs. I fully embodied the infamous Spotted Lanternfly slogan: “see it, squash it, report it”, through my work this summer as a Field Technician in the Plant Industry Division of the NCDA&CS. My internship primarily took place in Kernersville, NC, a known hotspot of the invasive Spotted Lanternfly.

As an agricultural and nuisance pest, this insect was first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014, and has since spread to 14 other states. Spotted Lanternfly (SLF) was found in Kernersville last summer, thought to have hitchhiked to North Carolina several years before it was initially reported.

As a current senior majoring in Natural Resources with a concentration in Ecosystem Assessment, I took the job excited to spend my summer conducting fieldwork and managing invasive populations. My job duties in the beginning consisted of working with home or business owners to secure property access, and then conducting visual surveys to determine the presence or absence of SLF.

We initially sought out the principal host tree, tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), another invasive species with the same native range. Tree-of-heaven, a highly prolific invasive, sprouts vigorously from its roots and grows rapidly in disturbed areas. Often found along highways, it can grow in a wide variety of conditions, making it easier for SLF to progress throughout the state.

Helen Vance conducting visual surveys in Kernersville, NC

If we discovered any SLF in a particular area, we documented our findings on the map to confirm places necessary for treatment. As the internship began in May, we were keeping our eyes peeled for small, black, spotted nymphs that hung on the undersides of leaves. As the season progressed to mid to late June, we began to see larger red nymphs, or 4th instars, that slowly migrated to woody stems and branches.

Image of a 4th instar Spotted Lanternfly

Come early July, the nymphs molted to their final, and most likely recognizable, growth stage: adults. Distinguishable by their grayish wings, black spots, and bright red hind wings, adult SLF congregate on trunks and use their fully formed piercing-sucking mouthparts to extract phloem from the trees.

Monitoring the presence and spread of the insect within Kernersville and surrounding areas was a critical process to mitigate its expansion to other parts of the state. As a large threat to grapevines, hops, fruit trees, and over 70 species of native plants, the surveying I accomplished was beneficial in prioritizing control efforts.

What were the control efforts in question? I had the opportunity to participate in one round of treatment in late July, where we revisited positive parcels equipped with herbicide and insecticide. Prior to my involvement in treatment, my coworkers and I obtained acknowledgements from property owners with their approval for the process. Informing and providing outreach to people in Kernersville was a large part of the job. I enjoyed being able to interact with the public and share my knowledge about SLF life stages, identification, and control methods to spread awareness within the local community.

For a week in late July, a team of NCDA&CS employees united to conduct treatment on parcels we had previously surveyed and deemed positive. We split into groups and were equipped with backpack sprayers filled with insecticide, which we applied to the base of the trunks. We also sprayed herbicide on surrounding tree-of-heaven saplings, to effectively control the spread.

Helen Vance conducting treatment in Kernersville, NC

The weeks following treatment, my coworkers and I focused on efficacy surveys: monitoring the success of our treatment methods. This final project of my internship made the experience full circle, and I am very grateful to have been involved every step of the way. This experience has inspired me to apply to jobs with an emphasis on forest health and invasive management, while having a good balance of field and office work. I am grateful for the opportunity to work in the public sector, and my next career steps may include a full time position with the state government. Through this internship, I strengthened my skills in fieldwork, entomology, dendrology, and science communication. While I am still unsure of what my future career path looks like, I am excited to apply the skills I developed this summer to any future position.

My summer internship in Kernersville, North Carolina, provided me with hands-on experience in a field I am interested in. From conducting visual surveys to educating the community, every aspect of the internship was rewarding. Being part of a team dedicated to preserving the local environment and economy showed me the importance of this type of work. My favorite part of my summer experience was being able to provide outreach to the local Kernersville community, and spread awareness of how SLF impacts their city and beyond.

As I reflect on my time in Kernersville, I am filled with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. While the threat of invasive species like the Spotted Lanternfly is a challenge, the dedication of individuals working together gives me hope for a more resilient natural world. Through continued awareness, education, and action, we can protect our communities and the environment from the harmful impacts of invasive species.