The spotted lanternfly Credit: Via University of Maryland Extension website/ Holly Razuga

As you are planting petunias or trimming azaleas this spring, keep a lookout for a colorful moth-like insect known as the spotted lanternfly.

Maryland horticulture officials are asking residents in the region, including Montgomery County, to notify them if someone spots a spotted lanternfly in the state. The invasive insect arrived in the United States about three years ago and has been spreading in Pennsylvania.

Chuck Schuster, a horticulturalist with the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture’s extension office in Derwood, said Friday there has been no official confirmation yet of the presence of the spotted lanternfly in Maryland. However, he said that could change.

He noted there was a confirmed sighting in Winchester, Virginia, earlier this year not far from the western Maryland border. He said construction material was shipped from Pennsylvania to Winchester and scientists later located lanternfly egg masses at the site.

“Eggs can be laid on cars, trailers, masonry materials and other tools that we move around,” Schuster said. “There are lots of ways a new invasive insect can get into Maryland.”

The insect also has been spotted in New Castle County in Delaware, according to the extension school.

The spotted lanternfly is native to China, India and Vietnam. It favors soft fruits such as grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines, Schuster said. It has two pairs of wings, but tends to jump more than fly. The insects are about an inch long and typically hatch from late April to early May. The adult lanternfly has a set of red spotted wings as well as a set of brown spotted wings attached to its yellow and black abdomen.

Lanternflies suck sap from host plants, which can weaken them, leaving a residue known as honeydew behind, according to the school’s notification about them. The honeydew can attract ants, wasps and other insects, which can cause parts of the plant to blacken and become unsightly.

Schuster said the insects can extract up to 50 percent of the sugar content from fruits they eat.

“With a heavy enough population, they’re going to overrun the plant,” Schuster said. He noted they particularly like to lay eggs on ailanthus trees, which are also known as the “tree of heaven.”

A tree of heaven via Minnesota Department of Agriculture website

Schuster said scientists aren’t sure if there’s an effective pesticide to kill the insects and they seem to be capable of surviving in the region’s temperate climate.

The extension school is asking that anyone who spots one of the insects call the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5920 or email at dontbug.md@maryland.gov.

Schuster said scientists want to determine if the insect is spreading so they can conduct additional research on them. He noted there is no known natural predator in the area for the spotted lanternfly.