An agricultural pest adviser is hoping some uniquely decorated COVID-19 masks will help raise the general public’s awareness of an invasive pest that could wreak hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to one of the state’s most abundant crops.

Surendra K. Dara, an entomology and biologicals adviser for UC Cooperative Extension in the San Luis Obispo office, has distributed about 140 of the masks that bear the image of a spotted lanternfly.

“When you wear a mask with an insect on it, people ask you about it,” Dara said, adding that gives the wearer an opportunity to educate the questioner about the grave danger posed by the invasive plant hopper.

The mask is just one of several outreach efforts Dara is using to spread the word about the spotted lanternfly — giving talks, writing articles, mapping California’s high-risk areas — but it’s probably the most unique and innovative.

“I ordered 200 of them, and we’ve sent them to farm bureaus and ag commissioners,” Dara said. “For example, I just gave 15 out yesterday at a [pest control association] meeting in Santa Maria.

“It’s easy to reach people in the agriculture industry,” he added. “But it’s much harder to reach the general public. They don’t usually become aware of a pest until it’s here and a problem. … The good thing is, it is a big insect. People can quickly spot it.”

The spotted lanternfly, Lycorma delicatula, is black with white spots in its first three nymph stages, turning red and black with white spots in its fourth nymph stage. Adults have black and yellow bodies and one set of wings that’s white, black and red with black spots and a second set that’s gray or tan with black spots.

It’s native to China, and most invasive pest experts believe it landed in the United States in 2012 in the form of egg masses on a shipment of stones from China.

But the first infestation wasn’t discovered until 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in a tree of heaven forest, according to the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Despite quarantine efforts, the insect has now spread to Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and West Virginia.

The USDA National Invasive Species Information Center reported that last fall, a nursery operator near Corvallis found a dead female spotted lanternfly in a shipment of planters and ceramic pots from Pennsylvania and notified the Oregon Department of Agriculture Insect Pest Prevention and Management Program.

“They’ve also found some dead ones in cargo flights coming to California from Pennsylvania,” Dara said. “Based on other invasive pests, and how they move around in the country, it is likely that it will spread in California as well.”

The spotted lanternfly’s preferred host is the tree of heaven, Ailanthus altissima, sometimes called the varnish tree, which is in itself an invasive species introduced from China around 1784 and used extensively in the 19th century as a street tree, despite its foul odor.

“You don’t usually think of trees as an invasive weed,” Dara noted.

But the insect is also fond of grapes, apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums, hops, basil, walnuts and roses and will feed on chestnut, poplar, maple, tulip and oak trees — 70 species in all.

The spotted lanternfly does its damage in all four nymph stages as well as its adult stage by inserting its piercing and sucking mouthparts into plant tissues and feeding on nutrient-rich phloem sap, depleting the plant’s nutrients, reducing its vigor and lowering its yields.

It also produces copious amounts of honeydew, on which sooty mold develops and interferes with photosynthesis.

Left uncontrolled, populations can build to hundreds or even thousands on an individual plant, and heavy infestations can kill the host.

“It is going to be quite serious for certain crops — grapes, peaches and other stone fruit,” Dara said. “It is also a nuisance pest, invading roses and trees in backyards. It can be a big problem.”

So far, the main method of controlling the spotted lanternfly is to physically destroy it, kill it with pesticides and remove its tree of heaven host.

Because the insect feeds on plants with toxic metabolites, it likely has a bitter taste, especially in its wings, and isn’t on the preferred menu for most birds, although praying mantises, spiders, fish, cats and dogs have been seen eating them.

Dara said a parasitoid wasp imported to control an invasive moth seems to be attacking the lanternfly eggs, and scientists are experimenting with species from China but have yet to develop a sure bioweapon.

“The important thing is for people to be aware of them,” Dara said. “The adult insects are easy to spot. We don’t want to cause false alarms, but if they find something, they should be able to catch it and let their agriculture commissioner know or a UC Cooperative Extension adviser.”