Born in Washington County, James Ewing has been a farmer almost his whole life. Growing up, every Easter season, Ewing and his sister would adopt and raise Pekin ducklings. Around age 13, at a poultry sale, he discovered Indian Runner ducks, who stand out among other breeds because they stand up like penguins — and because they run rather than waddle.
Thus began a hobby for rearing Indian Runner ducks. These days, Ewing, 33, says he’s using his flock to “ward off the new bug in town.”
To curtail the population of spotted lanternflies — the colorful insects who are wreaking havoc on crops throughout the nation — Ewing unleashes about 100 ducks daily on the farm he manages.
“The ducks eat up the lanternflies pretty good,” he said. “You gotta do what you gotta do to save your crop.”
Ewing, who works at Libertas Estates, a 10-acre vineyard in Mount Airy, explained that lanternflies are “decimating vineyards and other fruit-bearing plants.”
“They’re drawing sap out of the vine and continuously defecating to the point where it’s like black tar running down the trunk,” he said. “This black tar harbors various funguses that affect the plant.”
Aaron Shurtleff, an entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA)’s spotted lanternfly program, wrote in an email that “constant feeding by the lanternflies can siphon sugars out of the plant,” making the grapes less sweet.
“The lack of nutrients can also weaken the grapevines,” he added, “leaving them more susceptible to other pests and diseases.”
Hailing from overseas, the invasive species was first recorded in the United States in 2014. That same year, a study was released warning that the overall impact of lanternfly damage on Pennsylvania agriculture could be up to $99 million statewide, affecting fruit growers, especially grape growers.
In fall 2021, the New York Times ran a piece urging readers to kill the insect, a clarion call that has since been echoed by a bevy of figures in media and government. This year is Ewing’s first seeing them in a high quantity.
“They’re very hard to kill. If you try and stomp on them, they jump like crazy,” he said. “They’re spring-loaded, and they do fly a bit.”
According to Shurtleff, the best way to manage the population without pesticides is likely scraping away their eggs before they hatch in the spring.
The ducks, while not a cure, are a huge help. “Every one egg that they eat, that’s gonna be 50 or 60 less that will hatch next year,” said Ewing, who has been reading about the lanternflies, as well as speaking with other farmers and conducting his observational research.
Ewing’s duck house, formerly a calf shed, is about 1,000 feet from the vineyard, and he himself lives on the property, owned by husband and wife Errol and Berenice Rushovich. Errol is chief of endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center, and Berenice is a child welfare research scientist.
The Rushoviches bought the 127-acre farm in 2014, began planting vines the following year, and started selling the fruit to local wineries a few years after that. In spring 2021, they received a grant from Frederick County to expand their program for using ducks as pest control, as an alternative to chemicals.
And in spring 2022, they hired a winemaker and started their own label. Libertas Estates also sells duck eggs at farmer’s markets.
Now they’re using the ducks on the lanternflies. “I felt our ducks might be part of our defense against this invasive species,” said Dr. Errol Rushovich. “With our limited experience, they do seem to be helpful.”
“It seemed kind of crazy at first,” said Ewing of the idea.
His flock used to be 30. Now he’s using the incubator to hatch more ducklings, taking his hobby to the next level.
Ewing is optimistic that the agricultural industry will better know how to manage lanternflies within the next couple of years. “There’s always a new insect that you’re trying to deal with,” he said. “It’s always something.”
What can you do if you’re not a duck? One action consumers can take is to report findings of lanternflies using the MDA’s online survey.