Officials urge killing of invasive spotted lanternfly

·4 min read

At first glance, the adult lanternfly is a beautiful spectacle with spotted, bright red wings and a little bumble bee-esque body. But as the species continues its trek across the U.S., federal and state officials have a unified message: If you come across the insect, kill it.

The lanternfly is an invasive species from China that wreaks havoc on agriculture. They aren't physically harmful to humans, but they threaten everything from oak, walnut and poplar trees to grapes, almonds and fruit orchards. It was first detected in the U.S. in Pennsylvania in 2014, but it has now spread to at least nine states, primarily in the Northeast. Growing numbers have been spotted in New York City this summer.

Spotted lanternflies on the side of the Berks County Services Building in Reading, Pennsylvania, September 28, 2020.  / Credit: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Spotted lanternflies on the side of the Berks County Services Building in Reading, Pennsylvania, September 28, 2020. / Credit: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

Photos of the creatures have flooded social media, with many expressing either a squeamish or violent response to being faced with the responsibility of killing a lanternfly.

"Killed a spotted lanternfly today," one person tweeted. "Was it justifiable homicide? Will I be acquitted of this crime?... My body count is up to two. When will the violence end?"

Have no fear, you are a civic hero! Spotted lanternflies are a threat to our city's forests. NYC, be like Sara! If you see a spotted lanternfly, squish it, dispose of it, and report it to us at https://t.co/LpuGFh97La. https://t.co/DppTLvGQAm

— NYC Parks (@NYCParks) September 14, 2021

Spotted Lanternfly shortly before I squashed it at Dell Water in Greenwood Cemetery 8-21-21 pic.twitter.com/Jf7eaj1WVM

— ariya1 (@ariya1) August 22, 2021

But officials are insisting that anyone who kills the insect is a "civic hero."

"Spotted lanternflies are a threat to our city's forests," New York City's Parks Department tweeted. "If you see a spotted lanternfly, squish it, dispose of it, and report it to us."

According to New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, the pest feeds on the sap of more than 70 plant species and excrete a sticky substance known as "honeydew," which attracts "large amounts of sooty molds" that negatively impact the plants' ability to photosynthesize, grow and yield fruits. The pests continuously feeding on plants also makes those plants more vulnerable to disease and attacks from other insects.

"Although native insects also secrete honeydew, the size of [spotted lanternflies] and the large populations that congregate in an area result in large accumulations of it. The sticky mess and the swarms of insects it attracts can significantly hinder outdoor activities," the department said. It noted that in Pennsylvania, where spotted lanternfly populations are the densest, "people can't be outside without getting honeydew on their hair, clothes, and other belongings."

Field technician Lott Miller holds a spotted lanternfly at Penn State Berks' Pfeiffer Farm in September 2018. / Credit: Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Field technician Lott Miller holds a spotted lanternfly at Penn State Berks' Pfeiffer Farm in September 2018. / Credit: Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

The department said signs of a lanternfly infestation include sap oozing from "tiny open wounds" on tree trunks, one-inch-long egg masses that are waxy and mud-like when new and brown and scaly when old, and a massive buildup of honeydew and black sooty mold on plants.

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Professor George Hamilton, the chair of Rutgers University's entomology department, told CBS New York last month that August was the best time to kill the insects, as that's when most of the adults are out. The bugs start laying eggs in September, he said, and baby lanternflies are more difficult to find and kill.

He said it is believed spotted lanternflies first hitchhiked to Pennsylvania from China in a shipment of stone. In China, they tend to get eaten by wasps, but not here.

The risks posed by the lanternfly are triggering investigations and special protocols by states that fear its arrival could harm their communitiies.

Such was the case in Kansas this week, when a student brought a lanternfly to the state fair as part of their 4-H insect display box, according to The Hutchinson News. The student was reportedly unaware that the dead bug was an invasive species, and a judge at the fair had to report it to the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In July, California established a quarantine order to help prevent the introduction of the spotted lanternfly there. It prohibits host plants and a variety of items from any area where there is currently a spotted lanternfly infestation from entering the state. Similar orders restricting the movement of items that could be infested with spotted lanternflies have been enacted in Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, among others.

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