Aug. 25, 2022 – If you see one, squash it. Stomp on it until it’s dead.
This is the advice agricultural organizations across the Northeast United States are giving when it comes to the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species that has spread rapidly across the country, including into dense urban centers like Philadelphia and New York City. Sightings of the black-and-orange polka-dotted pest have been recorded in at least 11 states.
The insect is native to China, India, and Vietnam. Its first North America appearance was in Pennsylvania in 2014. Since then, it has spread quickly to neighboring states by hitchhiking on plants, cars, and just about anything else it can cling onto. They may reach the West Coast as soon as 2027, warns a recent study from North Carolina State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Because they are plant-hoppers, they don’t fly. Rather, they launch themselves up and high across alarmingly long distances. While they are no immediate threat to people or pets, they cause harm to over 70 native plants including apple trees, grapevines, and other food crops by sucking on their sap and leaving behind lots of sticky, mold-attracting poop. In Pennsylvania alone, they are responsible for an estimated $554 million in agricultural damage, according to 2019 research from Pennsylvania State University.
Some state departments have imposed quarantine restrictions for infected counties, while others have begun research and health awareness campaigns to educate the public on exactly why this mass launch of brightly colored bugs is so bad for the environment.
“They’re an economic and quality of life issue, as well as a threat to agriculture,” says Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture spokesperson Shannon Powers.
The Public Takes Action
All the havoc these insects cause to food crops and other native plants explains why agricultural experts are asking average citizens to help stop their spread. And the public is stepping up. Self-proclaimed lanternfly hunters are tracking and killing the invaders and sharing their conquests on social media sites like TikTok. Some are even holding lanternfly-smooshing competitions and swapping information on how best to kill as many of them as possible.
“We are thrilled people have gotten on board and are working to control spotted lanternflies,” says Powers. “People pose the greatest risk for spreading the insect. We need their help.”
But experts warn that some do-it-yourself killing methods can cause more harm than good.
“With all of the social media, we often see people taking things into their own hands and using home remedies,” says Julie Urban, an associate research professor in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “Something that might seem pretty innocuous, like a Dawn dish soap, which is benign for humans, can harm trees and beneficial insects like bees. We don’t want people applying unsafe chemicals out there.”
Urban recommends herbicides that are labeled for use on the spotted lanternfly. And of course, she encourages the squashing to continue, especially for the next few weeks. Lanternflies use the late summer to lay their eggs to make sure they will be back in force next year. And since this creature has no known predators outside of its native habitat, experts say it’s up to humans to keep on stomping.