Science & Technology

If You Live on the East Coast, Your Mission Is to Squash These Bugs


 A spotted lanternfly at a vineyard in Kutztown, Pennsylvania in 2019.

A spotted lanternfly at a vineyard in Kutztown, Pennsylvania in 2019.
Photo: Matt Rourke (AP)

Have you seen a black and white bug flying around? Does it have vivid red back wings? Is it covered in polka dots that would make Cruella de Vil envious? If so, you’ve seen a spotted lanternfly, and a zillion of its friends are probably in your area, too. Scientists across several East Coast states are begging the public to kill these flashy bugs on sight, as 2022 shapes up to be a boom year for the destructive invaders.

Researchers and entomologists across the Northeast and into the Midwest have noticed that, not only have the numbers of spotted lanternflies increased, their range has also widened into more states. The eggs can spread on trees, rocks, and vehicles, which researchers think has increased the lanternfly’s territory. They thrive off the sap of plants, leaving crops and trees weakened and dry.

These bugs are new to the U.S. and have no natural predator here, and they happily lay their eggs just about anywhere. This means they’re reproducing fast and furiously, destroying native plant life. Anne Johnson, a PhD student in the department of entomology at Pennsylvania State University, said that the lanternflies look like they’re setting up a “boom-bust cycle,” which could explain why their numbers have surged this year. She think’s we’ll see years when they seem to “disappear,” only to come back with a vengeance after a year or two.

The bug is one of many invasive creepy-crawlies that have wreaked ecological havoc across the United States. Swarms of the spotted lanternflies have now been recorded in several states, including Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bugs likely first arrived in the U.S. from Southeast Asia in 2012. Entomologists believe they came as undetected egg masses on stones that were shipped into the country. The first real swarms hit in Pennsylvania in 2014, and sightings have only increased since then. Their numbers are also boosted by the Tree of Heaven, an invasive plant that’s been in the U.S. for about 100 years, especially in the Northeast.

Alejandro Calixto, an entomologist at Cornell University and the director of the New York State Integrated Pest Management, noted that some of the urgency to curb the number of lanternflies may seem a little odd. “This insect, it doesn’t sting, it doesn’t bite, it doesn’t cause any harm to humans or animals. The major threat is that it’s a sap-feeding insect,” he said. “It can feed on a hundred different [plant] species.”

Spotted lanternflies leave behind a nasty mess. They secrete a sticky residue called “honeydew,” which eventually turns into mold that engulfs plants and stops photosynthesis from occurring.

Because of the surge in local lanternfly sightings, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has created an online survey where state residents can log when and where they spot the bugs, along with how many of them. There’s also an option for users to upload photos of the lanternflies they find. Just this week, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources announced that it has seen the bug’s range spread across the state and asked residents to report sightings in this online form. Some states do not have an a similar online reporting system, but Johnson said there are other ways to report. She suggested Googling the state’s department of agriculture along with “spotted lanternfly.”

Unsure if what you’re looking at are lanternflies or their eggs? Covered eggs often look like a slightly raised patch of mud on tree bark, on rocks, or even under a car, and they’re an inch and a half long. Uncovered eggs look like a row of pencil points. Don’t just scrape them off, as those eggs can still hatch. A Penn State guide suggests putting them into a container with rubbing alcohol or to stomping on the masses once they’re scraped off a surface.

You may also spot nymph lanternflies, which are about a quarter-inch long with no wings and a black body covered in white dots. At the end of the nymph stage, they are half an inch long with white dots over black and white coloring. Later, they become red and black with white spots. The fully mature bugs are unmistakable (see the photo above). This guide shows all forms of the lanterfly as well as lookalike bugs. If you see them, squish them.

Some researchers are asking residents in affected areas to check their vehicles for eggs before driving to new areas, since eggs can be laid on the sides and bottoms of cars. You can also set up sticky traps on trees on your property. Calixto said that some people have used vacuums to collect the insects, and that insecticides do work to keep numbers at bay, though it’s better to leave insecticide use to professionals.

Both Johnson and Calixto say they’ve seen trees covered in swarms of lanternflies and the honeydew they leave behind. Johnson explained that the cutely named honeydew is a huge pain.

Spotted Lanternflies Infest Property

“I would say for me, the honeydew was always the worst, because it’s raining down on you. It’s just really gross,” Johnson said. “You need to put [clothing] in the laundry and take a shower to get rid of it. You can’t just like wipe it off, because it’s basically sugar water. So it just makes everything sticky and awful.”

Despite increased awareness and mitigation efforts, Calixto feels that lanternflies are probably here to stay, just like many other invasive species. “As a biologist and entomologist, it’s fascinating to see the early stages of an invasion and spread. But it’s also very disappointing, particularly here in the U.S. We have tools and resources to prevent [this],” he said. “We have a lot of ways to go with [controlling] this insect, and we’re still trying to define the reach and impact in the Northeast.”

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