I HEARD THE CHILDREN SCREAMING before I saw them, jumping up and down and laughing while running on the glittering sidewalk in Brooklyn.
“Kill them! Kill them! Squish them!”
I was shocked and disgusted at what I thought to be their little game. Killing things makes me deeply uncomfortable, even when it’s a necessary thing. I tried to walk away from the children and my own discomfort at their joy, but I was curious. I had to see what they were stomping on. I needed to know if this was a game or a reality. I turned back to them, retracing my steps. First I saw their parents, looking on and smiling in approval. Then, as I got closer, I saw that the children were crushing spotted lanternflies.
THEY’RE CALLED SPOTTED LANTERNFLIES even though they can only fly for short distances and not well. I feel like their name is mocking them. This non-flying fly was first seen in the United States in 2014. They’re thought to have hopped on a cargo ship headed from Asia to the US, where they now spend their days munching on trees and vines, hopping around, and hitching rides on people’s cars.
While I find the image of a lanternfly surfing on a station wagon hilarious, I recently learned that the state of Pennsylvania does not. In December, I drove through Pennsylvania on my way home to Michigan, and I passed a billboard encouraging people to check their luggage for lanternflies before crossing state lines. If you found one, the billboard read, you had to kill it. At a rest area in New Jersey, I found a flier apparently designed by someone who felt the billboard was too tame. “If you see a Spotted Lanternfly,” it read, “destroy it!”
Search ‘spotted lanternfly’ and you’ll likely see results from various state agricultural departments before you see anything else. Those pages breeze past information about their lifecycle–you might learn that each year the females lay one or two egg masses containing 30-50 eggs– to get straight to the point: lanternflies are destroying trees. Not just any trees, but the sticky and sweet trees that provide us with delicious fruits: apple, plum, peach, cherry, apricot… They feast on grapes and leave behind sap — a sticky, fungal-inviting, mold-creating, photosynthesis-blocking sap that also covers native pine, black walnut, and maple trees when the lanternfly lands on those. They’ve turned the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima, stinking sumac, the symbol of endurance made famous by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) into their apartments. Read what anyone has to say about them and one thing becomes perfectly clear: the spotted lanternfly is a tiny agent of chaos and destruction.
Having learned the threat they pose, I thought back on the parents smiling proudly at their children killing lanternflies near my neighborhood grocery store in Brooklyn. Maybe, just maybe, those parents were right. Since the lanternflies are causing so much damage, I could try killing a few of them. But the idea of killing anything makes me squeamish. I don’t even squish bugs in my home; I just work around them or move them if they get annoying. To kill a lanternfly, I’d need to do some research.
A CURSORY INTERNET SEARCH told me that I should step on them and crush them. Yuck. Another method I read about is to capture them, pop them in the freezer, and forget about them. At first it sounded just as cruel, but it seems slowly freezing is how they naturally die — they hatch in the spring, mate in the summer, lay eggs in early autumn, then slowly die in the winter. Speaking of eggs, I could also find their egg masses on trees and scrape them off. Method 3: end them before they even begin.
I didn’t want to just rely on the internet, though, so I contacted a few spotted lanternfly experts and asked them about the best and worst ways to kill these bugs.
Dr. Tracy Leskey, a supervisory research entomologist at the USDA-ARS’s Appalachian Fruit Research Station, told me that it depends on the circumstance. “Growers may use an insecticide for vulnerable crops such as grapes,” she said. “But homeowners may resort to scraping egg masses or squishing nymphs and adults. If a homeowner uses a ready-to-use insecticide, they should always follow the label’s instructions.”
Dr. Kelli Hoover, a professor of entomology at Penn State, agreed about the insecticides. “The worst way to kill them is to apply insecticides without following the label instructions; so it’s best to read what PSU Extension recommends, follow the label instructions, and avoid spraying trees when flowers are in bloom or near water sources,” she told me. Method 4: (safely) spraying.
WITH MY NEWFOUND KNOWLEDGE, I was ready to take on the role of lanternfly exterminator. To bolster my courage, I decided to talk to a friend, a man who goes by Ant. In Autumn of 2020, Ant’s Instagram stories became, for a time, dedicated to videos of himself killing spotted lanternflies. I thought he hated them. I thought he could convince me to hate them too.
I asked Ant what it felt like to step on them. He told me that they crunch. Sometimes they squish a little, but it’s mostly a crunch. I expected a boy scout grin, but instead his face fell as he told me that he hates killing them. He feels bad about it. He only does it because he feels like he has to, in order to protect the trees they would otherwise kill, and even then he’s half-hearted about it: if they hop away from him three times, he lets them live. I was shocked. Out of everyone I know, I didn’t expect him to sympathize with the lanternflies. I left the conversation more confused than before. Should we actually be killing lanternflies?
I thought that maybe, just maybe, really looking at one would help me determine an answer. I tried to get close to one in a park, but as they notoriously do, it quickly hopped away from me. I tried again with another, and another. It just wasn’t working. So I sat on a park bench, the occasionally lanternfly stopping near me before hopping on by, and looked up pictures on my phone. There, I found closeups of the bugs, both somewhat drab and grey images of the lanternflies with their wings closed and strikingly colorful images of them with their wings open. Nothing about them screamed ‘economic and ecological terror’ to me. They looked like just another pretty bug. Just another living thing. I put my phone back in my bag and watched the lanternflies in front of me. Stopping and hopping and living.
I turned back to the experts. When I asked Dr. Hoover this question, she admitted that spotted lanternflies are not actually terribly destructive when they feed on most large trees. “But the adults use these trees to build up populations that move into vineyards or produce nurseries where they damage plants, reduce growth and grape yields, and can even kill grapevines and young saplings,” she went on. “They cost growers and homeowners millions of dollars to manage.”
Dr. Leskey gave me a similar answer about the economic damage, adding, “Grape growers are having to treat their vineyards with insecticides to protect their crops. This results in increased costs for growers and the disruption of the sustainable pest management strategies that they already use. This may impact the health of native species (such as black walnut), as the spotted lanternfly feeds on them in large numbers. Thus, trying to eradicate, or at least reduce populations of, this invasive species is critical for the health of the ecosystem.”
A third expert, Dr. Emelie Swackhamer, further confirmed that grape health is the big concern. Vines that are fed on by lanternflies may not survive the winter, which is a very expensive problem for growers. Additionally, Dr. Swackhammer said, “lanternflies can also disrupt trade. Areas that do not have them do not want them and businesses who ship products must comply with quarantine regulations. If they are found in shipments, it causes problems for everyone involved. These regulations are in place to try to protect areas where a lot of crops are grown, like the central valley of CA and other important agricultural areas. We want to avoid having lanternflies spread to new areas.”
The evidence seemed to speak for itself. The lanternfly is an economic terror that invites in ecosystem damage. I could feel myself turning against these bugs, but my initial doubts, and Ant’s sympathy, still haunted me. Were there other sympathizers?
Here the experts were divided. Dr. Leskey said no: “People we work with are concerned about the impact this invasive insect may have on their farms and livelihoods. They may consider them pretty, but they also consider them a serious pest that can harm their crops and businesses.” Dr. Swackhamer, on the other hand, said yes: “Some people do not want to kill insects. I think it is very important to distinguish between beneficial insects and pests. I always encourage others to think before they act.”
It seemed like I had some more thinking to do.Was there a flipside to the compelling argument against lanternflies? Was it possible that there was something–anything–positive about these bugs?
It was nearly impossible to find anyone speaking of the ‘redeeming qualities’ of lanternflies. They damage food crops, are generally a nuisance, and they cost people an unfathomable amount of money. As Dr. Swackhamer said, there’s a strong desire to keep them out of California, where their grape destruction would be even greater than it is on the east coast.
However, right now the wine industry is at its lowest and the supply of grapes currently far outweighs their demand. In some places, grapes are being left on the vine to rot, which makes the vines more susceptible to fungi and bacteria. This feels like a possible opening for a positive side of the lanternfly. The lanternfly could take care of the excess, reducing the risk of rot. This would most likely only be a short-term solution, though. Due to the lanternfly’s insatiable appetite, it would most likely overeat the grapes, causing more vine destruction, leading the current oversupply to dip below the slowing demand.
Given this behavior pattern of destruction, it’s all too easy to see them as truly evil little bugs, but maybe they’re just a fellow organism in the unfortunate position of impacting our lives in negative ways. Continuing my search for something positive about them, I looked into another of their favorite plants, the tree of heaven. A common sight on the streets of New York, it is actually native to Asia, and is no stranger to the spotted lanternfly. Being from a familiar ecosystem, the lanternfly is most likely to lay its eggs on the tree of heaven before any other hard surface. While this may raise some alarms of the lanternflies destroying more beloved trees, it must be noted that the tree of heaven is itself an invasive species, one that prevents other trees from growing. While at times the tree has been heralded as a symbol of hope and endurance and has been praised for surviving an invasive worm epidemic, it also has a long history of people protesting its very existence in the US. While those who love the tree often hate the lanternfly, those who hate the tree sometimes praise the lanternfly. And then there are those who hate them both, who dream of the lanternfly leaving sticky sap on its host tree and killing it. A problem that takes care of itself: the invasive bug kills the invasive tree. Seems like a win-win.
However, without the tree of heaven, the lanternfly is likely to just lay its eggs in other places. Like on native trees or on the sides of buildings. So while I’d love to make some grand narrative about the debates over the beloved (and hated) tree vs the “evil”, sticky, tree-eliminating bug, it’s just not there. Or more accurately, it’s not the perfect solution it may appear to be.
The more I looked into these hopping critters, the more my sympathy for them thinned. In a last-ditch effort to find something redeeming about the lanternfly, I looked into their sap, the most wicked thing about them. It turns out that the sticky, fungi- and bacteria-attracting goo is actually a treasured meal for some bees. While Dr. Swackhamer made the valid point that other stinging insects are also interested in the sap, which can be a major concern to people allergic to insect stings, we all know that we cannot live without bees, and the spotted lanternfly is producing food for them.
Especially in locations such as orchards where bees are imperative, this doesn’t sound like a completely horrible situation. Bees help grow the plants. Lanternflies help feed the bees. Excess fruit feeds the lanternflies, lessening the amount that gets tossed out every year. The cost of feeding bees is also lowered (slightly) when bees are eating the lanternfly sap. They bulk up enough to survive the winter with minimal feedings from their keepers. This sounds like a cute and ideal situation straight out of a cozy game like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, but I fear it would end in the lanternflies overstepping the boundaries of their feasting, causing debilitating harm to the fruit trees of the orchard. Once again, it’s a solution that would only work long-term if some lanternflies died. The cutesy and serene ideal orchard situation would have to evolve into: bees help grow the plants. Lanternflies help feed the bees. The lanternflies feast on excess fruit, lessening the amount that just gets tossed every year. The lanternfly lays too many eggs, causing an overabundance of feasting bugs. The farmer kills most of the lanternflies and destroys most of their eggs.
Much less cute.
IN SEEING THAT EVERY POSSIBLE positive situation involving the lanternfly works in the short term but ends with the lanternfly causing horrific damage, I think what I’ve landed on is the unsatisfying truth that the lanternfly issue is a complex one. They’re invasive, sticky, economic terrors with a taste for grapes and sweet fruits. They harm native trees by inviting in bacteria and fungi, but they also take care of excess fruit, provide food for bees, and target an invasive tree that’s been involved in its own complex protests for decades. In small numbers, the lanternfly may be good, but they are not here in small numbers, and they just keep multiplying.
In some ways, I feel bad for the lanternfly. I even relate to them. They were born into a situation they didn’t choose, and their every necessary-for-survival action has negative consequences for the people around them and the planet they live on. For the lanternfly, and for us, there is no 100% positive course of action. But there are actions that help lessen the damage. So even if I’ll still struggle with killing them myself, I can agree that the lanternfly population needs to be controlled.
Maybe those kids were right. Until the lanternfly population is more manageable, “Kill them! Kill them! Squish them!” may be the unfortunate way it has to be.