Why Scientists Want You to Kill Spotted Lanternflies

As invasive spotted lanternflies continue moving through the United States, local agricultural agencies have launched “If you see it, kill it” campaigns urging people to kill the bugs in order to prevent any further spread across the U.S.

In response to the proliferating insect, earlier this week Senator Chuck Schumer (D., NY) called for $22 million more in funding for a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that targets invasive species; these are species that aren’t native to an area and can quickly become overpopulated, wreaking havoc on their new environment. “We need to stomp out this bug before it spreads, otherwise our farmers and local businesses could face millions in damage and an unmanageable swarm,” he said in a statement.

The spotted lanternfly is neither a moth nor a fly but a “planthopper.” It’s part of the same category of insects to which cicadas and aphids belong. About an inch long, their black-spotted, light-brown wings make them easy to find. Here’s what to know about the spotted lanternfly spread and why scientists are encouraging people to kill any they might see.

Spotted lanternflies are spreading across the country

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Native to parts of southeast Asia, the spotted lanternfly was first spotted in the U.S. in 2014, in Berks County, Pa., but not much was known about its potential impact at the time. “We knew very little about it in 2014, because it wasn’t an invasive pest in its home territory, where there’s a suite of other insects that feed upon it and keep its population in check,” says Brian Eshenaur, who works with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. Unlike in its native country, there are no spotted lanternfly predators in the U.S.—though scientists have been experimenting with importing tiny wasps native to China to enlist in the fight.

The spotted lanternfly’s spread was slow at first. In 2018, when Eshenaur first joined the team monitoring the spotted lanternfly, they only updated their map two or three times a year. “Now we update it a couple times a week,” he says as the increasing spotted lanternfly population spreads to new areas. The insect has now been spotted across the Northeast and Midwest. “Last summer was an inflection point when the numbers started going way up.”

The map’s latest update on Aug. 8 showed spotted lanternfly sightings in 13 states, including New York, Ohio, and Virginia, but Eshenaur notes that a handful of other states have found dead individual insects but are not known to have infestations.

Why experts are encouraging people to kill spotted lanternflies

The spotted lanternfly doesn’t cause any harm to humans or animals—it doesn’t bite, sting, or contain venom. But it’s a danger to more than 100 trees and plants, and can kill grapevines and the tree of heaven, a fast-growing deciduous tree native to China that is also an invasive species. “They insert their straw-like beaks into the plant and feed on the sap,” says Julie Urban, associate professor at Penn State’s entomology department. “It could potentially kill other plants, but it’s more of a stressor.” The insects damage plants and trees, causing them to leak sap from the wounds and leave behind a sticky honeydew that can lead to the growth of sooty mold, a fungal disease.

The spotted lanternfly has a preference for grapevines, maple trees, and black walnut, all of which are vital to the country’s grape, orchard, and logging industries. Experts worry about the economic toll of the spotted lanternfly but say more research is needed to better understand its impact.

Experts say that having people kill lanternflies is a short term strategy as scientists continue to develop long-term, sustainable solutions. But with thousands of insects already in the environment, will squashing a few bugs have any impact?

Eshenaur says that small efforts can play a big part in reducing the population—especially on a local scale. “One female spotted lanternfly can lay up to 40 egg masses,” he says. “Each one we step on has the potential of killing 40 with it.”

At the end of the day, though, spotted lanternflies are here to stay, and all efforts are on slowing down the insects’ reach rather than getting rid of them completely. “We don’t feel as though eradication is an option for this,” says Eshenaur. “It’s a pest we’ll learn to live with. We do hope to slow the spread to give us more time to learn about this.”

So while the insect may not be eradicated through the stomping of many feet, Urban adds that these efforts still help researchers. “People get very frustrated with invasive species, but anything they can do helps researchers buy time as we come up with better solutions,” she says. “It’s not futile.”

How to best get rid of spotted lanternflies

Spotted lanternflies can’t fly very far on their own, but have managed to spread by hitching rides with humans and vehicles, which is why Urban says it’s important to be vigilant about your surroundings and kill the insects or any egg masses if you see them. “If you don’t kill it, you’ll carry it,” she says. “They’re not great fliers, but they’re constantly moving.”

If you see a spotted lanternfly, report the sighting to local agricultural agencies. Urban notes that Penn State has published a guide filled with different ways to trap them—ranging from sticky bands to circle traps—but says there’s nothing wrong with a simple stomp. Just make sure to approach the insects from the top, she says: “If they’re going to try to escape from you, they’re going to jump up.”

And if the thought of bug guts isn’t appealing, Urban says there’s another option. “You can always collect it in your coffee cup and stick it in the freezer to knock it out fast.”

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