Buggin’ Out: The Spotted Lanternfly Infestation

Buggin’ Out: The Spotted Lanternfly Infestation

Jordan Millar, Managing Editor

Anytime Poly Prep Upper School art teacher Daniel Herwitt sees a spotted lanternfly, he immediately kills it. “I have seen them around Bay Ridge — it’s an infestation. I’ve seen the damage that it’s done to the trees,” Herwitt said. He recalled an experience where he took his son to play soccer at the park, and noticed a tree covered with a black, acidic liquid. “There were hundreds of them gathered at the root of the tree, and all of the plants circling the tree were pretty much expired,” Herwitt said. 


What began as a handful of insect sightings has quickly spiraled into an infestation over the past several months. Spotted lanternflies can be found everywhere, from parks and subway stations to skyscrapers and cafés. According to New York State Senator Chuck Schumer, as stated in a press conference, lanternflies have been recorded in every region of the state. As their population skyrockets, officials have expressed growing concerns over the risks they pose to the environment and economy. 


The spotted lanternfly, also known as Lycorma Delicatula, is an invasive planthopper insect native to China and Southeast Asia. Adult lanternflies measure approximately one inch long and one-half inch wide. Their front wings are light brown with black spots along the center, and their hind wings are bright red with black and white bands. “The first time you see it scurrying along the ground, you think that it’s kind of interesting looking,” said Poly Prep Upper School biology teacher and ecologist Dr. Clark Richter.


According to New York State Integrated Pest Management, the lanternfly is “thought to have arrived as egg masses on a stone shipment in 2012.” The first infestation of lanternflies in the United States occurred in September 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Lanternflies were first observed in New York on Staten Island in August 2020, and they have since been found in all five boroughs, as well as over 10 other cities throughout the state.


Typically, foreign species don’t thrive in new environments, but the spotted lanternfly has proven to be a rare exception. Since their arrival, infestations have been documented in over 14 states. Richter suggested it might be because “whatever predator used to feed on it in its native range is not present in its new area” or “there is just a profoundly good food or substrate for it out here.”


Although infestations have been rapidly rising along the East Coast, the extent of their impact remains to be seen. Lanternflies are not dangerous to people and pets, nor do they bite or transmit diseases, however, they do harm plants, trees, and other agriculture, and consequently economy. According to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, lanternflies feed on over 70 different species of plants. “Its primary food is the Tree of Haven [Ailanthus altissima], which is a species of tree that grows profoundly well in urban environments,” Richter said. The lanternflies also enjoy feeding on fruits or fruit-bearing trees and plants. 


“There is great concern about its effect on vineyards, orchards, and hardwood trees. Its presence has led to crop loss, exporting issues, and increased management costs,” says the NY Department of Agriculture and Markets regarding the species. New York’s annual yield of apples and grapes has a combined value of $358.4 million, which could be greatly impacted by lanternfly invasions. Lanternflies are guaranteed to damage the economy, however the full extent of the economic impact is unknown.


The planthopper species feeds on trees using specialized mouthparts that can pierce the plant and suck up sap. They specifically feed on leaves, stems, and trunks. Piercing the plant’s tissues and feeding on the sap weakens the plant, sometimes causing it to ooze, creating a fermenting odor and a gray or black trail along the bark. Richter explained that a lanterfly’s waste, referred to as honeydew, is a sweet substance that attracts other insects and is a good substrate for mold. Lanternfly feedings can cause fungal infections, wilting, and defoliation in plants as well as yield loss, reduction in crop quality, and even plant death. 


Since January 2018, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has been working with several state and federal partners to monitor and hopefully lower spotted lanternfly populations. Despite regulatory actions and other efforts made to slow the spread, the rapid dispersion of spotted lanternflies has proven very difficult to control. Categorized by scientists as “hitchhikers”, the insects jump and fly short distances. In fact, they lay eggs on practically any surface, including vehicles, firewood, outdoor furniture, bricks, and even dead plants. Managing lanternflies in urban places like New York City is especially difficult since they thrive in disturbed areas, such as roadsides or railroad lines. 


As scientists work to find ways to control the spotted lanternfly upsurge, they have enlisted the help of New Yorkers to slow the spread.

“If you see a spotted lanternfly in New York City, kill it immediately by stepping on it or crushing it.”

— New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets instructs on its website: “If you see a spotted lanternfly in New York City, kill it immediately by stepping on it or crushing it.” Many have already gone on a lanternfly killing spree, using fly swatters, the bottoms of their shoes, vinegar, or dish soap in spray bottles, and even their bare hands, as stated by the New York Times.  “I do kill them because they’re annoying and they do damage,” said junior Mary Howell.


However, others have objected to killing lanternflies. According to a New York Times article, Jody Smith, a 33-year-old software developer and vegan, refuses to kill them, because “the state-endorsed bloodlust when it comes to lanternflies, and the sense that they are disposable,” seemed like overkill to him. “I think in this instance, it’s whatever makes you most comfortable,” Richter said in response to this moral dilemma.

Scientists are still determining the best ways to control the lanternfly population. Richter said to stay tuned. “We’re still figuring out a lot of this. As much as news articles might try to say there is a definitive ‘this insect is bad kill it,’ I think you’ll find a lot more variability in the scientific community about exactly how possible it is to do that.”