Why scientists want you to kill spotted lanternflies

Ainvasive spotted lanternflies continue to move across the United States, local agricultural agencies have launched “If You See It, Kill It” campaigns urging people to kill the bugs to prevent further spread in the U.S.

In response to the spreading insect, earlier this week Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) called for $22 million in more funding for a USDA program that targets invasive species; these are species that are not native to an area and can quickly become overpopulated, wreaking havoc on their new environment. “We must eradicate this bug before it spreads or our farmers and local businesses could face millions in damages and an unmanageable swarm,” he said in a statement.

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

Spotted lanterns are spreading across the country

Native to parts of Southeast Asia, the spotted lanternfly was first spotted in the U.S. in 2014 in Berks County, Pennsylvania, but little was known about its potential impact at the time. “We knew very little about it in 2014 because it was not an invasive pest in its native range, where there are a host of other insects that feed on it and keep its population in check,” says Brian Eschenaur, who works with the Program for New York State Integrated Pest Management. Unlike its native country, there are no spotted lanternflies in the U.S. — although scientists are experimenting with importing tiny wasps native to China to join the fray.

The spread of the spotted lantern was slow at first. In 2018, when Eshenaur first joined the team observing the spotted lantern, they only updated their map two or three times a year. “Now we update it several times a week,” he says, as the growing population of spotted lanternflies spreads into new areas. The insect has already been spotted in the Northeast and Midwest. “Last summer was a tipping point when the numbers started going up.”

Map showing which states the invasive spotted lanternfly has spread to, compiled by the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program.

Cornell IPM Program, Jodi Benedict

The latest map update on August 8 showed flashlights spotted in 13 states, including New York, Ohio and Virginia, but Eshenaur notes that a handful of other states have found individual insects dead, but no known infestations.

Why experts are encouraging people to kill spotted lanternflies

The spotted lantern causes no harm to humans or animals — it does not bite, sting, and contains no poison. But it is a danger to more than 100 trees and plants and can kill vines and the tree of paradise, a fast-growing broadleaf tree native to China that is also an invasive species. “They stick their straw-like beaks into the plant and feed on the sap,” says Julie Urban, associate professor in Penn State’s entomology department. “It can potentially kill other plants, but it’s more of a stressor.” The insects damage plants and trees, causing them to ooze sap from wounds and leave behind a sticky honeydew that can lead to the growth of sooty mold, a fungus disease.

Spotted lantern prefers vines, maple trees, and black walnut, all of which are vital to the country’s grape production, orchards, and logging. Experts worry about the economic damage from the spotted lanternfly, but say more research is needed to better understand its impact.

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

Eshenaur says small efforts can go a long way in reducing populations — especially on a local scale. “One female spotted lanternfly can lay up to 40 egg masses,” he says. “Everybody we step on has the potential to kill 40 with it.”

At the end of the day, however, spotted lanternflies are here to stay, and all efforts are aimed at slowing down the insects’ range rather than getting rid of them entirely. “We don’t think eradication is an option for this,” Eshenaur says. “It’s a pest we’ll learn to live with. We hope to delay the rollout to give us more time to learn about it.

So while the insect may not be destroyed by stomping with lots of legs, Urban adds that these efforts are still helping researchers. “People are very frustrated with invasive species, but anything they can do helps researchers buy time while we come up with better solutions,” she says. “It’s not meaningless.”

How best to get rid of spotted flashlights

Spotted lanternflies can’t fly very far on their own, but have been able to spread by hitchhiking on people and vehicles, which is why Urban says it’s important to be alert to your surroundings and kill the insects or any egg masses if you see them. see “If you don’t kill it, you’ll wear it,” she says. “They’re not great flyers, but they’re constantly moving.”

If you see spotted lanternfly, report it to local agricultural agencies. Urban notes that Penn State has published a guide full of different ways to catch them – ranging from sticky tape to round traps – but says there’s nothing wrong with just stomping. Just make sure you approach the insects from above, she says: “If they try to run away from you, they’ll jump up.”

And if the thought of bug guts doesn’t appeal, Urban says there’s another option. “You can always collect it in your coffee mug and put it in the freezer to destroy it quickly.”

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Write to Simone Shah c simmone.shah@time.com.

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