Pennsylvania’s Bug Battle And What It Means For The Rest Of The U.S. - The Years Project

Pennsylvania’s Bug Battle And What It Means For The Rest Of The U.S.

By Lizzie Stricklin

Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture

The first time I encountered a spotted lanternfly was at the Elmwood Park Zoo in Norristown, PA, in 2018.

I remember noticing its gray, spotted wings in the grass, lurking beneath a tree. Its beady eyes stared into mine. I poised my foot above it and promptly smushed its guts out.

I learned from the best. My mom, a preschool teacher in Flourtown, PA, spends recess arming her students with plastic shovels and teaching them to squash lanternflies they find on trees around the playground. But no matter how much progress her preschoolers make, she says, there are always more of the insects the next day, clinging to the bark or hopping through the grass. They’re on her windshield as she drives home. They cover trees throughout our neighborhood. These bugs seem to be everywhere.

And wherever the spotted lanternflies go, trees die.

Native to China, Bangladesh, and Vietnam, spotted lanternflies are large planthoppers, easily identifiable by their grey wings with black spots. First spotted in Pennsylvania in 2014, lanternflies have eaten their way through the Keystone State and have expanded into portions of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. If residents see one, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture demands they should “kill it! Squash it, smash it… just get rid of it.”

Spotted Lanternflies. Photo by Emily Stricklin

As an invasive species, spotted lanternflies have no natural predators in Pennsylvania to naturally limit their range and consumption. The lanternflies’ favorite food is the tree of heaven (also an invasive species in the US) but what scares many farmers and environmentalists is that unlike other invasive insects like the hemlock woolly adelgid and the emerald ash borer, spotted lanternflies aren’t picky. They can consume at least 40 species of native plants, including trees like black walnut, maple, and many fruit trees, according to research done by The New York Times.

And lanternflies don’t just nibble on bark and leaves. They feed on plant sap and excrete sticky, syrupy honeydew that coats leaves and stems and promotes the growth of mold – not just eating a tree, but slowly and methodically killing it.

To make measures worse, lanternflies also have the inherent advantage of being able to lay eggs just about anywhere – including on manufactured structures like train cars and shipping containers – unlike most insects that only lay their eggs on plant material or in the ground.

Spotted lanternflies therefore are a dangerous threat to Pennsylvania forests and agriculture. States far from the mid-Atlantic, like Michigan, are already preparing for the eventuality of lanternflies entering the state by developing a spotted lanternfly response group. The state with most concerns is California, which is a key source of much American agriculture and wine production. Unlike Michigan, however, the California Department of Food and Agriculture already feels somewhat prepared, due to existing quarantines in place to prevent the spread of another invasive insect: the gypsy moth.

Nevertheless, American environmentalists and farmers are prepping for the likelihood of a lanternfly outbreak across the country because climate change is expected to make the insects more numerous, more ravenous, and more difficult to kill.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, invasive species and climate change are not only two of the top drivers of biodiversity loss respectively, but are also interconnected. USDA officials say that “climate induced stress in an ecosystem will facilitate invasive pathways,” meaning that warmer temperatures may invite invasive insects like the spotted lanternfly to expand their range into regions that once would have been too cold for them.

Warmer winters also mean that invasive insects that would normally lie dormant or die off during the winter months may stick around for longer – and spend that time reproducing and consuming more and more.

This has already happened with native insects, like the mountain pine beetle. Warmer winter temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and Colorado have allowed the beetle to remain active for more months in the year and breed more often. This has caused the beetle to ravage tree populations and become a pest even in its native habitat. And as thousands of trees die, more carbon is released into the atmosphere, speeding up climate change.

We have seen invasive insects run rampant in the US before. The hemlock woolly adelgid, for example, was first discovered in Virginia in 1951. Since then, it has devastated hemlock populations up and down the east coast, and in 2009, the U.S. Forest Service discovered that this sudden decline in hemlock populations has rapidly altered the carbon cycle of forests.

It’s a cycle that never ends – the warming climate exacerbates the spread of invasive insects, which causes forests to release carbon and speed up climate change. And on and on and on.

So what can be done to curb this creepy-crawling threat before it’s too late?

Twenty-six Pennsylvania counties have already been put under a spotted lanternfly quarantine, meaning movement of items that may harbor lanternfly eggs is restricted, including logs, firewood, packing materials, and outdoor items like grills and recreational vehicles.

Various insecticides are being tested, and lawmakers in Maryland even tabled a bill to ban a potentially dangerous pesticide in case they need it to ward off lanternflies.

Pennsylvania researchers have also been studying the lanternfly’s natural predators in Asia – such as a species of small, parasitic wasps – with the intention of possibly introducing them in Pennsylvania to contain the lanternfly population. More creatively, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine is also training dogs to sniff out lanternfly egg masses, which will make it easier to destroy them before they hatch.

For homeowners, however, the most accessible solution may still be wrapping sticky paper around trees to catch the insects, especially while they are small nymphs. And there’s always the go-to solution of squashing them yourself – which Pennsylvanians seem to love. PA residents are so focused on killing lanternflies that some have deemed it a “pandemic hobby.” One Philly suburbanite even created an app called Squishr, which presents a leaderboard of residents who have killed the most lanternflies each day.

Although the lanternfly obsession may have only taken hold of the mid-Atlantic so far, these tiny pests are indicative of larger issues at play. They represent just another key part of the climate equation and reveal that climate affects everything – even down to the beady-eyed bug staring up at you from the grass. The threat of invasive insects like the spotted lanternfly must be grappled with, not only to protect American agriculture, but to save our forests and, ultimately, our climate.