The Spotted Lantern Fly: If You See It, Kill It

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The pretty Spotted Lantern Fly (SLF) is harmless to humans but is causing serious economic damage in New York and 13 other states. (Photo by C. Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

Last year in early Fall I was on the boardwalk in Far Rockaway, Queens when I saw an insect I was on the lookout for. It was alive and when I tried to pick it up, it suddenly hopped about a foot away and continued walking. I managed to trap it with a tissue. I then saw eight dead ones in the same vicinity. One resident of the area shared that “they are all over the place.” The insect, the Spotted Lantern Fly (SLF) is an invasive species that is spreading rapidly along the Atlantic Coast but was also seen in Michigan and Indiana.

The SLF (Lycorma Delicatula) easily qualifies as an invasive species according to a definition by National Geographic: “To be an invasive, a species must adapt to the new area easily. It must reproduce quickly. It must harm property, the economy or the native plants and animals of the region.”

The pretty looking lantern fly is native to China and Southeast Asia, and while it is harmless to humans and animals, it is wreaking serious economic damage in New York State (NYS). Last year it was found in 8 other states – Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. This year it has been spotted in 14 states.

The species is said to have arrived in the United States in 2011 as eggs on a shipment of stone. According to the New York State Agriculture Department, the first sighting in the US was in Berks County Pennsylvania in 2014. The first sighting (a dead one) in NYS was in 2017 in Delaware County. Then in 2018, adults and egg masses were seen in several other areas in the state – Albany, Chemung, Kings, Monroe, Suffolk, Westchester and Yates. Sightings continue to be reported – Staten Island and Ithaca in 2020 and NYC, other areas on Long Island, Lower Hudson Valley and Binghamton.

Easy to spot the SLF, the NYSAD is asking residents to kill it when seen. (Photo by C. Aklu)

They feed on more than 70 species and kill plants such as grapevines, blueberry bushes, and apple trees, peaches and woodland trees like black forest walnut, maple, tulip poplar, and black cherry. They can fly up to about five miles. But they can also travel for free, hitching rides on people’s clothing, and getting into vehicles where they can lay their eggs and begin their life cycle. It is believed that the SLF has already caused some $324 m in economic damage and the decimation of about 3,000 trees a year in Pennsylvania alone.

According to a NYS Integrated Pest Management report the wastes they produce, a sticky ‘honeydew’, attracts sooty molds that cover large surface areas of the plants and interferes with photosynthesis (the process by which plants make their food) by blocking sunlight. The adults and nymphs feed by sucking the sap from the trees causing them to become weak, unhealthy and prone to diseases and pests. The quantity of fruit produced by the plants is reduced which means less food for us.

In addition they have been proliferating in residential areas also, as seen recently in the Rockaways in Queens NY and have become a significant nuisance because of the growth of the sooty molds and other insects attracted to the sticky honeydew.

A study published in February 2022 found that the spread of invasive species -mammals, bugs and bacteria – is increasing worldwide because of global trade. The agriculture sector is most affected. These invasive species now cost the US economy over $21 billion per year. Most of that cost was for damages.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimate that 20 to 40 percent of global crop production is lost to pests, costing $220 billion annually. Invasive pests cost countries some $70 billion annually and are one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss.

The SLF life cycle begins in the fall with the laying of one inch long egg masses yellowish-brown masses that get covered with a gray, waxy coating right before they hatch into nymphs April – July. They are black with white spots but turn red from July -September before becoming adults. The adults measuring one inch long and half inch wide begin to appear in July.

According to one report, “Invasive species is second only to man in habitat destruction; they spread diseases, are predators or parasites, and out-compete native species for food and natural resources and/or by altering habitat in such a way that native species can no longer flourish.”

This is particularly true in the case of the boll weevil, a native of Central America which arrived in Texas in 1892. Within a few years it spread over thousands of miles, feeding on cotton buds and flowers completely destroying the crop – the economic backbone of the southern states. It was partially responsible for the Great Migration from the South to the North. “At times the damage has been to the extent of a loss of 50 percent of the crop, estimated at 400,000 bales of cotton annually, about 4,500,000 bales since the invasion or $250,000,000 worth of cotton” according to a 1918 report by Carter G. Woodson.

The USDA’s Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Unit in Delaware recently identified a wasp species which is destructive to the SLF and is studying it to determine whether it is harmful to useful insects. Meanwhile the NYS Agriculture Department is encouraging everyone to help in the control and eradication of the SLF population by simply killing them with a stomp.