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dplanternfly
Credit: Tyler Kliem

With unusual fervor, my friends and I scoured the perimeter of the Perelman Center, squishing bugs and exclaiming with joy when we landed a hit. To the untrained eye, we’re no better than the kids that burn ants with magnifying glasses. But these are not just any bugs. These are spotted lanternflies, or as Billy Penn calls them, “public enemy no. 1.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture does not mince words over what to do if you spot one: “Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it.” It seems that Philadelphia’s residents have answered. Penn’s veterinary school has trained dogs to detect lanternfly egg masses, and a Penn alum developed Squishr, an app that tracks spotted lanternfly kills.

Spotted lanternflies seem harmless at first. They don’t attack people or animals and appear to have no survival instinct. They smack into walls with audible thumps, and barely flinch when approached. That said, they also decimate plants, feeding on over 70 different species in Pennsylvania, including economically important plants like grapevines and maple trees. Their excrement attracts wasps and flies, and leads to the growth of sooty mold on plants, causing further damage. According to a study carried out by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, the spotted lanternfly could cost Pennsylvania’s economy at least $324 million annually and 2,800 jobs.

Because these lanternflies are an invasive species, they have no natural predator. Their preferred plant to feed on, the tree-of-heaven (also an invasive species) contains toxins which the lanternfly ingests, rendering them unappetizing to most local wildlife. They also spread like wildfire — a single lanternfly can lay 60 to 100 eggs in the fall — and they are master hitchhikers.

The spotted lanternfly first arrived in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014, but since then they have spread to 34 counties in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. In Kansas, a spotted lanternfly was the centerpiece of a local boy’s entry in the State Fair. He won a blue ribbon, and prompted a federal investigation of how the creature traveled 850 miles from the nearest site of infestation: Ohio.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this ordeal is that there is so much we don’t know. From 2019 to 2020, Philadelphia reports and sightings of the lanternfly went up 500%, but they are now relatively scarce in the area, and it’s not clear why. Karen Verderame, an animal programs developer at Drexel University, hypothesized three potential reasons for this change: increased predation by other insects and birds, soil-based fungi that are fatal to the insect, and lanternfly spread to other Pennsylvania counties and states.

We are swift actors when our own health is directly at stake: though the COVID-19 pandemic response has not been perfect, we developed a vaccine in a record-breaking 11 months. Invasive mosquitoes introduced the West Nile virus to the United States in 1999, but regular insecticide spraying makes cases of the virus rare. However, when the effects on our well-being are less obvious, like with the spotted lanternfly’s spread, it’s harder to take action. Lanternflies have been a plague on our valued crops since 2014, but I doubt there will be concerted efforts to protect our local ecosystems beyond public announcements calling for lanternfly slaughter.

Unfortunately, lanternflies are just the beginning of the story when discussing threats to our ecosystem and well-being. For instance, the lack of “green” infrastructure in Philadelphia worsened the effects of Hurricane Ida, contributing to the flooding of the Schuylkill River and nearby areas. Rain gardens, green roofs, and other natural areas could have soaked up runoff via plants and soil, but such infrastructure is scarce in urban areas like Philadelphia.

Philadelphia released its first heat relief plan in 2019, as neighborhoods with less tree cover and green space get less shade, leading to temperatures 22 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than other Philadelphia neighborhoods. Warmer falls in Philadelphia have also been encouraging population growth in invasive plants accustomed to warmer weather, displacing native plants like the lanternfly does.

With climate change, stories like this will grow more common. There is so much about our ecosystems we don’t know, and threats can come out of nowhere. As such, we can’t afford to only pay attention to our environment when it’s directly jeopardizing our health. Seemingly harmless inaction, like sparing a lanternfly’s life or delaying greenspace construction, can lead to exponential damage in the long run. Going forward, let’s keep tabs on where we can give back to our local ecosystem, even in urban spaces like Philadelphia. And of course, when you see a lanternfly, be sure to kill it!

CAROLINE MAGDOLEN is a College and Engineering sophomore studying Environmental Science and Systems Engineering from New York City, N.Y. Her email address is magdolen@sas.upenn.edu.

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