Could Spotted Lanternflies Be a Good Thing?

Although spotted lanternflies are notorious for ravaging fruit trees and grapevines, Maddy explains why this insect is as important as it is beautiful.

Source: Maddy Schmidt

Controversial statement: I like spotted lanternflies.

I say this knowing full well it could land me on a tri-state area hit list, but I have to speak my truth. Of course, I don’t like what they’re doing to the environment; namely, feeding on the sap of fruit trees and grapevines, a destructive process that inhibits photosynthesis. But in addition to being beautiful insects, spotted lanternflies have promoted conservation of important plants, civic duty relating to the environment, and creativity in coming up with solutions.

There’s no denying that the spotted lanternfly is the Regina George of insects: gorgeous, but evil. The first U.S. sighting was in Pennsylvania in 2014, and just like the Tumblr girls of 2014 Pennsylvania, lanternflies have ~wanderlust~. Spotted Lanternflies are native to China, but have slowly made their way to Japan, Korea, and the United States. They hitchhike across the world by laying egg masses on flat surfaces like boats, RVs, pallets and lawn furniture, bumming off of truly anyone that’ll give them a lift. Say what you will about lanternflies, they’re thrifty, and I want them planning my next vacation.

But while tourists usually contribute to local economies, lanternflies drain them. In particular, they love grapevines, but their feeding habits weaken the vine, and their secretions (called honeydew — gross) encourage fungal growth. A study at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences estimates that lanternflies’ direct economic impact on Pennsylvania’s agriculture per year is $42.6 million statewide. If they continue to spread unchecked, that number could grow to $324 million annually and cause the loss of about 2,800 jobs. And Pennsylvania is just one state being affected — lanternflies currently inhabit 11 states on the East Coast.

Because of their economic impact, lanternflies have spurred a fascinating environmental PR campaign. In July 2022, the New York State Department of Agriculture put out the slogan “if you see them, squash them.” It evokes a wartime-era call to action, urging upstanding citizens to stomp out these dangerous invaders. And it seems to be effective — word started to spread as fast as the bugs’ infestation, and East Coasters now stand united in the War On Lanternflies. 

What’s interesting about this campaign is that it positions conservation as an act of civic duty. I honestly can’t think of any other catchy slogans urging citizens to protect their ecosystems, but this one seems to be working. When’s the last time communities statewide, let alone coast-wide, rallied behind a singular environmental cause?

What’s more, East Coasters are getting creative with solutions to the lanternfly problem. One New Jersey school has incorporated the lanternfly invasion into their curriculum, in what the New Jersey Education Association is calling a “notable example of citizen science and place-based education.” Students at Branchburg Central Middle School were tasked with designing and building lanternfly traps, which could be easily tested on the many lanternfly-coated trees at a nearby park. Not only does this seem like an extremely fun hands-on project — it’s one of the rare school assignments with an important real-world purpose. For all its downsides, maybe lanternfly invasion can teach the next generation that environmentalism can start in their own backyards.

Of course, every war has its conscientious objectors. A recent New York Times article even featured a group of lanternfly sympathizers who can’t bring themselves to kill the bugs. And here’s where I think I’ve found the perfect solution. Last summer, the invasion reached my hometown in New Jersey, and I saw my first lanternfly. I was struck by its beauty, its gray outer wings with black polka dots condensing into a pattern that looks like a fingerprint, and its vibrant red underwings that look like a pansy. And I had a thought that probably no sane person would think: I want these bugs as earrings. So I did it. I bought resin and little earring molds, and I made some gorgeous (if freaky) lanternfly jewelry. And right before I could start a booming Etsy business where I incentivized their humane trapping and killing by offering discounts to customers who gave me their bugs, I moved to California.

But my point stands: we can want them dead while still appreciating their beauty. I mean, look at young Stalin! Maybe dead lanternflies don’t have to go to waste.

The Sweaty Penguin’s mission is to get people across the political spectrum to find common ground on environmental problems. How can other causes get the same attention as lanternflies, especially ones without a singular enemy to blame? Do we need to frame everything in terms of war in order to get people to care, and better yet, to act? 

Or, perhaps, is money a stronger motivator? I have no doubt lanternflies would get the same amount of press if they weren’t causing major financial losses. I bet far fewer people have heard of the Emerald Ash Borer — another invasive insect that feeds on (and kills) ash trees — and that’s probably because we don’t have a booming ash tree industry. But removal and replacement of dead ash trees can cost over $10 billion, making Ash Borers even more economically impactful than lanternflies. 

But regardless of whether the motivation is altruistic, economic, or some sort of nationalism, I’d like to believe that the War On Lanternflies has grown people’s interest in combating invasive species, conserving indigenous plants, and learning about the issues facing their local environments. So yes, I like spotted lanternflies — not for the damage they do, but for the way they’ve united communities in environmental efforts, and let’s be honest, for the way they look with my favorite necklace.

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Maddy Schmidt


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