The Inevitability of Invasive Species: The Spotted Lanternfly in 2023

Steve Russell - October 31, 2022

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Invasive species have spread across the planet since the beginning of time. This has happened due to intentional and unintentional human influence and naturally occurring unavoidable invasions. In 2022, the United States and east Asia received an influx of spotted lanternflies, but the problem has gone on for far longer. Its vibrant red wings are arguably attractive against a fall backdrop, but what are the implications of this new insect in unfamiliar territory?

What is the Spotted Lanternfly?

The spotted lanternfly, or lycorma delicatula, is native to specific areas of China. It is easily recognizable. As a nymph, it starts black with white spots until it turns red. When it reaches adulthood, its wings are layered, the top grey with black spots and underneath, cherry red with black spots. They have around a year-long life expectancy.

In the last year, it has spread to countries like Japan, South Korea and the United States. Though it was first sighted in Pennsylvania in 2014, the population has exponentially increased. Thankfully, the spotted lanternfly is not harmful to humans since they don’t sting, bite or have any toxic properties. 

Their diet consists of over 70 different kinds of fruits and trees, including:

  • Trees: maple, oak, pine, poplar, sycamore, walnut and willow
  • Fruits: apples, cherries, grapes, nectarines, peaches and plums
  • Other: almonds and hops, among other plants

Though this is a typical diet for insects, a species becomes invasive when its aggressive repopulation negatively affects foreign ecosystems. Their native lands are accustomed to their activity, whereas the environments they invade do not have that strength. 

How Are They Affecting the Environment?

Their expansive diet is affecting the aforementioned crops in invaded areas. When their swarms feed on trees, they cause sap to ooze, leaves to wilt and dieback in the branches. They naturally produce honeydew after feeding, which causes mold — not detrimental to humans, but harmful to plants since it inhibits their ability to photosynthesize. 

The populations not only cause visual pollution in the air but ruin natural landscapes by laying eggs on surrounding trees. Visitors at a recent Steelers game in Pittsburgh brought more than sports fans as tourists approached local maple trees to inspect the strange masses of eggs. It’s important to note that lanternflies do not wholly kill trees but severely endanger their health. This is vital because it shouldn’t make humans complacent about informing themselves and taking action on invasive species.

The fall season is breeding season, where egg masses could produce 30-50 offspring. They are resilient to cold temperatures and high winds. Because of their ability to cling to surfaces, they will endure as they enter winter. This also explains how they’ve been traveling. If they’re on a car, the insect doesn’t stop holding on even if the vehicle hits speeds on the interstate.

Since they prey on grapes and hops, vineyards and breweries struggle to tame their infestations. Some wineries are reporting a 50% loss in production because of an inability to control the number of lanternflies. A vineyard in Pennsylvania is still recovering from the continued ravaging, reducing profits by over $500,000 yearly.

How Do Humans Deal With Invasive Species?

Governmental bodies, such as federal departments of agriculture, advise state and local entities to provide citizens with where to report sightings. This includes knowing how to identify eggs or young, and in the instance of spotted lanternflies, they lay eggs on flat surfaces such as trees or fences. They are covered by a brown casing called ootheca, making them naturally camouflaged on natural surfaces. 

Sometimes, it’s better to report sightings of these insects instead of taking other actions depending on whether the species threatens humans.

In the case of the spotted lanternfly, which has spread to 14 states as of October 2022, sources encourage Americans to kill them on sight. It’s the duty of citizens to take this responsibility since it threatens local economies and job stability. 

Since they are planthoppers, their strong jumping skills make them elusive to humans trying to stomp them. It doesn’t help that most invasive species run amok without much interference since typical predator species don’t exist in foreign environments. Their honeydew even attracts other species, which could theoretically curb populations. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough of a temptation to make an impact.

Unless humans act by spreading the word and sending scientists out to research affected areas, reproduction could increase at an alarming rate. Local governments may also enact a quarantine for invasive species, which means natural and building materials are not allowed in or out of quarantine zones.

What Is the Current State of the Spotted Lanternfly?

In 2023, spotted lanternflies are still breeding at an unprecedented rate. From Staten Island to Greece, they are making their rounds in regions they should have never been able to get to.

Control efforts are beginning to become visible in some areas. For example, Pennsylvania was one of the first states hit with them. In 2019, PA had over 150,000 lanternflies terrorizing crops. In 2021, the number decreased to around 61,000, and it continues to lessen. 

Meanwhile, a select few are inviting tragedy to strike nature by intentionally breeding spotted lanternflies after being spotted moving them to enclosures. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture clarified actions like this are criminal offenses, and they result in a variety of fines or civil penalties depending on the severity. Most regions affected by the lanternflies have similar advice from Departments of Agriculture — squish them on sight. 

Anything promoting their spread is still strongly discouraged, because even though some areas are succeeding in lowering numbers, that isn’t the case everywhere.

The Spotted Lanternfly’s Impact

The spotted lanternfly may add to a long list of invasive species instances worldwide. Still, they are an additional reminder for humans to be more cautious about how they interact with nature. Humans must report what they think is unusual, while getting more familiar with the local flora and fauna.

Even though it may not be at the forefront of most people’s minds to call their local agricultural departments, it’s crucial to food production, people’s livelihoods and stability.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on October 31, 2022 and was updated November 6, 2023 to provide readers with more information.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.