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Critters of New York

Get Ready for a Hot Spotted Lanternfly Summer

It's almost time to murder again!

A spotted lanternfly on top of what appears to be metal mesh.

(slgckgc / Flickr)

I was gardening one morning in May when I first saw them—a whole cluster of small white polka-dotted black insects, just hanging out and munching away on my rose bushes. What are these weirdly beautiful and compelling bugs? I wondered; they looked like ladybugs, but make them evil.

A quick Google search made me gasp—they were young spotted lanternflies, the gorgeous pests that, since the summer of 2021, we've been all but ordered to kill on sight by a variety of state and City officials, in a government-sanctioned murder campaign. 

I had never before seen spotted lanternfly nymphs, and their presence throughout my Brooklyn backyard worried me. Are we about to be blanketed by spotted lanternflies? Were all of our efforts during the previous years to squash their lovely, tender bodies underfoot a fool's errand, the equivalent of trying to empty the ocean by removing a tablespoon of water every day? And would we have to commit mass murder again, this year and every year after, until we die or the spotted lanternfly dies, or could we stop?

Once you see one spotted lanternfly nymph, you see them everywhere. (U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

According to Brian Eshenaur, who is officially the senior extension associate at Cornell University's New York State Integrated Pest Management program and unofficially is the state's foremost spotted lanternfly expert, the answer to that first question is likely yes—especially in Brooklyn. "Many New Yorkers are noticing the spotted lanternfly nymphs this year. This small, flightless, and uncolorful stage of the showy adult form often goes unnoticed. That's pointing to a much higher population of spotted lanternfly than last year," he wrote to me in an email. Eshenaur added, "Brooklyn is definitely one of the locations where large numbers of nymphs are being observed."   

The New York State Department of Agriculture is also predicting an increase this year. "While SLF populations will show variability from season to season, it is likely that the density in areas that had significant populations last year will see an increase in subsequent years," an agency spokesperson told me via email. 

Cornell's Eshenaur did have some good news for Staten Island, though, where the first spotted lanternfly was seen in the city. "Although it doesn't make it any easier for this year, the good news is that based on what we've seen in Philadelphia and other areas, there’s one very bad year with high populations and then the numbers drop down and level off in following years. It seems Staten Island, for example, peaked last year so there may be fewer there this year," he wrote. 

Shauna Moore, the director of horticulture at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, told me that at the garden, staff are "definitely noticing them," especially on the garden's maples, grapes, and hop plants, though she's unsure if it means there are more nymphs and therefore, more future adults; they're also getting a lot of worried calls from New Yorkers. "I can't tell if it's more nymphs than last year, or if more people are noticing the nymphs," Moore said. She thinks it's the latter. "I don't think it's more than usual, I just think people are more aware of them."

In a webinar the Department of Agriculture held in April, the agency's director of plant industry, Chris Logue, noted there were a variety of ways to kill the nymphs. (One method: "Seal them up in a plastic bag and put them out there in the sun and that'll take care of them." Another method: vacuuming them up.) I asked Moore if the garden has been killing the nymphs. Largely, no, she told me: "These little nymphs, they're fast, they jump." 

"We've moved on," she said. During the winter, gardeners did their best to scrape off spotted lanternfly egg masses whenever they saw them. Now, Moore said, "We're just watching, we're monitoring. The best chance we have of seeing and squashing them is when they move into the adult life cycle." She added, "We don't advocate for injuring wildlife, but we do advocate for plants, and in this case it's pretty effective."

While the lanternfly has been rather less destructive than initially feared, they do love grapevines, a concern in a state with quite a lot of vineyards. So for now, the Department of Agriculture, as well as Eshenaur, still want New Yorkers to kill spotted lanternflies. "'Stomp them, don’t spread them' is a philosophy I like to follow," Eshenaur told me. "They are excellent hitch-hikers and get in our vehicles and otherwise move around with us, which is something we want to prevent so we can slow their spread to new areas." 

It's too late to stop the spread in New York City though—the population is so widespread that the state isn't asking the city's residents to report the presence of any spotted lanternflies. "We are aware of the established SLF population in New York City (the five boroughs), so there is no need to report additional sightings there," the spokesperson told me. "Instead, we ask that folks living there help us by," among other measures, "destroying SLF adults."

Will we ever be able to end our killing spree? One leading lanternfly entomologist believes that, as she told the Atlantic, “We're going to have to learn to live with them." 

"I think that there is hope. I've heard that chickens and other birds are starting to notice them," the BBG's Moore said. "I'm hoping that nature will sort this stuff out on its own, but yeah, we don't like them." 

(Photo credit: slgckgc / Flickr)

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