By Carol Tannenhauser
How worried should we be about this new bug in town called the spotted lanternfly?
First of all, it is not harmful to humans, pets, or livestock. It is a major threat, however, to many fruit crops and trees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The NYC Parks Department clarified: “The Spotted Lanternfly does not kill trees it infests,” a spokesperson told WSR. “Although it can infest trees and weaken them if the infestation is bad, they are mostly a threat to agricultural crops.”
Second, they’re not going to involve anything resembling Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. The name is aspirational. Spotted lanternflies — SLF, as the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) refers to them — don’t actually fly; they hop on the wind from leaf to leaf, or onto pieces of firewood, outdoor furniture, or other things humans move around — like ocean liners.
In 2018, The New York Times called SLF “an invasive pest with a voracious appetite and remarkable reproductive talents.” They had first appeared in Pennsylvania in 2014. “Despite a quarantine effort, they have also been discovered in small numbers in New York, Delaware and Virginia,” The Times continued. By August, 2020, they had “spread in fluttering hordes to Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey,” The Times reported, and to Staten Island, the DEC said. This August, CBS New York announced, “They’ve moved to Manhattan…now in larger numbers in neighborhoods a hop, skip and jump from Central Park.”
On Thursday, August 19, a spokesperson for the Central Park Conservancy, which maintains Central Park, confirmed in an email to WSR, that SLF “have been spotted in the Park and they are bad news.” However, she added, “The Park is not home to a large number of the types of trees that serve as hosts for the Spotted Lanternfly. The Ailanthus is the main host tree, and we have less than 50 in the Park.”
Spotted lanternflies have also been seen on the Upper West Side. “I have twice now spotted the incredibly invasive Spotted Lanternfly on our 14th floor terrace,” said Olivia Henderson, who lives on West 72nd Street, between CPW and Columbus. “One sighting was a dead one, on 7/29 (that’s when we initially looked into it, we’d never seen a bug like that before!), and once yesterday (one flew up and landed on the back of the building, just a little too high for me to kill it unfortunately). And then today, 8/14, I killed one in Central Park!! I was seated outside at Tavern-to-Go and one landed near us.” (See picture above.)
How bad is it? And what is being done to defeat these bugs?
The DEC explains that SLF “pose a significant threat to New York’s agricultural and forest health. Adults and nymphs use their sucking mouthparts to feed on the sap of more than 70 plant species. This feeding by sometimes thousands of Spotted Lanternflies (SLF) stresses plants, making them vulnerable to disease and attacks from other insects. SLF also excrete large amounts of sticky “honeydew,” which attracts sooty molds that interfere with plant photosynthesis, negatively affecting the growth and fruit yield of plants. New York’s annual yield of apples and grapes has a combined value of $358.4 million, which could be greatly impacted by SLF. The full extent of economic damage this insect could cause is unknown at this time.”
And that doesn’t factor in the damage to beloved backyards, parks, and natural landscapes, and our enjoyment of them.
Combating SLF will take a grassroots effort. The instructions across the board are to kill them on sight. It may go against your grain, but you must, as Gothamist put it, “Destroy them! If you spot a live one, you should squash it while shouting, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds!'”
To quell any qualms, the Parks Department released the following statement: “Harming our city’s wildlife is prohibited, but in an effort to slow the spread of this troublesome species, we are putting out a one-time call: if you see a Spotted Lanternfly, please squish and dispose of this invasive pest. New Yorkers should also report findings to NYC Parks by emailing Forest.Health@parks.nyc.gov. Please include photos, location of infestation, and details of property damage. Please also report the finding to NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets here.”
Now is the time to do it, because the bugs are adults and more easily seen, and because they will mate in the early fall and lay eggs. The adults will die in December, which leaves us not only worried about their progeny, but how much damage they will do in the meantime, and where they might hitch a ride to next. So far, WSR has gotten no reports of SLF in other parks or gardens in the neighborhood.
“Scientists and officials in several East Coast states are battling the bugs on multiple fronts,” The New York Times said. “In Pennsylvania, the Spotted Lanternfly Program includes representatives from Penn State, the state’s Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The program takes a multipronged approach, with various teams focused on management techniques, the lanternfly’s reproductive biology and potential biological control agents.” In 2019, however, “the Trump Administration dismantled the Invasive Species Advisory Committee and halved the funding for the National Invasive Species Council….”