It seems like every year there’s a new bug we have to watch out for here in the Catskills. A few years ago, it was the “ALB” – Asian Longhorned Beetle – that many of us remember from the unbearable local radio ads. Then it was the Emerald Ash Borer that wiped out the ashes, leaving swaths of dead trees all over our mountains.
Now we have a new evil to watch out for: the spotted lanternfly, a colorful invasive species from Asia that harms over 70 varieties of trees and plants, including maples, apples, and grapevines. The Department of Environmental Conservation wants our help curtailing it!
A Close Encounter
Until a few weeks ago, I wasn’t aware this bug existed. One day my mom came across this impressively high quality plastic card in a local business. We both read it in passing and went on with our lives.
Then, last week, we vacationed on a southern New Jersey beach. And washed up on the shore was a dead red and black spotted bug. We looked it up. Sure enough, a spotted lanternfly! They were real after all.
That wasn’t the only encounter, though: on our way home, we stopped at a Trader Joe’s (a rare pilgrimage) in northern New Jersey. While loading up the car, a massive bug buzzed onto my knee. I shrieked and swatted at it, as anyone attacked by a giant strange bug is prone to do. When it flew off, I could see the red back with black polka dots. I chased it and stomped on it… mostly out of revenge for scaring me.
So I assure you they definitely exist, and they’re freaky. But what exactly are they, and what do they do other than terrorize grocery shoppers? Let’s find out.
About the Spotted Lanternfly
This unpleasant bug has been found in Pennsylvania and New Jersey (hence my recent sightings) for several years, but last year, one was found in Bethel. Lanternflies are expected to make their way into the Catskills even further in the coming years. All Catskills counties are currently in a DEC “protective zone” to prevent spotted lanternfly spread.
Spotted lanternflies are difficult to control because they will lay eggs on just about anything. In fact, that’s likely how they got here in the first place: in a load of stone shipped from China to Pennsylvania. They won’t travel far as adults, but when they’re young, they can hitch a ride to just about anywhere.
The spotted lanternfly problem has gotten so far out of hand that they’re now holding a “squishathon” event near the City to help get rid of them. You never know what they’ll do for fun down there!
Just in case you wondered… like every other invasive species, this pesky bug has its own quasi-call sign: SLF. After writing the full name throughout this post, I now understand why the DEC and co. always abbreviate.
Danger to Plants
The spotted lanternfly eats the sap from many different trees and plants. Their favorite is the tree of heaven, but they also feast on maple sap, oaks, birches, pines, apple trees, blueberry bushes, and grapevines. The constant feeding by large numbers of these bugs stresses the plants, making them more susceptible to disease and other insect damage.
I’m afraid eating isn’t all they do, though. They excrete a byproduct called “honeydew,” which is a sugary, sticky liquid that sits on plants and causes sooty mold. While many other bugs, such as aphids, also create honeydew, the size (and number) of spotted lanternflies can cause a lot of trouble. In parts of Pennsylvania, you apparently can’t go outside without getting the stuff on your hair and clothes. Yuck!
Spotted Lanternfly Identification
At around 1 inch long and a 1/2 inch wide when resting, spotted lanternflies are hard to miss… especially since they can congregate on plants by the hundreds! Their wings are brownish-grey with black spots and dark grey tips at the end. When their wings are open, you can see the black and white stripe and red with black dots of their inner wings.
Their eggs are also identifiable, although they’re less flashy. Egg masses, as they’re called, are about an inch long and have a brownish-gray covering on top of them, almost like mud or putty. The mass looks waxy when new, but will turn brown and scaly with age. You can find masses on any smooth surface, but tree trunks, stones, vehicles, firewood, and lawn furniture are all hotspots.
You may also see a spotted lanternfly in one of its nymph stages, in which they look like polka-dotted stinkbugs. They start with black with white spots, and turn redder as they get older.
If you don’t see the bugs themselves, you may see what they leave behind. Infested trees will have wet, oozing sap on their sides, and give off a fermenting odor.
What We Can Do
The good news is that we can help keep this gross bug at bay. If you spot one anywhere, you’re encouraged to kill it, then take a picture with a coin or other item for scale. Send the picture, location found, and any other findings in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fill out this online form.
Since they mainly spread through eggs, you can destroy any masses that you find. Check your vehicle, trees, and any other smooth outdoor materials for them. If you find one, scrape off the entire mass, including the black-brown seed-like eggs and wax coating. Collect everything into a bag, and then burn or submerge it in alcohol or hand sanitizer. The same reporting rules apply as above.
Hopefully we won’t find any here in the near future, but if you do, you now know what to do!