I never thought of myself as having a killer instinct, but this summer, I’ve learned that I do. I’m in an all-out war against the ravaging spotted lanternflies. You can tell when I’m going into battle because I’m wielding the spray bottle in one hand and a mallet in the other, growling and grimacing ferociously.
If you haven’t been following the threat from this invasion, I’ll summarize: These planthopper non-beetles (that nevertheless look like beetles) entered the United States inadvertently from their native lands several years ago, and — not unlike one of America’s other current threats, COVID-19 — have no natural predators here. So they breed and reproduce without control. Fortunately, they don’t hurt humans. But this scourge does decimate crops and weaken and kill trees that may be already compromised by other factors. One egg mass produces up to 50 new suckers; who even knows how many egg masses one spotted lanternfly produces!
Oh, and in case that’s not motivating enough, these intruders excrete a goo, which, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, promotes the growth of a “black sooty mold.”
It gets even yuckier: The adults are quite large and plump for common insects. To say they’re an inch long doesn’t adequately represent their disturbing presence — say, on your patio, windshield, or Frisbee. Their wings seem to expand their width by about threefold, so they’re disgustingly ginormous. And when you cross paths when they’re in flight, you feel assaulted. Don’t let their exotic design and colors fool you. These guys aren’t the size for shooing away; to rid them requires a courageous stand.
I’m not some crazed outlier vigilante. Counties and municipalities across our region have been exhorting residents to do their part. I’m boldly performing my civic duty. A recent social media post in our neighborhood proposed a competition among families armed with salt guns. That post suggested recruiting the children to help with the spotting, if not the execution. Points would be awarded according to stage of spotted lanternfly life cycle and location.
“During a period of what may feel like national impotence, eradicating spotted lanternflies is empowering.”
But I have my own strategy for protecting my trees. Based on advice from similar-thinking tree huggers, I’ve commandeered a buddy’s recipe for “Secret Death Formula” in my squirt bottle. Consisting of highly diluted dish soap and cooking oil with water, I spray to dampen the nymphs’ hopping and then play whack-a-mole with the critters.
That’s won me scores of skirmishes. Even on the adult spotted lanternflies, who are now reaching their season. Sometimes, however, they hop faster than I can spray or smack. Fortunately, I can remember childhood lessons about keeping my eye on the ball. Now, I keep my eye on the fly.
Responsible Americans have our hands full fighting to fix coronavirus, climate change, racism, and abuses of power. I don’t know about you, but my efforts on those four critical agenda items haven’t yet been effective enough to make a measurable difference.
But spotted lanternflies! Those, I can measure. I can actively improve our community one smooshed fly at a time. In less time than one hour a day, I can prevent the maturation of dozens of adult spotted lanternflies, along with untold generations of progeny. Here’s a lively – or deadly — activity I can perform outdoors in the fresh air, with responsible social distancing. During a period of what may feel like national impotence, eradicating spotted lanternflies is empowering. During a period of frustration, this rescue mission for our flora is a public service.
Ann L. Rappoport is in her second term as a Cheltenham Township commissioner after a career as an educator and writer.