Not too many bugs are more destructive than the Lycorma delicatula, better known as the spotted lanternfly. An invasive pest native to Asia, it first arrived in the United States seven years ago. It’s a threat to trees, plants, crops, orchards, vineyards, even jobs. And as if that’s not bad enough, it excretes a gross residue known as “honeydew” that can turn into mold, drip sticky substances onto cars and patios, and become dangerously slippery to step on—and it just flat-out stinks when its scent hits your nostrils.
Charming, right? If that sounds like the sort of bug that you just want to squash, many nature lovers would say…go right ahead. Environmental experts are so worried about the damage the spotted lanternfly could wreak on local ecosystems, in some places the public is being advised to kill the bugs as soon as they see them. As the New York Times wrote in a headline, “Die, Beautiful Spotted Lanternfly, Die.” And in Pennsylvania, residents are being told, “Kill it! Squash it, mash it, just get rid of it.”
So when live adult spotted lanternflies were spotted in Fitchburg, Mass., in September—a dozen states now have reported infestations—Jennifer Forman Orth, an environmental biologist at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, who earned a master’s in energy and environmental studies at Boston University, was suddenly besieged with questions about this invasive bug.
The Brink caught up with Forman Orth to talk about this particular bug, her personal interest in all bugs, and what we should do if we think we’ve seen a dreaded spotted lanternfly.
with Jennifer Forman Orth
The Brink: This isn’t the first time the spotted lanternfly has been spotted in these parts. Why was this discovery more alarming?
Forman Orth: There have now been a dozen different reports since 2018. But they are usually dead, after they hitchhiked in on a vehicle or on goods shipped in. This is the first time spotting an active breeding population. They were observed laying eggs, live adults, in trees on the side of the road in Fitchburg.
The Brink: So breeding is a big deal. But why? How can a bug like this be that threatening?
Forman Orth: There are two big reasons we are concerned. One is the threat to agriculture. The favorite host tree of the lanternfly is the tree of heaven. That grows all over the Boston area and other urban areas. It’s an invasive species. But it also attacks grapevines, maple trees, walnut trees, dozens of plants that are important to natural ecosystems throughout the state. There is also concern, in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, that these lanternflies are congregating by the thousands where infestations are heaviest. They feed on plants, and then excrete this honeydew. It gets sticky, and it’s gross, and that attracts a mold and can be slippery and you have safety issues. It can also attract stinging insects and make it dangerous for people with allergic issues.
The Brink: Is the big concern about them moving from less dense areas into more densely populated urban areas?
Forman Orth: It’s not about them moving toward urban areas. It’s about them having different pathways into Massachusetts. They prefer the tree of heaven, and in urban areas, they will tend to congregate there. But we’re also concerned about places like vineyards.
The Brink: How do you stop them from spreading?
Forman Orth: The best way to slow the spread is for us to achieve early detection. People have to learn to recognize them and report something as soon as they find it.
The Brink: Is that what happened in Fitchburg?
Forman Orth: Our inspector completed an almost two-mile radius survey around the infected trees. And did not find any other lanternflies. We treated the trees down in this one very infected area, and they will be cut down. I am cautiously optimistic we won’t find any more in Fitchburg.
But I am not sure we can ever say we will eradicate the spotted lanternfly. It will be constant pressure for decades. But if we can stop the spread of it or slow it down, that’s helpful.
The Brink: And if we don’t stop the spread, can you help us understand their potential impact? I read that Pennsylvania infestations cause economic losses of $50 million each year and hundreds of jobs were lost from destroyed crops. That’s serious.
Forman Orth: I know we don’t have a lot of vineyards in Massachusetts, but we care deeply about protecting them. But also cucumber plants and roses are at risk, as are other plants. And grapes. There is potentially a significant impact to any farmer, garden, nursery, or really anyone who is trying to grow plants that are healthy. There is also a lot of concern about the potential impact to agritourism and outdoor recreation.
The Brink: Will I know one if I see one? Is it that obvious because of their distinct red and black coloring?
Forman Orth: You should look at photos on our website. We still get reports that people think they are butterflies. They send in pictures of butterflies. While spotted lanternflies have a striking appearance, the color and pattern of their wings actually provides great camouflage against the bark of a tree. It’s hard to see just one on a tree; it somehow blends in.
The Brink: Anything else that makes them distinct?
Forman Orth: These are large bugs. They are large compared to other insects we see around here. They do fly. I have seen reports saying that they don’t. They have wings and can definitely fly.
The Brink: OK, let’s say I do see one. What should I do? Is your department saying outright, kill the spotted lanternfly! Or are you not being quite so dramatic?
Forman Orth: This is tricky. New York City is seeing a massive infestation of spotted lanternfly. So when it hits that level, and people know what it looks like, it might make sense for people to try to squash them. Right now, we just have this one infestation in Fitchburg that we are trying to get under control.
But the chances are that when you likely think you see one, it’s probably not one. And I don’t support the “Kill first, ask questions later” approach. Get a photo. Send it to us. We would prefer to advocate for being kind when you can, and to learn more rather than just kill things indiscriminately.
The Brink: Compassion for bugs. OK, where does your own interest in bugs come from?
Forman Orth: When I was at the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies at BU, I was studying plants, because I wanted to be a botanist. Then I got my master’s degree, and I went on a trip to Costa Rica and that’s where I first thought, wow, insects are cool.
The Brink: Why are they cool?
Forman Orth: [Laughing] I don’t know if I have a really good answer or explanation. They are just really cool.