It’s not a lantern; it emits no light. It’s not even a member of the fly family. Yet, if there were an insect fashion show with a runway, the spotted lanternfly might be the envy of what are called true bugs, because of the fashionable mix of colors, spots and hidden bright red underwings designed to chase away predators.
But don’t be taken in by the bug’s beauty; the spotted lanternfly has eyes on our gardens, intending to suck the life from various trees and vines.
And all of this because of two human errors. The first error happened in 1784, the second error in 2014.
The taxonomy of lanternflies
Why the name lanternfly? As the story goes, Maria Sibylla Merian of Germany, a naturalist and scientific illustrator (search her name; she did beautiful work) identified a number of insects in the taxonomic family known as Fulgoridae. These insects, Merian noted, had snouts which inflated and glowed.
Carl Linneaus apparently accepted the observation as fact, and that’s how the taxonomy evolved. When I reached out to a Virginia Tech professor who has written about spotted lanternflies to verify this, he sent me to Wikipedia. (yes, I know). Let’s move on.
The invasion of spotted lanternflies to North America now requires us to become amateur entomologists so we can also play predators.
Spotted lanternflies are in the taxonomic order known as Hemiptera--true bugs. There are approximately 80,000 species in this order; you know well many of the spotted lanternfly cousins including cicadas, aphids, stink bugs and bed bugs. This order contains what are called “true bugs” because as the Amateur Entomologists’ Society notes: everyone — entomologists included — tend to call all insects ‘bugs.’
The true bugs often have long antennae divided into a small number of segments, and the front wings can be somewhat hardened. Some bugs resemble beetles, but beetles have wing covers that do not overlap, unlike the bugs.
True bugs have a three-stage life cycle: egg, nymph, adult. But the spotted lanternfly nymph goes through what are called instars--interval developments--before becoming an adult. So for the spotted lanternfly, the life cycle is eggs, instar 1, instar 2, instar 3, adult.
So how did we get to this moment?
Philadelphia, 1784 and the tree of heaven
In 1979, Chinese-born Harvard University Botanist Shiu Ying Hu wrote about the journey of the tree of heaven, a plant native to China.
The story begins with a Jesuit priest, Pierre d’Incarville, who studied botany at Paris’ famed Jardin des Royales Plantes. The priest later traveled to China in 1740 as a missionary where he gathered various kinds of seeds to send to his mentor in Paris.
Hu noted in the mid-18th century, botanical-minded individuals in Europe were interested in obtaining plants of economic importance in eastern Asia for introduction to their colonies of comparable climate in the Americas.
D’Incarville took great interest in what was known as the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum)--a tree whose sap is used to make the coating for lacquerware.
The tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) gets its common name from its enormous height, as if it were growing to heaven. In China, the indigenous ailanthus silkmoth (Samia cynthia) dines on the leaves in order to produce a coarser kind of silk called Shantung silk.
The Chinese lacquer tree looks much like the tree of heaven. In fact, Hu wrote, Chinese scholars had recorded the difficulty in distinguishing between the two trees. From a distance, noted scholar Hu, the two trees look similar because of the color of their bark and the shape of the leaves on the trees. But it was the lacquer which attracted d’Incarville and he believed he had sent the seeds of the lacquer tree to his mentor in Paris.
But no. The Jesuit priest had sent the seeds of the tree of heaven to Paris. And in what became a viral moment, without the help of Facebook or Twitter, word spread as well as the sharing of seeds and saplings. The seeds went from Paris to Britain, and in 1784, William Hamilton of Philadelphia found himself putting the seeds of this exotic plant in his garden.
William Hamilton lived on a 300-acre estate, located on the west bank of the Schuylkill River from 1745-1813 known as The Woodlands (woodlandsphila.org). Referred to as an amateur horticulturist and botanist on many sites, Hamilton nurtured his tree of heaven along with many other plants unusual to America, including the Ginkgo biloba tree, another plant native to China.
And again, word of the tree of heaven went viral. By 1830, one can find ads for nurseries selling the tree. The tree was adored for its height and the amount of shade it could cast. The tree didn’t attract insects like native trees did, so sitting under them was pleasant. In Washington, the U.S. government decided to line areas of the Congressional burial grounds.
In reality, the tree of heaven, also sometimes referred to by its genus as the Ailanthus tree, could be more adequately described as the tree from Hell. According to the Penn State Extension Service, female trees produce 300,000 seeds each year. The tree can grow eight feet in its first year, and three feet each year after that. A century-old tree can stand 70 feet tall.
A National Geographic story noted: The notorious plant wipes out native species with its dense thicket and toxins it excretes into the soil. It also emits a bad smell from its flowers; has no natural predators; and serves as a sanctuary for destructive invasive insects, such as the spotted lanternfly.
That odor the tree emits became the topic of many published opinion pieces in 1850.
But, by the 1850s, the tree of heaven had taken hold quite nicely. In a June 17, 1854 letter, published in the Alexandria Gazette, B.B. (Benjamin Brown) French, commissioner of public buildings in the District of Columbia, wrote: the ailanthus tree is now growing both in the public grounds around the Capitol, the President’s house in this city, and the public streets, as an ornamental tree in considerable numbers.
Many of those in the Capitol grounds, from their appearance, must be more than twenty years old. As commissioner of public buildings, Brown was responsible for the care of federal buildings at the time, including the Capitol.
Unfortunately, William Hamilton’s decision to plant the Tree of Heaven in Philadelphia in 1784 meant when the spotted lanternfly landed in America 230 years later, its diner of choice for comfort food was well established.
Pennsylvania, 2014 and a shipment of stone
The U.S. National Invasive Species Information Center has been monitoring the spotted lanternfly since its arrival in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014. However, a posting by Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences notes the spotted lanternfly arrived in Oregon in 2012 as egg masses on stones shipped from China. It was the shipping of that stone to Berks County, Pennsylvania which brought the spotted lanternfly to it’s favorite restaurants.
Kristen Wickert is a co-author of a 2020 study on the spotted lanternfly. She works as an entomologist and plant pathologist at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture; she also serves as the state’s spotted lanternfly coordinator. When National Geographic asked about the spotted lanternfly invasion and the tree of heaven, she noted: “They’re both from China, so they’re reconnecting with their native species.”
But what many of us are learning, especially fruit farmers and wineries is this: spotted lanternflies have a sweet proboscis. That’s the part of the lanternfly which can pierce the bark of a tree, or vine, allowing the insect to merrily feed away.
The proboscis is like a straw. But that’s not all, the PennState Extension FAQ site notes, when the spotted lanternfly feeds, it excretes honeydew, or sugary water on and around its feeding site.
This sugary substance encourages the growth of black sooty mold, which is not harmful to humans, but can damage plants and make outside recreation areas unusable.
Vacuum cleaners, water bottles and sticky tape
While the world may be upside down at the moment with debates raging about masks and vaccines, American ingenuity is still alive and well as evidenced by some of the creative ways people are ridding their properties of spotted lanternflies.
And from now until November, these pesky creatures that started mating in July, will be egg laying. Consequently, there are two fronts to needing attention.
A fly swatter. A friend had me laughing about his Dad who goes out daily with a fly swatter for recreational spotted lanternfly swatting. And that is one way to get these insects. Since they hop, stepping on them is sometimes difficult. WIth the fly swatter you can aim to where the insect will hop and get it.
The water bottle method. Collecting spotted lanternflies in a water bottle almost feels like a sport. The method takes advantage of the hop of the lanternfly. When it sees the bottle coming it jumps and you are ready to have it jump right into the bottle opening.
Cap the bottle between snares or the spotted lanternflies will crawl up the bottle the way they crawl up trees. One person using this snare puts the bottle in the freezer and then dumps the flies back on the earth for compost.
Sticky fly paper. The Lancaster Conservation District in Pennsylvania has a video online in which Amanda Goldsmith, a spotted lanternfly technician, demonstrates the BugBarrier Tree Band. Here, the trap has a sticky adhesive facing inward which reduces the chance of wildlife getting stuck. Amanda tells viewers that this method is being used at the Philadelphia Zoo.
Homemade traps. Rachel Bergey, a 14-year-old in Montgomery, Pennsylvania, created a trap to snare lanternflies so that she could take back her favorite maple tree.
The folks at PennState Extension Services also offer tips on how to build a new style spotted lanternfly circle trap.
Vacuum them up! Yes, that is a method. I think my Dad—who once vacuumed wasps out of the stone wall at our house—would love this idea.
The instructor in the videos notes lanternflies don’t seem bothered by the sound of the vacuum and sneaking up behind them pretty much ensures you’ll get them. Honestly, I think there are some kids who would happily become hunter/gatherers using this method.
Scramble the eggs
It’s not too early to look for egg masses on your trees, and know that merely scraping the masses off the trees to the ground will not kill the eggs. Penn State Extension warns, egg masses need to be permanently submerged in rubbing alcohol to kill them. Eggs that have been scraped onto the ground can still hatch, so it is important to follow all recommended steps of egg removal!
Spotted lanternflies don’t survive the winter, but their egg masses have no problem weathering the cold, snow and ice; the egg masses are viable from October to July. Each mass can contain 30-50 eggs.
There seems to be one method, and it is labor-intensive--search, scrape with a card or plastic scraper and destroy in rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.
Start with learning how to identify the masses.
Viking Pest Control in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland offers homeowners a free removal card and video instructions on how to remove the egg masses. The Viking video notes that the egg masses are about one inch long and ¾ of an inch wide.
Looking like swatches of mud, these masses are usually found on the underside of branches. Viking’s information and directions for getting a scraper can be found here.
If you want one more description, Penn State Extension Educator Emelie Swackhamer did a video in 2018. Search, using quotations, “How to Identify and Destroy Spotted Lanternfly Egg Masses.