Spotted lanternflies — the insects that we collectively freaked out about last year — are everywhere now: hanging out on the sidewalk, clinging to railings, sitting in shrubs, fluttering their little brown-and-red spotted wings while destroying our trees and crops. According to scientists, these invasive, inch-long assholes are out in full force right now, because they’ve reached adulthood and are starting to mate before laying eggs — typically in September. Which is why we need to kill them. Immediately.
Liv Volker, a 47-year-old Pennsylvania health-care worker, first learned about the spotted lanternfly in 2019 through her husband, who worked at a winery where the grapevines were covered with swarms of them. A year later, Volker started seeing lanternflies at her job. “I was outside screaming and stomping, because they were all over the hospital,” she says. But when she noticed them at her favorite park, she decided, “I’m going to take care of this.”
She began posting on TikTok in September 2021 with a seven-second clip of herself squishing a lanternfly with her bare hand. It ended up going viral. Volker saw an opening. “There’s clearly a lack of education going on, so I was just like, Okay, I will become the person.” She deleted all the videos unrelated to lanternflies from her account and renamed it @Livanysquisher, where she posted hundreds of clips about the lanternfly and a few other invasive insects. Her efforts have made her the No. 1 spotted-lanternfly influencer on TikTok, where she has gained more than 56,000 followers and tens of millions of views on her videos.
Volker’s videos are meant to be informational, but she suspects that they’re compelling in the way that pimple-popping videos are. “I do know that the ‘squick’ factor helps get viewers. People like gross things.” Her videos are often just seconds long, up close (with just her hands in the frame), and overlaid with her cheerful, slightly raspy voice-over. Sometimes, she doesn’t speak at all and the only audio is the muted sound of lanternflies falling into a trap. “There’s this little pop! sound when they go in, and it’s just beautiful,” she says. (Some she hashtags #asmr.) The reactions she gets are about “85 percent positive,” she says. (“Girl u be collecting them like Pokemon lmaoo,” writes one user.) The remainder are turned off by the anti-bug violence; they “just can’t wrap their head around the fact that you have to be actively un-aliving these things left and right.” (She uses the word un-alive, she tells me, because TikTok’s algorithm will penalize her if she says the word kill.)
There are, of course, plenty of advisories on how to get rid of lanternflies — most fall into the “step on it” camp — but the official messaging is surprisingly inconsistent and sometimes mind-boggling. The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets pointed me to instructions on how to build lanternfly traps. One involves encircling a tree with sticky tape (but the guide notes these could accidentally capture birds, and Volker has uploaded more than one video of lanternflies nonchalantly walking across the tape). Another, devised by insect researchers at Penn State, involves a complex DIY contraption made of a milk jug, mesh net, ziplock bag, and wooden stick.
Volker has devised a more elegant method, which she calls the “bottle trick.” It only requires a plastic water bottle or takeout cup with a domed lid. As she demonstrates in one clip (which has nearly 200,000 likes), she places the mouth of the bottle over a lanternfly. Immediately, the insect is sucked backward into the container as if by a vacuum cleaner. Volker explains, “They jump backward when they see the sides of the bottle, not realizing there is a tunnel behind them.” Using this method, she says she recently caught around 50 lanternflies in 15 minutes. (I tried it and can confirm that the bottle trick works and is extremely satisfying.) Afterward, Volker either adds some hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol to the container and seals the lid (“That knocks them out”) or freezes the container overnight.
It isn’t all carnage on Volker’s TikTok account. She also posts PSAs instructing viewers to always check the tires of their cars for lanternflies — the insects can’t fly more than a few feet but can hitchhike hundreds of miles on vehicles.
Like any influencer, Volker puts in the time: around 15 hours per week posting lanternfly videos and answering viewer questions. She has to, she says, because officials aren’t doing enough. “Not enough prevention, not enough education, and a lot of ball-dropping,” she says. “There are no signs here telling anybody about anything. People just don’t know.” She says her frequent trips to her neighborhood park have visibly reduced the lanternfly population there. But there’s also tragedy. Just a few days ago, she posted a video panning up the trunk of a scraggly tree: “Today, I sadly discovered where all the spotted lanternflies in our park are coming from, and it’s this tree, and it’s going to die. I don’t know how I missed it.” Hopefully, she adds, the Parks Department will remove it. She’s just one person with a plastic cup and a smartphone, and she can’t catch them all.
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