17 Seconds With a Spotted Lanternfly

Face-to-face with the stylish invasive species. So do I smoosh it or not?

Photo: Bobby Doherty
Photo: Bobby Doherty

Office-bound, I had company. In the humid wedge of a revolving door, a guest had pushed in with me. He (I think “he,” though I didn’t turn him over to check for the female’s telltale red valvifers at the distal end of the abdomen) froze when he sensed I saw him, playing dead. It was an uncomfortable moment. Was the security guard staring?

My passenger, all one inch of him, was a Lycorma delicatula, a spotted lanternfly. If you’ve spent any time at ground level, you know the type. We’re crawling with them. They are new(ish) New Yorkers, your flighty, frustrating neighbors. Like novices, out-of-towners, they go slowly, clogging the pavement. You roll your eyes, tap a foot to clear a path — nothing. You could kill them. The City of New York wishes you would.

Just two years ago, the bugs arrived in the big city, overdressed and a little dumb. Spotted (nearly leopard print) as the name suggests but not, in fact, a fly, the spotted lanternfly has two sets of wings, its under-set brilliant red, a cape like something André Leon Talley might have worn — finery to be displayed at moments of danger to warn or to intimidate. But they are also slow-moving, weak-flying, crowd-tending — a plague of doofuses. You have to wonder if they are, if they can really be, serious.

Now they’re everywhere underfoot — among us, around us, on us, with us. Out for a walk recently, I had started counting at the entrance to a downtown office tower and reached No. 23 before I got to the end of the building, most smashed and smeared on the concrete, a tie-dyed lanternfly killing field. (Why do they flock to office buildings? Researchers aren’t sure. One hypothesized they might like to warm themselves on the glass; another that they preferred massing on smooth surfaces.)

The authorities already want the newcomers gone. A murder campaign is in effect, the citizenry stirred up. “Harming our city’s wildlife is broadly prohibited,” says Dan Kastanis, a spokesman for NYC Parks, “but in an effort to slow the spread of this troublesome species, the current guidance remains: If you see a spotted lanternfly, please squish and dispose of this invasive pest.”

Won’t someone pity the lanternfly? In fact, the New York Times did find a few conscientious objectors. (“Mr. Weiss, a former instructor of Buddhist philosophy who lives in Philadelphia, has not crushed a single lanternfly.”) Gale Brewer, the city councilmember and former Manhattan borough president, went on NY1 with complicated instructions for a trap (all you need is a soccer cone, a half-domed cone, mesh wiring, a ruler, staples, and a Ziploc bag). But others smash with glee, a sport and a pastime. “If the world only knew the kind of death and destruction these @maisonvalentino shoes brought to the lantern bug population last week we’d be declared ecological heroes for our work,” the writer Sarah Hoover bragged on Instagram. “Scared of no one except the girls who chase spotted lanternflies down a whole block until they’re able to stomp on those things,” tweeted a woman I know.

Lycorma delicatula is a hemipteran, part of a diverse order of insects that includes stink bugs, bedbugs, and cicadas. Native to China, lanternflies arrived as a hop-along accident of international commerce in 2014. They may be clumsy and essentially defenseless — when winds blow them over bodies of water, they can end up exhausting themselves and drowning — but they are not benign. As wingless hatchling nymphs, they’ll suckle just about anything, from roses to poison ivy, but as adults they like barkier fare with a steadier flow of sap. Sated, they shit sugar — “honeydew,” in the entomological euphemism — which then leads to destructive, sooty mold. Their favorite feast is the tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), the titular tree that grows in Brooklyn from the beloved 1943 novel, but the big fear is that, thanks to their taste for grapevines, they could devastate wine production. They like apples, hops, and stone fruit, too.

The public squashing campaign is unlikely to make any real dent in their numbers. “If everybody is squashing every single one they see, that may have something around a 20 percent impact on the population,” says Jacob Leeser, a spokesman for the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. “And that’s a very optimistic number. For now, it’s just something that we are going to see.” And while natural solutions are being studied, at least for the moment, chemical insecticides will be the weapon of choice, which doesn’t always sit easy with organic-shopping, natural-wine-swilling urbanites.

So out spread the lanternflies, undaunted. Born in the spring, they lay eggs in the fall; the first reported egg masses were laid in West Virginia this month. By November, it will be too cold in our area for the adult lanternflies to survive, and they’ll die. But the eggs will persevere through the winter, and next spring, the cycle begins again.

How many generations does it take to become a native New Yorker? When the American Museum of Natural History opens its Richard Gilder Center for Science in the winter of 2023, with a 5,000-square-foot insectarium, the spotted lanternfly will be there, enshrined in the Establishment — with us, and like us, another prettified pest luxuriating in its accidental turn in the spotlight.

In the revolving door, the lanternfly stayed still, hoping I wouldn’t notice and smoosh him. I didn’t. I pushed into the building and the bug was still there, so I pushed the door back, offering him freedom for the taking. He didn’t seem to care either way. Dozens of his friends and relatives were waiting outside. Many of them were dead. Many more were not. The door continued to revolve.

17 Seconds With a Spotted Lanternfly