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Spotted Terrors




Over the past few months, you may have spotted these pesky winged creatures perched on trees around your yard. Lycorma delicatula, spotted lanternflies, are characterized by their sleek black bodies, and spotted wings, hence the name “spotted” lanternflies. Their wings can range anywhere from beige to bright red and often have a variety of patterns.

These flies have been taking social media by storm. Many of you have probably come across clips of people using plastic bottles and butterfly nets to capture these tiny creatures on Instagram or TikTok.

But why are these innocent insects being captured? As adorable as they may seem to some, these insects have caused substantial environmental and economic damage to the US over the past few years.



 

Origins & Spread


The spotted lanternfly originated in China and Vietnam. However, this invasive species has spread rapidly around the world to countries including Korea, Japan, and the United States.

It’s interesting to consider how an environment determines whether or not a species is invasive. China, a country with many predators for spotted lanternflies, has not been impacted by them as harshly as other countries because predators have been able to regulate the lanternfly population. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most other countries.

Korea

Lanternflies have devastated South Korea in the past 20 years. 3 years after its introduction to the region in 2004, lanternflies began raising serious economic concerns. They fed on grapevines, fruit trees, ornamental trees, and timber, damaging them beyond use. Not only does this cause habitat loss and decrease the amount of food available for other organisms, but decreases crop yields that farmers rely on to make profit.

Japan

In Japan, the arrival of the spotted lanternfly has also provoked difficulties including substantial crop loss, disruptions in exports, and an escalation in management costs. The lanternflies’ presence has not only impacted local agriculture but also posed a significant threat to the country’s economic and ecological landscape, similar to the situation in South Korea.

United States

Spotted lanternflies first appeared in the United States in 2014 in Pennsylvania. They were thought to have arrived as egg masses on a stone shipment in 2012. Since then, they have spread to neighboring states, causing alarm among agricultural communities and environmentalists alike. Their rapid expansion can be associated with their high reproductive rates and ability to survive in many different environments.


Life Cycle


The life cycle of lanternflies consists of four distinct stages: egg, nymph, adult, and death. Adult lanternflies typically lay their egg masses on a variety of surfaces, such as trees and outdoor furniture, during late summer or early fall. Each egg mass can contain 30–50 eggs.

When these eggs hatch in spring, nymphs emerge, resembling miniature insects with a combination of black and red markings. Throughout their growth, they undergo several molts, eventually maturing into the adult lanternflies. Their entire life cycle, from egg to death, spans approximately one year.

Despite the relatively short life cycle of this species, the population of lanternflies has rapidly increased, raising concerns among environmentalists. Daniel Strömbom and Swati Pandey, biology researchers at Lafayette College, estimate that the annual population growth rate of spotted lanternflies is 5.47. This means, on average, each spotted lanternfly gives birth to five or six baby spotted lanternflies each year.


Environmental Impacts


Deforestation & Plant Damage

One of the most immediate and concerning environmental impacts of lanternflies is their fondness of feeding on plant sap. When these insects pierce plants with their proboscises, the plants are weakened significantly and become more susceptible to disease as a result.

The spotted lanternfly likes to target woody species, mainly trees. When lanternflies choose to infest and weaken trees, they become more prone to storm damage, pest issues, and disease.

In addition to direct damage, lanternflies contribute indirectly to the spread of other invasive plant species. They excrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which encourages the growth of sooty mold on plants. Mold makes most native species living in a region unable to consume the plant safely which severely limits their food supply. In this way, invasive species such as lanternflies eliminate native species and clear the way for the invasion of generalist, non-native species.

Disruption of Local Ecosystems

Furthermore, lanternflies can impact local ecosystems harshly. Ecosystems including these lanternflies often lack a sustainable balance because rapid reproduction causes the population of lanternflies to excede that of any other species. Predators are vital to these ecosystems in order to keep the spotted lanternfly population in check.

Take cows for example. Cows have natural predators, such as coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats, that keep the cow population in check. What would happen if their natural predators disappeared? The cow population would start to increase as cows continued to reproduce with nothing killing them off. Cows, who depend on grass to survive, would begin overgrazing to the point where almost all the grass in their habitat would be consumed. Following this, the cow population would experience a dieback.

Essentially, lanternflies are causing the same thing to happen in ecosystems they’re invading. In China, wasps help regulate lanternfly populations by consuming their eggs. However, these particular wasps are not as abundant in the areas the lanternfly has invaded such as the United States, Korea, and Japan. Without natural predators, they’re able to completely take over an area and steal resources that other species in the area rely on, specifically trees. But, many other animals and insects depend on trees for shelter and food. Lanternflies outcompete native species for this resource, causing populations of native species to dwindle.

Economic Consequences

The agricultural industry also faces significant threats from lanternflies. These pests have been known to damage crops including grapes, apples, and stone fruits, causing considerable financial losses for farmers. Beyond the loss of crops, they can also disrupt the agricultural supply chain, potentially leading to higher food prices for consumers.

In Pennsylvania alone, where they were first identified, it is predicted that the spotted lanternfly will cause $324 million in damage and the loss of 2,800 jobs. If the lanternfly population remains unchecked, both environmental and economic repercussions will ensue.

Recreational Impact

Beyond their effects on the environment and the economy, spotted lanternflies also alter the visual appearance of scenic vistas like parks and gardens. They damage the natural beauty of plants by feeding on them. Instead of seeing a garden full of vibrant flowers or a park with the tallest green trees, you’ll see a barren wasteland of wilting leaves and dead crops.

This disruption reduces the value of recreational activities that many people take part in. Activities such as picnicking and hiking may lose some of their appeal following the introduction of lanternflies and tourists may be discouraged from visiting, potentially leading to economic consequences in these areas.


What can YOU do to help?


Early Detection and Reporting: Educate yourself about lanternflies’ appearance and behaviors. If you spot one, report it to local authorities or relevant agencies, especially if lanternflies are not commonly found in your area. Early detection is crucial in controlling their spread.


Tree Banding: Wrap trees with sticky bands to trap nymphs and adult lanternflies. This is an effective and environmentally friendly way to reduce their numbers.


Chemical Control: In the case of severe infestations, chemical insecticides can be used to manage lanternfly populations. However, this should be done carefully and with consideration of the impact of insecticides on other species in the area.


Destroy Egg Masses: In the fall and winter, look for egg masses on trees and outdoor objects. Scraping them off and destroying them can prevent the next generation of lanternflies from hatching.


Quarantine Measures: Follow any quarantine regulations in your area. Avoid transporting firewood, outdoor equipment, and vehicles that might harbor lanternfly eggs.


Support Scientific Research: Encourage and support scientific research into the management of lanternflies. Donate to local research efforts! Knowledge is key to developing effective control strategies.


Advocate for Local Policies: Advocate for policies and initiatives at the local and state level that support the fight against lanternflies and provide resources for prevention and control.



 

Conclusion

The spread of the spotted lanternfly to new countries, with its alarming ecological and economic impacts, is a challenge that requires immediate collective action. Understanding what lanternflies are, their life cycle, and their impact on the environment is the first step toward regulating the growth of this invasive species.

Help prevent the spread of these pests by reporting lanternflies if you spot them, using effective control methods, supporting research, and advocating for regulatory policies. Together, we can help mitigate the spread of lanternflies to protect our ecosystems and economies. Like everything, it will be a challenge, but one that we can overcome with collective effort to establish a healthier and more sustainable future.

Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and all of our social media platforms!








Author: Maggie Yang

Editor: Emma Mazzotta

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