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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Spotted Lanternfly Patrol: all about the kill

Lanternflies on the White Trail of Wissahickon Valley Park. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOE SUOZZI ’24

“Kill it! Squash it, smash it … just get rid of it,” reads a statement on the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website. “These are called bad bugs for a reason, don’t let them take over your county next.”

Slightly amused, moderately hesitant and armed with a $6 fly swatter, I took the Department of Agriculture’s words to heart. One Saturday morning in early October, I went on a hunt of the spotted lanternfly along the cool, foggy trails of Wissahickon Valley Park.

My mission was given to me through the Friends of Wissahickon, an official park partner of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, dedicated to the maintenance and cultivation of Wissahickon Valley Park. I was a proud volunteer of their Spotted Lanternfly Patrol. 

As of 2014, Pennsylvania has become the reluctant home to the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species originating from East Asia. Their presence can be found in crops and trees, creating a significant threat to the economies and ecosystems of the Northeast.

In the fall, these bugs will lay egg masses with 30-50 eggs each, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture website. Pennsylvania alone faces a potential $324 million of damages from industries such as grapes, logging and orchids, the website warned.

Jennifer Walker, head gardener of the Barnes Arboretum at St. Joe’s, said lanternflies enjoy feasting on trees at the arboretum as well. 

“They generally tend towards my smooth bark, Asian species of trees. But they also will feed on our native trees as well, like the black walnut,” Walker said. “Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but it’s a problem here because the honeydew from them drips all over the plants, and then the plants get so covered they’re not photosynthesizing, and it’s caused some decline.”

Julie Urban, Ph.D., associate research professor of entomology at The Pennsylvania State University, said Penn State’s newest state grant for lanternfly control from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute Food and Agriculture, has several objectives: to work to quantify the impact on specialty crops and immediately develop management tactics to come up with a short-term solution, form long-term management that is more sustainable, create non-chemical based options that allow better research into the lanternfly’s biology and to communicate and inform the public.

But while many efforts, both biochemically and physically, are being made to help eradicate their presence, agricultural officials have asked for the support of citizens to kill and report any lanternflies they see.

So, that’s what I set out to do. I stood in hiking boots on one of the main trails of the park with my fly swatter ready to scrape, smack and stomp any spotted lanternflies that dared to cross my path, as instructed by the “smackdown instructions” on the Spotted Lanternfly Patrol website. 

Walking through the White Trail, alone and immersed in the thick morning fog, I scanned the woods around me for any sign of the lanternflies. My first kill was immediate, catching my eye within the first four minutes of walking the trail. 

Sitting calmly at the root of a tall and impressive black walnut tree, the adult lanternfly sat among brown and black foliage and wet soil, practically invisible to the non-discerning eye. 

In my adrenaline of finding one, I was quick to crouch over into the thick undergrowth, lift my boots and “crunch.” 

All that remained was a large and vibrant carcass of the lanternfly, its striking wings of red and spots now lying there broken. For a woman who just killed with a bit too much vigor, I was quick to divert my victory into a search for egg masses along the bark.

After scraping up the nearby egg mass, I returned to the trail, my ego bolstered and boots a little dirtier. I continued on the hunt, finding little to divert or monitor. Had I gotten morbid luck in finding a spotted lanternfly and egg mass so early on in my mission? Should I be glad that I can’t find any? 

I jinxed myself.

Sitting right on one of the wooden posts of the fences was a small but vibrant blob of red that caught my eye, wings fully splayed, languidly crawling up the post. I fell right back into my fighting position: slow and crouched, fly swatter held in a tense and wound-up position, boots ready to stomp. Gradually crossing the width of the trail, I prepared my attack, quietly and hyper-focused. Then, to my horror, it flew. Toward me. 

I’ll never admit whether or not I let out a little shout and scrambled to escape, but the lanternfly won that round. In its wake, I noticed what looked like tar on the tree and underbrush behind it, a dark contrast in comparison to the surrounding foliage. I was looking at the result of spotted lanternfly feedings, their excrement called honeydew.

Spotted Lanternfly Patrol volunteer, Shannon Zois, also later voiced concern for the excessive honeydew.

“Once I knew what I was looking at, it was everywhere,” Zois said. “Trees, bushes, the signs, literally everything seemed to have honeydew on it.”

Zois is an experienced lanternfly hunter and victim. She had begun her work at local Philadelphia parks when her backyard in East Philadelphia that had once hosted an array of fruits, herbs and flowers became overrun with spotted lanternflies.

“They love the fruit,” Zois said. “I’d try to kill or remove as many of them as possible every day, but by the next morning, they were back and piled onto the trunks, my patio furniture, anything they could find. After a certain point, I just gave up and bought sprays, traps, the whole nine yards.” 

At the end of my hunt, truncated as storm clouds rolled in and rain washed away my hopes for finding more spotted lanternflies, my patrol stats were minute compared to Zois’ illustrious career. 

I was feeling successful, nonetheless. As I sat at my car, scraping and kicking the remains of spotted lanternflies from the bottom of my boots, I’d never been so proud to call myself a killer.

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