What are Spotted Lanternflies, Why You Should Kill Them, and What Haverford Researchers Are Doing to Fight Them

A mature spotted lanternfly. Photo by Matt Rourke on AP Images, via CNN. 

Have you seen an insect with dots crawling on campus? When you try to kill it, does it jump and become a bright, flashing red? Does this insect escape easily, and when it does you feel deeply unsettled? Do your pacifist friends yell out when you try to stomp on it? Well, welcome to Pennsylvania, where the invasive species, the spotted lanternfly has completely taken over the state. Learn more about them, and why you are right in killing them.

If you are not from around Pennsylvania or the East Coast, this may be the first time you have ever seen this bug. It looks like a regular beetle-like creature, but when it “flies” it becomes a horrifying demon red. This is the invasive spotted lanternfly, Pennsylvania’s #1 enemy.

The spotted lanternfly, an insect native to China, first came to the US in 2012. Its first US sighting was in Berks County, PA, about an hour away from Haverford College. Ten years later, in 2022, the spotted lanternfly infestation is prominent in 11 states: Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Due to the locality of the issue, many Pennsylvania institutions are dedicated to learning more about the spotted lanternfly, including Haverford College. I talked to Dr. Suzanne Amador Kane, a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Coordinator of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Haverford. Her research, which started in 2019, focuses on the biomechanics of the spotted lanternfly. When asked about her inspiration for starting her research, she said that when she found her garden and car covered with spotted lanternflies, she tried to kill them but noticed that the bugs would avoid her by jumping and falling over. 

Through their research, Professor Amador Kane and her research group found that, contrary to its name, the spotted “lanternfly” rarely flies. Immature black and white spotted lanternflies are unable to fly and only hop. While the adult spotted lanternflies have brown wings and can fly, they primarily use wings to glide and hop. When it hops, it exposes its red hind wings, which also have black spots.

Interestingly, the group found that these insects, starting from their immature age, are incredible gymnasts. They use “falling” as a survival mechanism. Young spotted lanternflies pretend to dramatically fall, yet they can steer themselves in the air, despite not yet having their wings. Dr. Amador Kane has found that spotted lanternflies diffuse nearly all of their energy upon landing. They use their body mechanisms to increase their chances of landing upright. They also found this applies to a variety of surfaces including hard, leafy, and angled.

Now, Professor Amador Kane’s research is focusing on attempts to trap and mitigate the spotted lanternfly. Thus far, spotted lanternflies have been evading researchers’ various attempts to eliminate them. Professor Amador Kane’s research group is working to find out why. Currently, many of the traps used are not working, and pesticides, currently used to control spotted lanternfly populations, affect all insects. While some suggest mechanically removing lanternfly eggs from tree bark, the spotted lanternfly have started to lay eggs higher up in trees, preventing the average person from easily removing the eggs. Research has also shown that natural predators do not particularly prefer eating the spotted lanternfly. Hopefully, the work done in Professor Amador Kane’s lab can help us design new effective traps and mitigate the population. 

Professor Suzanne Amador Kane’s message to the Haverford community: “While the spotted lanternflies are fantastic and have fascinating behaviors, please, please, stomp them.  The spotted lanternfly causes damage to many crops, especially in Pennsylvania. Because of the spotted lanternfly, Pennsylvania is at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs in agriculture.

The spotted lanternfly causes damage by feeding and laying their eggs in crops and completely covering trees. In addition to damaging trees, vines, and crops, when spotted lanternflies feed, they excrete a sap called honeydew that allows black sooty mold to grow on what is left on the crops. This mold causes damage to plants, stopping their growth. They lay eggs in masses of about 30-50 eggs each, causing exponential population growth. 

A spotted lanternfly egg mass on a tree. Photo from Moyer & Son, Lawn Care Service. 

Even though the spotted lanternfly is not able to fly far, they hitchhike on tree bark, lawnmowers, bikes, grills, transportation, etc. As a Quaker school, Haverford tries to uphold the nonviolent ideals of Quakerism. However, for the environment, the Department of Agriculture strongly suggests that if you see a spotted lanternfly, smash it with your shoe. If you see a spotted lanternfly egg mass, which is about an inch long and looks like mud, scrape it off with something and crush them. This is especially important as it is soon time for the spotted lanternflies to start laying their eggs. If you see this invasive species outside of the 11 states mentioned earlier, please make sure to report your findings to your state department of agriculture. 

Thank you to Professor Suzanne Amador Kane for sharing her research. Learn more about her research here.

This article was edited by Simon Thill and Emi Krishnamurthy.