The Death of the Spotted Lanternfly

The Phanatic Phun Zone is a playground for young children near the First Base Gate inside Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. Children 8 years old and younger can enjoy climbing, crawling, and sliding. It was here that my nephew spent much of the third and fourth innings of his very first baseball game while his father and I watched him from a walkway above, and it was there on that walkway that a spotted lanternfly caught our eye. With deep crimson wings tented beneath a transparent layer, it walked a few inches, flew a few feet, landed, and continued walking around. The same energy which inspired the pigeons, the carriage-drivers, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lithe lefthander on the mound, sent the lanternfly fluttering around the slanted walkway. We could not help but watch him.

Lycorma delicatula, or spotted lanternflies, were first found in the United States in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014. They are a planthopping species indigenous to China, India, Vietnam, and other parts of eastern Asia where it is kept in check by natural predators and pathogens. Outside of this natural habitat, though, the lanternfly is considered dangerous and invasive.

Since 2014, the lanternfly has wreaked havoc on eastern Pennsylvania, feeding and laying eggs on willow, maple, poplar, and sycamore trees, as well as plum, cherry, and peach trees.

Four years later, the state of Pennsylvania issued a lanternfly quarantine, restricting the movement of certain materials and certain industry workers. People living and working within the 26 counties under the quarantine could not move brush, debris, yard waste, logs, firewood, grapevines, crated materials, recreational vehicles, tractors, lawn mowers, grills, tarps, mobile homes, or large stones into a non-quarantined county.

As the existing and true owners of this land, we Philadelphians are advised to call authorities to report lanternfly sightings. The state has provided resources for reporting locations, although tracking of the species’ dispersal habits is still in its infancy. The tracking information is essential to stopping the spread of these invaders. Left unchecked, they will spread from Pennsylvania throughout the United States, destroying plant life, enmeshing themselves in the ecosystem, and displacing the current inhabitants.

Despite having first been found in North America in Ailanthus altissima, or the tree of heaven, lanternflies can feed on most any member of the kingdom Plantae. Damage has been recorded on 67 plant species, 34 of which are found in the United States, with 25 found in Pennsylvania. Because this list includes Vitis, or grapevines, the spotted lanternfly infestation poses a serious threat to the economic health of certain industries that have a rightful claim to use the land and its resources for their own gain and, even, survival.

Researchers in Asia, specifically South Korea, which has been dealing with an unwanted infestation since 2006, have been studying the possibility of releasing the lanternfly’s natural predators into the wild to help contain the spread, though it’s a strategy that is typically only considered once eradication is no longer possible.

Watching this blood-red, black-speckled beast crawl across the hallowed halls of this baseball stadium, built in 2004 and named for a bank, I saw it multiply and spread. I saw it destroying all plant-life in its sight, whether to sustain itself or just because it could. I saw it build a home in Philadelphia, then turn that home into an operating base as it followed its destiny throughout the rest of the continent with little regard to those of us already living peacefully on it. I saw as first Philadelphians, then Pennsylvanians, then Americans, would have to leave their homes, leaving behind their bar trivia nights, their marketing jobs, their all-terrain vehicles, even their Phillies. Some, the stubborn or the brave, held firm and refused to cede ground to the spotted lanternfly, and they were ultimately destroyed.

I saw as we were forced to find the pockets of land they couldn’t find us in, or didn’t have enough interest in and then, just as quickly, I saw the light-up sneaker of a toddler stomp on it. As my eyes followed him, I noticed just how many L. delicatula there were on the walkway, as the young Phillie fan had fallen behind his parents in his quest to snuff out every lanternfly in sight. The creature’s body was flattened and instantly grew stiff. Just as its life had been so full of promise and so utterly weird just a few seconds earlier, so now was its death.

Matt Conte is a writer, editor, and pizzamaker living in Philadelphia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *