The Bad, the Bad, and the Beautiful: Lanternflies Land at Ridge

Hannah Zhang '22

An alien invasion is threatening the fate of humanity before our very eyes.

Well, it isn’t exactly alien, nor is it directly threatening the fate of humanity, but it is an invasion. Specifically, the East Coast is facing an onslaught of spotted lanternflies, a species of planthopper indigenous to parts of Southeast Asia. These pesky insects have crossed land and sea to reach the US, but not to achieve the American dream—instead, they’re here to wreak havoc on native plants, and they aren’t waiting for a Green Card to get to work.

The spotted lanternfly is easily recognizable by its tent-like gray wings, flecked with black spots, and their vibrant red underwings, flashing in shocks of color whenever the bugs take to the air. Think those little green leafhoppers you see occasionally jumping from plant to plant, but much larger and with malicious intent. Thanks to their sheer numbers and their colorful underwings—which act as a warning that they’re potentially poisonous—spotted lanternflies don’t have many natural predators, which explains their severe shortcomings in the fear department [1]. 

How exactly are these lanternflies threatening native plants? The process seems quite benign on the surface, but in truth, it’s as gruesome as it gets. Spotted lanternflies feed en masse on tree sap, mainly targeting trees of the fruit, ornamental, and woody varieties, such as peach trees, oak trees, and peculiarly, grapes [2]. From the sap, the lanternflies produce a liquid byproduct called “honeydew,” which might sound quite lovely. However, this substance acts like bait for destructive insects, weakening the tree’s defenses against molds, parasites, and diseases, which forces the tree to suffer a slow, degenerative death [1]. If left unchecked, the increasing spotted lanternfly population can do serious damage to the US’s grape, orchard, and logging industries. According to a study conducted by Pennsylvania State University, crop damage caused by spotted lanternflies costs the Pennsylvania economy approximately $50 million and nearly 500 jobs annually [4]. 

Many states, such as New Jersey, advise homeowners to prevent lanternflies from spreading further west throughout the US. The official website of the state of New Jersey urges people to “Join the Battle, Beat the Bug”. People are encouraged to crush adult and nymph lanternflies when spotted (no pun intended) and to scrape off and throw away lanternfly egg masses, which resemble smears of mud. If everyone around the East Coast works together to prevent the spread of these pests across the US, there may yet be hope for a lanternfly-less future [3]. 

The invasion is a bit hard to overlook at Ridge. Kids who walk to and from school have to hop along the asphalt to keep from stepping on both smashed and scuttling lanternflies. The Ridge track is practically polka-dotted with their smushed bodies, and looking too closely at what gray and red remains lay in the turfmakes anyone’s skin crawl. But these gruesome sights are nothing more than evidence of Ridge students taking matters into their own hands. Students lock onto lanternflies and crush them with machine-like precision, grinding the heels of their sneakers across the concrete to ensure there’s no possibility for escape. This both helps keep native flora safe, and also lets students release some pent up college applications-induced stress.

Many students have made contests out of quelling the lanternfly invasion, seeing who can crush the most bugs in one outdoor gym period. “We have actually killed so many,” admits Tia Tennariello ’22, a senior with a violent streak. “Probably more than twenty,” adds Sarah Ouyang ’22, another senior with an even more violent streak. Grades and cliques are all united in the common goal of smashing them all, a bond of solidarity stronger than anything a unit lunch could forge.

As November rolls in and summer melts away to fall, the denizens of Ridge and the rest of the Americans living in the spotted lanternfly’s swiftly expanding territory can throw in the towel and look up from the ground and into the future. Winter will not spell the end of the lanternfly threat, as dormant egg clusters are doomed to hatch come spring—but when the invasion begins anew, America will be prepared. Somewhat.

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