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If you see it, kill it: Why this pretty bug has experts sounding alarms

A spotted lanternfly at a vineyard in Kutztown,

How awful is the insect prompting slay-on-sight notices?

It’s not venomous, doesn’t sting or bite or spread diseases, and has appealing red, white and black polka dot wings.

But the spotted lanternfly is destructive in others ways. It has an "insatiable appetite for the sap of fruit, ornamental and woody plants," Penn State’s College of Agriculture Sciences wrote in a 2020 report.

According to New York State's Department of Agriculture and Markets' website, it feeds on more than 70 different plants. Suffolk’s vineyards and orchards already have been told to prepare, officials said.

"We’ll have to be very vigilant," said Chris Logue, director of the department's plant industry division.

What does it look like?

Adults are easy to spot. They are large: an inch long, a half-inch wide at rest and have a striking appearance.

"It’s very unique," said Carrie Brown-Lima, director of the New York Invasive Species Research Institute at Cornell University.

What's so bad about it?

Spotted lanternflies feed on more than six dozen plants, including apples, grapes, hops, stone fruits and hardwood trees.

In Pennsylvania, where this bug evidently rode in on a stone slab from China in 2014, yearly economic losses five years later were just over $50 million, and 484 jobs were lost, Penn State's report said.

Late-summer and autumn wine tourists and apple and pumpkin pickers all should scan their vehicles, especially under fenders and hood air vents where these pests can hide.

Where has it been spotted?

As of April, nine states had infestations and "single individual insects" had been spotted in seven others, said Melody Keena, a U.S. Forest Service research entomologist.

This map from Cornell University shows reported sightings as of this week, including on Long Island.

At least two Nassau residents and one in Suffolk have spotted and slain the insects, and in New York City, they have washed up on Staten Island beaches.

"We probably have had, over a couple of days at the end of August, somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 reports," Logue said.

Dyanna Wunsch, 49, of Wantagh, opened her front door recently to spy one "just walking across our doormat," she said.

"It freaked me out," she said, having never seen anything quite like it. Posting the picture her daughter took on social media, she asked if anyone could identify it.

"Immediately people started saying ‘Kill it,’ and everything you read just says ‘Kill it,’ " she said. So armed with wasp pesticide, she hunted it down, finding it clinging to the porch railing, and reported it.

She said it might have hitched a ride on her car after a recent trip to Pennsylvania's Pike County, about 90 miles from midtown Manhattan, where this invader has foraged since at least 2019.

Maria Weigel, 56, of Massapequa, immediately recognized it when one appeared on her property.

"It had hopped right in, onto the deck and right up to the back door," she said. Her husband carried out the execution.

She reported the sighting and shared it on social media. "I’m just glad that I found it when I did and spread the word."

How did they get here?

All too often, they escape attempts to quarantine them. For instance, Logue noted they can travel on empty rail cars that may be left unattended at interstate junctions; Keena said they have been found on planes landing in California, which relies on exports of crops and wines. One specimen recently turned up at the Kansas state fair, experts noted.

Where does it lay eggs?

Now is the prime time to be on guard, not just for adult lanternflies, but also the egg masses they will soon lay. Those are approximately an inch long and resemble a smear of mud.

The egg masses will be encased in "a gray waxy material on smooth surfaces, often tree bark, but also on a wide variety of natural and manufactured items, including stone, cinder blocks, automobiles, rail cars and shipping pallets," Keena said.

"I have seen hundreds of egg masses on single preferred trees in Pennsylvania," Keena said.

Those egg masses can be hard to spot in wooded areas. In vineyards, they were found at the base of a vine, where the grass is forming, Brown-Lima said.

Spotted lanternflies also release a sticky fluid scientists call honeydew that draws other bugs and becomes fuel for mold. And in swarms, this invasive species can be unpleasant to encounter.

It's 'Heaven' they're after

Long Island is often home to this pest’s favorite host: the Tree of Heaven.

Growing as tall as 80 feet, it has multiple, narrow leaflets on either side of long stems.

This Chinese sumac, imported in 1784 to Philadelphia via England, arrived in Flushing in 1820, where it was "publicized, planted and cultivated" as a "fast-growing, exotic shade tree," said the nonprofit Ecological Landscape Alliance. Seeds were even distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Well aware his trio of backyard Trees of Heaven, too huge to easily remove, could lure spotted lanternflies, Frank Piccininni of Huntington said he instead girdled them. Slicing a ring into the trunk below the lowest branch stops the sap from rising, slowly killing the tree. The shoots must be repeatedly removed, he said.

An environmental lawyer with a master's degree in biology, he at once knew what to do when a spotted lanternfly flew into his brother-in-law's face at a recent backyard picnic in Huntington.

"I thought I had to kill it as quickly as I could and tell everybody else to be on the lookout." So he did.

How to report sightings

See it, kill it, then report it, is what the state is asking the public to do. Also, scrape off any egg masses, then soak in soapy water.

If you're in New York, follow these steps:

  • Take a photo
  • Collect a sample and place it in a freezer or in a jar with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer
  • Fill out this form

Report locations of Tree of Heaven, too.

If you're outside of New York, follow the instructions on the USDA's website under "Where's the Threat and How to Report It."

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