What Is the Spotted Lanternfly?

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Don't be deceived by the spotted lanternfly's pretty speckled wings. The presence of this bug spells trouble for several important trees and crops.

Sometimes, all it takes is the smack of a fly swatter or a thump from a shoe to silence an annoying insect buzzing about your house. But with the invasive spotted lanternfly, it’s not that easy. Learn how to spot this innocent-looking but malicious species, why it’s so problematic and what you can do to deal with it.

What Does a Spotted Lanternfly Look Like?

You’ll recognize the spotted lanternfly by its distinctive wings — a neutral set with brown spots, a red set with black spots and a black-and-white set. It’s an inch long and a half-inch wide. The spotted lanternfly’s body resembles that of a common housefly, though the two insects are not related.

Where Does the Spotted Lanternfly Live?

The bug is at least some sort of threat all across the nation, says Kathy Glassey, director of plant healthcare for Monster Tree Service, a tree care company with branches in 35 states.

In particular, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Connecticut and Pennsylvania are experiencing spotted lanternfly invasions. Pennsylvania even has its own statewide hotline! (Call 1-888-4BADFLY or use the Keystone State’s online tool to report it.)

But the spotted lanternfly is an incredibly adept hitchhiker, Glassey says. When given the opportunity, it will secretly thumb a lift in a shipping container for a jaunt across the country, or lay clusters of eggs in one. Next thing you know, the pests are engaging in their distasteful shenanigans all across Oregon, Wyoming, Texas, Hawaii or maybe even in your backyard.

What Does the Spotted Lanternfly Do?

The short answer is, they destroy crops by expelling ‘honeydew’ onto leaves, branches and fruit, Glassey says. And honeydew isn’t as sweet as it sounds — it’s spotted lanternfly excrement. Later, a sooty black mold grows on and around the honeydew. The mold then interferes with photosynthesis, leaving the plants and trees struggling to thrive and/or survive.

The pests also eat these crops. Adult spotted lanternflies like to dine on branches, and adults and the younger ones alike use their piercing, strawlike mouthparts to stab through stems and leaves. Then they suck out the sap, leading to plant stress and wilting.

“They feed on over 70 species of plants and cause a lot of economic damage,” says Glassey. If a spotted lanternfly invasion isn’t brought under control, Glassey says it can cause billions of dollars of destruction.

What Plants Does the Spotted Lanternfly Eat?

The spotted lanternfly’s favorite tree and plant targets, according to Oregon State University Extension, include:

  • Grapes;
  • Stone fruits;
  • Ornamental trees;
  • Maples;
  • Black walnuts;
  • Willows;
  • Roses.

Incidentally, their favorite plant, tree-of-heaven, is also an invasive species that’s widespread in the U.S.

Where Did the Spotted Lanternfly Come From?

One of the more than 6,500 invasive species in the U.S., the spotted lanternfly arrived in the Philadelphia in 2014 via a shipping container from Southeast Asia. It’s native to Taiwan, Vietnam and Southern China, says Vaughn Walton, a professor of horticultural entomology at Oregon State University.

Because they lay eggs in groups of 30 to 50, it didn’t take long for the spotted lanternfly to become prolific in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. The lifecycle of the spotted lanternfly is one generation per year. Mating occurs in the fall; eggs hatch in the spring.

Spotted Lanternfly Treatment

The number one tool against the spotted lanternfly is awareness, says Glassey. Even if you don’t live in Pennsylvania, where most counties are under a spotted lanternfly quarantine, or one of the other problem areas, inspect any package, plant or tree you bring home from a nursery or garden center, especially if it came from the East Coast. That way, you’re not inadvertently introducing them to your yard’s ecosystem.

Take these steps to help eradicate the spotted lanternfly:

  • If you see an individual spotted lanternfly, destroy it and report it to your state’s department of agriculture, which will provide further instructions.
  • If you have tree-of-heaven plants in your yard, consider removing and replacing them with native ornamental trees. If you are already experiencing a spotted lanternfly infestation, leave one tree behind as bait so you can kill off the next round of eggs.
  • To get rid of the eggs, use the treatment recommend by your state’s department of agriculture, which will likely be the pesticide dinotefuran.
  • Do not use essential oils, dishwashing liquid and other home remedies to kill spotted lanternflies, Glassey says. They may make the problem worse because the bugs actually enjoy some of them.

Dawn Weinberger
Dawn Weinberger is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon who has contributed to numerous publications and websites over the past 20 years, including RD.com, Glamour, Women's Health, Entrepreneur, and many others. Dawn has a BA in journalism from Western Washington University and is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She writes about everything from health and medicine to fashion, shopping, and business.