They are suddenly everywhere.
As I write this, the spotted lanternflies continue their slow, silent march, invading my deck— a few black-spotted nymphs over here, two more mature, red-spotted nymphs over there. They prance across the deck railing, peer from behind the downspouts, and at times seem to drop biblically from the sky landing on … me.
Here comes one now, skittering across my laptop, its pointy head held high, as if proud to find itself at the center of discussion.
He prances across the F-D-S-A keys, onto the caps lock button, before scuttling onto the table. I lift my coffee cup and bring it squarely down on him. This is what I have come to.
They are quick but I have learned to be quicker. With eyes on the sides of their tiny squishy heads, they cannot see directly above which is where I learned to poise the flyswatter — or my foot or a magazine or any improvised weapon — to kill them. Splat.
I have been engaged in this blood sport since June: swatting these nasty, invasive planthoppers that originated in Asia. They suck sap from bark and can damage or kill hardwood trees, grapevines and agricultural crops — and the honeydew substance they secrete soon turns to black mold. And it’s really hard to get off. Lovely.
It wasn’t long before my gentle and loving Doodle jumped in, batting the bugs with his beefy paws and knocking a few out in the process. He started vacuuming them as I Googled: Are spotted lanternflies toxic to dogs? The PA agricultural site says no; other sites say they’re unsure.
Since arriving in this country in 2014, the bugs have inspired urgent headlines across the Northeast such as “See a red spotted lanternfly? Squash or kill it!”
They can’t go long distances but they’re good at hitching rides — on cars, trains, whatever. My neighborhood, Washington’s Landing on the Allegheny River, has its share of the invasive Tree of Heaven, a lanternfly favorite, although, from the looks of it, they’re not picky eaters. They seem to have representatives in every tree except the pines.
One nymph appears at the far end of the table. My dog looks at it and then at me. Yours or mine? I flick it with my fingernail, and he finishes it off on the floor. Good boy.
One morning I walked out on the sunny deck with a fresh cup of coffee only to see a rogue lanternfly squatting on my flyswatter as if sending a message: Don’t even bother.
Other people — who live outside of infested states — are not spending their summer like this in increasingly maniacal states of defense. They ask rookie questions such as, what do these bugs look like?
I envy them for their lack of knowledge, their mornings on the porch uninterrupted by a subtle motion in their peripheral vision that causes them to abruptly stop their languid reading and lunge crazily for the flyswatter.
Last week, my next-door neighbor and I spotted each other as we leaned over the decks swatting, she with her blue plastic swatter and me with my red one, looking like opposing political parties fighting to the death.
Sure, we could seek shelter inside but then they would win.
In the beginning, I kept count, astounded to have killed 100-some lanternflies the first day they appeared. Turns out that was nothing.
The next day, more. We swatted and stomped and sprayed (vinegar works with multiple sprays that I no longer have time for). We Googled, swapped tips and discussed with neighbors — yes, that pesticide spray works but it’s harmful to our pets and other living things, and we live on a river.
It’s exhausting, all this whacking, and I admit oddly exhilarating at times, for it feels — erroneously as it turns out — that I am making progress. One night, I step out on the deck only to notice fewer bugs after a day of all-out war. Could it be?
But no. The next morning, they are out in full force, as if yesterday some arrived for the warm-up act and today it’s for Taylor Swift.
As the weeks wear on, they sprout wings as if in victory, full-fledged warrior adults in all their invasive glory. Luckily, they are not harmful to humans, although I might be getting carpal tunnel syndrome from swatting so much and at times, with so much vigor.
They are the enemy, each one in my path representing a future egg mass that will hatch up to 50 nymphs, all of them camped out on my deck soon, partying.
Obviously, it’s better to get them before their eggs hatch and we’ll have our chance again in a few months. But I’ve zoomed in on photos of muddy-looking lanternfly eggs and must confess I could not identify one from an insect egg lineup.
More than once, I Google ways to control lanternflies and learn about a potential prey under investigation, a particular wasp. Please, hurry. Yes, now I’m hoping for wasps. And this: I find myself killing with abandon these spotted lanternflies and giving a pass to the occasional fly, as if to prove I still have a heart.
One day, resident Dave Sauter wraps an infested tree with a special tape that turns black with bugs in no time. A small group of neighbors search “spotted lanternfly tape” online and order some for $17. Within a few Amazon-tracked days, the wide and yellow tape arrives in rolls of four, and we band together, so to speak, to tie yellow ribbons around our old oak and other trees.
It doesn’t take long, especially for the host tree we now call the Tree of Hell. At first hundreds, then thousands — I wish I was exaggerating — of lanternflies get trapped on the sticky surface as they scamper up and down the trunk, sucking sap, only to meet a slow, adhesive demise.
The tape works wonders on the deck railing and behind the planters. It snags dozens within hours. It’s impressive although we heard that the tape catches other, friendly bugs, sometimes even birds, and we might want to cover it with a screen. So far, with dozens of trees banded, we have only killed a few ants, wasps and flies but a neighbor just ordered some online and we’re willing to get more. (Update: One reason we’re not snaring birds, explains a forester, is that birds land on branches and we’re taping trunks. But please see here for more information about screening tape and protecting wildlife.)
The good news? We’re making progress. Our deck is no longer a hangout for these bugs as more and more neighbors have joined the battle, taping dozens of trees. A few neighbors are enlisting the help of the Department of Environmental Protection and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, both based on Washington’s Landing, to tape trees on the commercial end of the island. Late last week 10 beautiful new pickleball courts and two new tennis courts opened on that end. And guess who’s checking them out? That’s right. Lanternflies.
At her recent concert in Pittsburgh, Pink — who boldly pinwheeled through the air from the stage to the top of PNC Park in an astounding aerial stunt — was rattled by what she said was a beetle that flew into her face, then landed and stayed on her keyboard as she played. She called for help as my sister and I looked at one another and shook our heads. That was no beetle. It was a lanternfly.