Amid the recent dystopian news cycles, there is one story that, though also dystopian, has fascinated and even delighted Americans: The arrival of the spotted lanternfly, an invasive species native to China that was first detected in the United States in Pennsylvania in 2014. In the years since, it has spread through 11 states in the Northeast, causing alarm and havoc in many of those states.
If you didn’t know any better, lanternflies might seem like a nice addition to the U.S. They don’t bite or sting. They have a mod aesthetic with polka dot forewings and orangey-red hind wings. What’s the problem? Well, agricultural researchers’ initial assessment of the effect the insect could have was disastrous: They could decimate our crops and forests, the scientists said. This description of how they feed will really crush any affection you have: They use specialized mouthparts to suck up tree sap, while excreting goo that encourages mold growth. And they’re invasive! What more did we need to know?
As they spread, many state governments advised the public to participate in their extermination, by stomping on them. Really! The theory is that individuals can do their small part, as every lanternfly killed means there’s one less that can reproduce. The public has taken enthusiastically to the task, organizing squishathons, developing stomping strategies (of note: lanternflies actually don’t fly, they hop), and even developing an app to track kills.
More recently, however, new research has suggested that the lanternflies won’t be as destructive as we originally thought. Julie Urban, an entomologist at Penn State, told Gothamist that the insects don’t actually seem to be killing their host trees, they’re merely a stressor. If these new findings bear out, it’s unclear what this would mean for extermination efforts. It’s possible that some of the fervor around squashing would start to die down.
I’m here to tell you: Don’t let it! Individual people stomping out individual lanternflies was never really a viable strategy anyway. Lanternflies lay 30-50 eggs at a time, so they reproduce much faster than we can kill them. Still, the squishing had an important effect: It gave people a way to feel they were participating in their community in a way that was fun.
Especially as climate change looms, we’re constantly being told more and more ways we should be helping the environment. Objectively, none of it is fun. We’re told: Don’t waste water. Reduce your air conditioner use. Don’t eat too many burgers. Don’t drive places you could walk. Collect all your stinky food scraps and drag them across town for composting. Stop buying cute $6 tops online. These are obligations, things we must do as good citizens. That’s why the spotted lanternfly invasion presented such a unique opportunity: It was a chance to do something useful that we could also enjoy!
After all, how often are you told to kill something, for nature? To illustrate what a singular moment this is, let’s do a close reading of the statement from the NYC Parks Department: “Harming our city’s wildlife is prohibited, but in an effort to slow the spread of this troublesome species, we are putting out a one-time call: if you see a spotted lanternfly, please squish and dispose of this invasive pest.”
Taking it line-by-line, the statement starts with the expected: don’t harm wildlife. (That’s fine, it’s not something I generally want to do anyway!) But that is quickly followed up by this “one-time” opportunity—I’m already excited and ready to take advantage of whatever this is!—and then we learn we get to do something we’ve loved doing since we were children: squish bugs! This is not only fun, it is good for the city! Sure, maybe the squishing is mostly a way of coaxing people into learning about lanternflies and their effects, which might make everyone more willing to pour tax dollars into more effective means of eradication. But I am in it for being told explicitly that my interest in impromptu urban bug hunting is warranted! Navigating New York City streets in the midst of yet another heatwave is not a pleasant activity; at the end of the day, when I’m sweaty and irritated coming home from work, nothing feels as good as catching sight of that orangey-red wing, feeling the thrill of the chase start to pump through me, and channeling some righteous rage with a satisfying clomp.
As I’ve said, this exercise is probably not actually terribly useful ecologically. If you find an egg mass on a tree that you can scrape off, you’re making a bigger impact, but realistically the only way the infestation can be combatted is on an industrial scale. Still, we are constantly faced with our individual inefficiency when it comes to the environment, and there’s something to be said for doing what feels good. And what feels better than the gleeful pursuit of a bad bug? To be fair, there are some conscientious objectors who do not feel we should be reveling in our bloodlust (goolust?). I respect their point of view. Mine differs.
No matter what information is forthcoming about lanternflies—unless we’re explicitly told to stop—I urge you to keep squishing. There’s a lot more environmental work to be done that won’t be nearly as enjoyable.