Published On: Mon, Aug 15th, 2022

On the hunt with New York’s spotted lanternfly squishers: ‘I came to kill’

A spotted lanternfly is seen on the roof of an apartment in New York this week. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Michael Thomas, a maintenance worker, was inspecting the base of 3 World Trade Center in late June of last year when he started to notice groups of heart-shaped bugs, three or four at a time, “crawling up on the walls” of the thousand-foot skyscraper in lower Manhattan. He went to sweep them up, hoping to keep them from entering through the revolving doors, or flying into the lobby. Then, he said, “they just started to multiply”.

What Thomas saw were spotted lanternflies, a visually arresting, fast-spreading invasive species – that New Yorkers are under strict instructions to kill. In the age of overlapping viral outbreaks (Covid, monkeypox, the return, in some places, of polio), this kind of clear government communication is a gift. The New York state department of agriculture is very direct: “If you see a Spotted Lanternfly in New York City, kill it immediately by stepping on it or crushing it.”

Some insects have powerful defences. The ironclad beetle has a thick shell, stronger than an entomologist’s pin; bees sting. Not so the spotted lanternfly. It flies slowly, it does not bite, and even when startled, it often only has the energy for one jump. It is as soft as a butterfly, but less friable than a moth. (“Whenever I tried to kill them, they would just hop. They hop like bunnies,” Thomas said. “I would just go outside and I would just start stomping.”)

I would just go outside and I would just start stomping.”

Michael Thomas

The lanternfly is harmless to humans, but is a prodigious killer of some crops and plants, including hops, grapes, apples and blueberries. It drinks sap out of tree trunks, weakening them, and its waste product, a sticky, high-glucose fluid known as honeydew, coats leaves and blocks photosynthesis. Since it was first detected in Pennsylvania, in 2014, it has spread to 11 other states, as far as North Carolina and Indiana. A 2020 study found the insects could cause $324m of economic damage, and the loss of 2,800 jobs, every year in Pennsylvania alone.

This year, the bugs have been spotted near Wall Street, along 42nd Street, on the Upper East Side, near the UN headquarters, and in big clumps on trees in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. The URL of a recent CBS News article gave away the urgency: “spotted-lanternfly-is-back-immediately-kill-them”. The Pennsylvania department of agriculture’s hotline to report them is 1-888-4BADFLY.

Joshua Nunez, 13, shows off the body of a spotted lanternfly.
Joshua Nunez, 13, shows off the body of a spotted lanternfly. Photograph: Naaman Zhao/The Guardian

As a result, a kind of late-summer fury has descended on New York City. “I saw a leash of four-year old kids with an adult at each end on 28 Liberty [Street] yesterday just running around and stomping them,” one person commented on Reddit. “Was kind of cute.” Back at 3 World Trade Center on Wednesday, Jaeso Rich, an office worker at Spotify, stepped out during his break to crush some. The day before, someone had explained to him what the bugs do. Now, the corner behind him was splattered with lanternflies. He’d killed 20 already. “I didn’t know up until yesterday that they were supposed to be killed,” he said. “But when I came today, I came to kill them. I came to protect the environment”.

Jonathan Nunez shows the probiscis of a spotted lanternfly to his sons.
Jonathan Nunez shows the probiscis of a spotted lanternfly to his sons. Photograph: Naaman Zhao/The Guardian

Last weekend, Jonathan Nunez, another lanternfly hunter, was in Coney Island trying to do the same. Nunez, an ex-marine, is an animal lover. At home, he has three rescued sugar gliders (a kind of possum), three rescued ferrets (he has saved seven total), and two turtles.

On a bright, clear day, as those around him headed to the amusement park or the beach, Nunez and his three sons – Jayden, Joshua and Jerry, all in the back seat – drove to Coney Island Creek Park, a stretch of urban scrub that Nunez called “one of the heaviest locations” he goes to. Joshua, 13, carried a bright yellow net.

In their original habitat in China, spotted lanternfly numbers are kept low by parasitic wasps. They lay eggs in young lanternflies, which are in turn are eaten from within once the baby wasps hatch. On Coney Island, Nunez uses his hands. “Sometimes I just slap them,” he said. “They’re slow. You literally put your hand 45 degrees? They’ll die.” He estimates that he kills 200 to 400 lanternflies a week.

At a particularly infested tree, festooned with fifty to eighty lanternflies, Nunez paused. “A blowtorch would kill them instantly, but you’d damage the tree,” he mused. “Chemicals would kill them instantly, but you damage the tree, damage the soil, damage the environment.”

Instead, he sprayed the bugs with a solution of water and vinegar (it supposedly blocks their respiratory openings) and the family resumed stomping. “Stomp ’em out with your Timbs, man!” Joshua said to his older brother, Jayden. “Stomp ’em out, stomp ’em out,” Nunez said, like a mantra. He was slapping tired lanternflies against the bark of the tree. He held one up in his hand, said “this is how I execute,” and pulled off its head. He put the body in a plastic tub to feed to his turtles and pets. (“Sugar gliders need protein, so insects are part of their regimen.”) In the middle of the melee, a bright green leafhopper landed on Nunez. “This is actually what we are not trying to kill,” he said. It sat for a moment on his finger, then flew away.

” You know it kills me, because I do really like bugs. And they’re not ugly bugs”

Jonathan Nunez

Despite his proficiency, Nunez is clear that what he does “is not the answer”. In his spare time, he studies the lanternfly online. He wanted to be an entomologist or a vet, before the military got in the way. “You know, it kills me, because I do really like bugs,” he said. “And they’re not ugly bugs.”

The answer, he said, was “ecological stabilization”. The key would be to find a natural predator to eat the lanternflies. He claimed he has observed starlings starting to hunt them. “I think they’re learning. I hope this is the end of it,” he said. “We like beer and grapes. I want my kids to be able to know what grapes taste like.”

Jared Nunez holds a cup full of spotted lanternfly carcasses, which his father will feed to their pet turtles.
Jared Nunez holds a cup full of spotted lanternfly carcasses, which his father will feed to their pet turtles. Photograph: Naaman Zhao/The Guardian

After an hour and a half, Nunez and his sons packed up. He said he would buy the boys slushies and enjoy the rest of their weekend. The sun had started to shift, but there were many lanternflies in the other trees, high in the branches. “I can’t even reach these,” Nunez said. New ones had settled on to the trunk he’d cleared. There were lanternflies climbing up the sides of a public artwork in the middle of a community garden. Jared shouted, “They think it’s something to suck on!”

“They’re in the street!” Jayden yelled.

At one point, Jonathan said “Ooh, monarch!” and pointed out an orange butterfly to his kids. They paused to watch it go by.

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