Take A Breath: The Spotted Lanternfly Challenge
Updated: Aug 8, 2022
The active population of Spotted Lanternflies are growing closer to maturity and causing lots of stress, for humans and plants alike. We’ve been reading, listening and reflecting on the way this conversation is being handled in the public sphere - most often with aggression, battle language and war metaphors.
We aspire to take a different approach.
As land stewards, our goal is to follow Nature’s lead and work with her as an ally, rather than fight against her. Embodying this way of being means we do things very differently than traditional landscaping companies. We believe that an Earth First response to conditions we find challenging can look very different than the advice we see around a topic like the Spotted Lanternfly.
Our mission is to support pollination and build habitat by empowering humans to reconnect with the land they steward. In support of that mission, we’re dispelling some common myths about these insects, sharing our perspective on what you SHOULDN’T do about them in the landscape, and what solutions we’ve found that won’t do more harm than good.
Photos: Spotted Lanternflies on sunflowers + structures
Spotted Lanternfly: Facts + Myths
Let’s face it - most of us are just not really into bugs. Lanternflies are large, they leave sticky residue (“honeydew” - more on that later) dripping from where they eat, and they come in swarms. We’re definitely not here to convince you that they’re not gross, inconvenient and obnoxious.
However, we see some misconceptions about the true danger, and therefore the level of threat they pose, and the amount of aggressive action they require.
When we’re told by media sources that the lanternfly is "public enemy #1" aside from the pandemic, it’s easy to assume that all of our plants, forests and fields are at risk of being decimated. Let’s take a closer look.
→ Industries most affected by the supposedly harmful effects of this bug are grapevines, fruit trees, plant nurseries and timber (black walnut, birch, willow and red maple seem to be more heavily affected). So please support your local wineries, native plant nurseries and farmers. You don’t have to ask us twice to spend our grocery budget in these places!
→ For trees that are dealing with a significant lanternfly presence, don’t panic. The lantern fly has been here since 2014 and trees aren’t dying rapidly. Most will be just fine. Universities treating trees with insecticide are doing so mostly to kill the bugs in public areas where they are a nuisance, not to protect the trees. Furthermore, because these insects migrate annually, they're unlikely to cause sustained damage.
EarthCare Fundamental: We don’t believe it’s ever worth it to use deadly chemicals in the environment, especially as a response to a problem we humans caused.
→ Here are some other facts about these insects that may help to calm some fears:
They don’t bite or sting humans, and they can’t damage your home or structures. In fact, they don’t even have the biological parts to do so. They can only suck sap with their mouths and leave behind honeydew. This does cause considerable harm to plants, through sugar extraction and the blockage of photosynthesis.
They prefer to feed on the Ailanthus (tree of heaven) which is also an invasive species from the same place the Spotted Lanternfly is from... Researchers are hopeful this might keep the fast-growing, colonizing tree in check. The flies could be spreading a fungal infection between ailanthus trees - this is currently under observation and would be an example of nature balancing herself.
They don’t like oak and conifers - plant more of these in case the bugs are here to stay! Thinking long term is essential for the land steward.
Photos: Spotted Lanternflies feeding on Ailanthus (tree of heaven)
Common Solutions (with Collateral Damage)
Most of the commonly recommended ways of dealing with the SLF are dangerous to other beneficial insects and harmful to our soil, water and environment.
Pesticides and toxic chemicals create more victims by killing indiscriminately. It’s incredibly difficult to target spray, and functionally impossible to keep these harmful chemicals out of the foodshed, watershed + ecosystem as a whole.
Insecticides are highly toxic to birds and other animals that eat poisoned insects.
All kinds of sprays - even “natural” ones like vinegar, salt water, neem, essential oils and natural soaps - can harm your soil for years. It’s not worth it to kill beneficial bacteria, fungi and insects in the soil, and jeopardize the ecosystem you’re trying to protect.
Traps are indiscriminate, killing other beneficial insects, and even birds and bats.
Repelling insects with essential oils just sends them somewhere else, creating more harm “elsewhere” potentially. Remember to think bigger than you.
“Never Create a Second Victim.” This rule comes from Wilderness First Aid training. Be careful not to cause more harm when you step in. In practical terms here, don’t do long term damage to your soil, or even short term harm to wildlife, just to save this year’s grapes.
Safer + Supportive Solutions
As always, we encourage you to pause and observe before taking action. Before jumping into solutions, take some time to approach the situation with curiosity and see what you can learn.
Pause, approach with curiosity and ask questions
Use your Sit Spot practice to observe the Spotted Lanternfly, their presence, actions and impacts in the landscape where you are, and resist the urge to kill for at least the time you’re there.
Remove female Ailanthus trees, but leave male trees as “trap plants” to distract insects from trees and plants you wish to protect (farmers use this technique with plants like nettles for aphids)
Supportive Activities: support local farmers through buying directly/joining CSA; build healthy soil; establish meadows, shrublands + forests where possible; encourage mycelial network growth for resilient trees
Get comfortable around insects!
Attract and support allies + natural predators:
Observation is showing that some of the most effective predators of the Spotted Lantern Fly are:
- Chickens: perhaps the best so far!
- Praying mantis: The Chinese mantis does eat lanternflies, which may spare some hummingbirds that they would eat otherwise - but do not buy Chinese mantis species, not even for the purpose of combating lanternflies
- Birds: cardinals, catbirds, blue jays, tufted titmouse (one of our top 5 beneficial native birds), carolina wren, woodpeckers, bluebirds, ducks
- Fish + amphibians: goldfish, koi, FROGS, garter snakes,
- BATS: also pollinators and effective predators against other challenging insects like mosquitoes
- Insects: assassin bugs, wheel bugs, yellow jackets
- Parasitic wasps: excellent pollinators, and they lay eggs in the eggs of the lantern fly and the wasp larva win!
Stop clearing your land and mowing your grass, give as much as possible back to nature, and be intentional about building native habitat. Then you’ll have less pests =)
Build Resilience + Biodiversity through Lawn Conversion
- Simply let grass grow out and see what other species present themselves. If HOAs or neighbors are a concern, consider more private/sheltered areas where you can safely let things go wild. Use “cues to care” (since this research is behind a paywall, we’ll write another blog soon and tell all!) to show your intention with signage and borders.
- Give 50% of your land back to nature. → Read: Should we give half the planet back to wildlife?
- Invite and install native plants into your landscape, especially ones that support the allies listed above.
- Create new native garden beds by sheet mulching, anywhere from a few square feet to a whole entire lawn!
- Pay attention to Nature’s solutions and support them in your landscape. Example: Common milkweed (host plant for monarchs) contains a sticky sap that lanternflies like, but when they eat it, their mandibles get sticky and stop functioning, which leads to their death. Piles of dead flies have been observed under stands of common milkweed.
Photos: Predators in our ecosystem adapt to eat Spotted Lanternflies
Short term solutions for Spotted Lanternfly challenges?
One low risk effective option seems to be the band of sticky tape that attracts and traps them - with some warnings! Beneficial insects, and even birds and bats, can also get stuck. Lancaster Conservancy made a video showing how to make Spotted Lanternfly traps that are safer for other wildlife, using chicken wire and other supplies that are easy to find.
→ WATCH Sticky Tape with Chicken Wire for Spotted Lanternflies: How to Set Up
It seems the only way to kill the active (after hatching) Spotted Lanternfly, without causing collateral damage, is to smash them by hand.
Be sure you know how to identify them, and avoid killing their lookalikes.
Be mindful of your aggression levels and nervous system health.
Use this as an opportunity to learn about yourself and your inner motivations. Are you killing to protect the innocent? Killing to survive? When does this turn into a sport?
Advanced land steward assignment: Learn to identify the Spotted Lanternfly’s eggs.
Look up pictures and read descriptions about where they’re likely to be found and what time of year in your bioregion. Avoid destroying lookalikes that may be beneficial.
Practice finding them and containing them. The best method would be to scrape them into a bag or bucket with alcohol or hand sanitizer in it, which will kill them, and seal it in the trash. In Pennsylvania, we can do this from October to May.
Photo: Resilient Landscape with biodiversity, wildlife habitat + pollinator support.
Keep Listening + Learning
The case of the Spotted Lanternfly is an ongoing conversation that we are having with each other, and with Earth. Here are a few ways to continue listening and learning.
Noxious and Invasive Weeds as Medicine
Your Insect Allies: Meet the Beneficial Insects Controlling Pests in your Garden (Xerces Society)
A safe place to ask questions and discuss with other people who are studying EarthCare and learning to steward their land.
Join LadyBug's EarthCare Community Group
One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka *primary recommendation
Beyond the War on Invasive Species by Tao Orion
Invasive Plant Medicine by Timothy Lee Scott, Stephen Harrod Buhner