I was sitting on a New Jersey Transit train at the Bay Street station in Montclair, New Jersey one afternoon when I saw a dappled lantern. The station’s eastbound and westbound lanes are separated by a chain-link fence about five feet high, presumably to prevent people from crossing them. In the double-decker cars, the bottom row of seats puts you at eye level with the train platform, and when you look out the window at the stations, you see the shoes of the passengers. I happened to be on the left side of the train, from where the view was of the top bar of the chain-link fence, close-up. As I watched, a dappled lantern walked along the top of the fence.
Each fence section is supported by a vertical pipe-shaped post with a hemispherical metal cap. The spotted lanternfly reached the pole and slowly climbed an inch or two to the top, each pair of legs at a time; then he walked a careful semi-circle through the hood. He climbed down the other side of the ceiling, crawled over the top bar of the next fence section, and continued on his way. Mottled Lanterns have a set of hindwings, half of which are bright red, the color of Certainly Red lipstick. When the insect is at rest, the dull brown fore wings cover the hind wings and not much red is seen. As this insect maneuvered on the cap, for a moment, the wings flared out and the red appeared brightly.
Had he come up here on the train? It could have been. Suddenly, the dappled lanterns are everywhere. State agricultural experiment stations have issued warnings about how they ride on cars and trucks (though the warnings don’t appear to include trains). Insects even lay eggs in the wheel arches of your car. You might think that an egg patch is just dried mud that has hardened on it. Adult insects cling tenaciously to vehicle surfaces. I think maybe because they have sticky feet.
At a stand at the Nutley, New Jersey, farmers’ market, volunteers from Rutgers University’s Master Gardeners program tell people that dappled lanterns (formerly known as Lycorma delicatula) are leafhoppers and come from Asia. Why they suddenly exploded in population in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area this year is a mystery; they were first discovered in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania in 2014. Since then, they have caused tens of millions of dollars in damage to agriculture and forestry in the state; scientists have predicted losses of hundreds of millions a year if the insects continue to spread. The ailanthus tree (also called the Tree of Heaven), another non-native to Asia, resembles them. By sucking nutrients from the tree and excreting a sweet excess called honeydew, which attracts a black mold, the insects sometimes fatally weaken trees. Ailanthus, black walnut and staghorn are three of their favorite victims. They also destroy an expensive agricultural plant: the vine.
“I saw a dappled lantern on my car windshield when I came out of Barnes & Noble in Clifton Commons,” said one of Rutgers’ master gardeners. “I ran my wipers and brushed it off. When I got back it was on the roof of the car!
“Maybe it was a different mottled lantern,” offered a woman in an Indian-print blouse, who had stopped by with a few questions from the SLF.
“Crush them every time you see them!” Florence Rollino, who has been a master gardener for twenty-five years, said. “They jump very fast and they jump far. You have to come to them from the front. It is in this direction that they jump, like an airplane taking off.
“They only have one real jump in them, so you can usually get them on the second jump,” said Susan Ripoll, another master gardener. “Or at least that’s what I’m told. I hate killing anything. These insects are a bit lost. They are always looking for a good environment.
“I had the nymphs all over my deck in April,” said the lady in the printed blouse. “I thought they were little spiders until I saw they only had six legs.” She added that deer regularly climb a series of steps to get onto her patio and eat her potted plants.
Mottled Lanterns mate in August and increased activity in what the New York Job called the “sex-crazed insects” probably explains why so many people have recently taken notice of them. Insects lay eggs from September to December. The eggs hatch into tiny black nymphs with white spots, in the first of four instars, or nymphal stages, each a larger insect than the last. After the fourth instar, the nymphs moult into adults about an inch long. They mate and then lay eggs, often in places where you can’t see them, like high up in trees. There may have been an abundance of their eggs in the trees this year, and they are easy to miss, which is why we had no warnings about this SLF upsurge.
My sister Suzan Kwateng, a gardener with the New York City Department of Parks, told me, “Spotted lanterns are the most common insects I see in the parks where I work on Staten Island. They’re all over Brooklyn Heights, near the new library. Part of Sue’s job is to spray weed killer. “The honeydew the insects excrete makes the leaves look glassy when it touches them,” she said. “Then it’s hard for me to tell if a patch of poison ivy has ever been sprayed, because spraying the leaves also makes them look glassy.” She added that the bugs have also been seen “on the west side of Manhattan at Hudson Yards” and “they seem to be taking over.” In downtown, they have recently been spotted on the sides of high-rise buildings. According to the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, they are attracted to all tall vertical surfaces and may appreciate the warmth that glass and concrete provide in buildings. They are not great pilots, but they can jump and glide.
Cape May County, in the far south of New Jersey, was late spotted by lanterns, after all other counties in the state. The county grows a lot of grapes, which is one of the reasons the State Agricultural Experiment Station in the city of Cape May Court House became interested. I called Dr. Claudia Gil Arroyo, the county agricultural officer, and asked her what kind of spotted lanternfly presence she was seeing. She said the bugs are tough on already stressed plants, a category that includes most of what’s grown locally, as the county suffered a drought this year. So far, fortunately, the insects have not caused major damage to the vines, nor to the apple, peach or blueberry trees, which they are also fond of. Some insecticides work on them, when applied directly.
Gil Arroyo said he saw swarms of dappled lanterns around lighted doorways at night. They don’t bite or sting, but the swarms are disgusting even when not on plants and trees, raining down honeydew. I remember observing swallows, bats and larger insects like dragonflies swooping through swarms of mayflies or moths and feeding on each other, and there were reports of birds, spiders and praying mantises attacking the spotted lantern, but no predators seem to come after them. Gil Arroyo said: “People are doing studies on this. The red on the hindwings may resemble the kind of visual defense signal some animals use to warn a predator of their dangerousness or toxicity. The red flash when they jump can scare away potential predators. For now, these are just guesses. (According to Penn State Extension, to date, there are no known toxins in insects.)
I occasionally see dappled lanterns crushed on the outdoor track at a nearby park where I run. They make a gaudy mess, with the mess of fenders and black spots and bright red shards, like McDonald’s Happy Meal toys thrown out of a car window and smashed over and over. The corpses are still at a corner of the trail where squirrels drop green and black pods from the overhanging branches of a black walnut tree. Now I understand that the bugs are up there too, doing their slow, patient act on the tree. ♦