Editor’s Note: Adam Larson is a writer and science communicator from Kenosha, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in NBC News, Poland Weekly, and The Denver Post, and he writes the newsletter All Over the Place with Adam Larson. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
There are hundreds of invasive species in the United States, although the spotted lanternfly is the only one I know of that has ever had its own segment on Saturday Night Live. People are probably familiar with them because they’re novel, easily recognizable and the average hiker or homeowner can casually crush them — and feel pretty good about doing something for the environment in the process.
That pleasure-taking in the process of eradication is something you can’t say about the laborious process of pulling kudzu, a noxious vegetation native to Japan and southeast China that has been spreading for over a hundred years.
In Wisconsin, the invasive insect we really worry about is the emerald ash borer, which is native to eastern Russia and northern China. While an adult emerald ash borer is a brilliant shining green, it spends most of its time hidden in the bark of ash trees, often unnoticed. Emerald ash borers kill 99% of the ash trees they attack.
Another invasive species roaming around the US is the wild boar, which unfortunately are a bit too big to squish. Also known as feral pigs, they are native to Europe and Asia, and have been known to grow to three feet in height, six feet in length and weigh over 500 pounds. If you were to try to hit one it might be inclined to strike back, and that might not end too well.
There are, in fact, hundreds of invasive species in the US. Earlier this month a United Nations-backed report found that invasive species cost the world at least $423 billion annually, leading to the extinction of plant and animal species, threatening our food supply and worsening environmental catastrophes around the world.
Some 200 new alien species have been documented every year, scientists say, spread by human travel or global trade. Of 37,000 alien species known to have been introduced around the world, 3,500 pose a “severe global threat.” They destroy crops, wipe out native species, pollute waterways, spread disease and lay the groundwork for devastating natural disasters.
They’re not nearly as destructive, but lanternflies remain the focus of attention. They are gaudy and hard to miss, which has contributed to a lot of the coverage they get. But while hardly the most destructive invasive insect, spotted lanternflies are more than a nuisance. With few predators to keep them in check, spotted lanternfly numbers can quickly get out of control and they can decimate many species of plants, including commercially important ones like apples, grapes and hops.
I’m a naturalist and science writer, but to be perfectly honest, I still have yet to see my first spotted lanternfly — other than the ones I’ve read about in countless news reports. Here in Wisconsin, their arrival may be a few years away. Or, they may never get here at all. Then again, they may arrive tomorrow in a shipment of tires. That’s the nature of invasive species: The invasion often is unpredictable and can easily go unnoticed.
What’s interesting is, even in areas where the spotted lanternfly infestation has been severe, the devastation to foliage sometimes has been less than anticipated. And in some places where the infestation of spotted lanternflies was heavy last year, they are proving hard to detect this year. The caveat here is that it can take time before we know with any certainty what the lasting impacts from this infestation will be once spotted lanternflies really settled in.
Prime spotted lanternfly habitats can be found in the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest, and on the West Coast. A large part of the western US lacks good habitat for the spotted lanternfly, acting as a natural physical barrier to their spread from one coast to the other.
But human activity changes the equation. The thousands of vehicles that crisscross the country on a daily basis provide possible rides for spotted lanternflies to bypass unsuitable habitat and end up in places where they thrive.
As everyone has heard myriad times by now, if there are spotted lanternflies in your area, you can squish them, vacuum them, trap them or crush their eggs. But lots of people did those things last year, and yet the spotted lanternfly is still spreading.
If there has been any silver lining at all in the spread of lanternflies and all the press they’ve gotten, it’s that these insects have given us all an object lesson in how invasive species spread, and what we need to be doing to prevent the next invasion of alien flora or fauna.
There are a few things we can do to stop the spread of invasive species: planting native plants in our gardens, never releasing unwanted exotic pets and keeping an eye out for new invasive species populations so you can report them to the proper authorities in your state.
Sadly, we can’t just grab natural predators of the spotted lanternfly from Asia and release them in the US. The cane toad was introduced to control native pests in Florida and Australia, only for it to become invasive in both places, eating lots of native species and poisoning countless native predators with its skin toxins.
While many of the counties that have reported spotted lanternfly infestations are contiguous, several are hundreds of miles away from the nearest infestation. This may be due to some counties having unreported infestations, but it is also likely that just as lanternflies probably leapfrogged from Asia to North America in a shipment, they’ve leapfrogged within the US as well.
The good news is that, from time to time, invasive species have successfully been eradicated. Many invasive species have been eliminated from islands, and island ecosystems have dramatically rebounded after they are removed.
The bad news is, it’s much harder to eliminate invasive species on mainlands. Still, it can happen if they are caught early enough: An isolated population of feral pigs was successfully eliminated in Crawford County, Wisconsin with the help of deer hunters who were educated about the damage feral pigs can cause. But when a species is small, able to avoid detection and reproduces quickly — which is the case with many invasive species — this outcome is much less likely.
It could be years before California has a spotted lanternfly infestation — or there could be spotted lanternflies hanging out in a shipment bound for the West Coast right now. Research suggests they will be established in California by 2033, but there’s an element of randomness that is hard to predict. That could prove devastating to its famed vineyards, which would provide easy pickings for these voracious insects.
If you live in an area that is good habitat for spotted lanternfly, learn to recognize the spotted lanternfly and its egg masses, and you might be able to stop an infestation before it is established by you by contacting the proper authorities. That’s because successful efforts to eradicate invasive species from an area usually have to be coordinated and continued over the span of several years. Squishing some spotted lanternflies on the sidewalk helps, but it alone isn’t enough to get rid of them all.
At the end of the day, approaches to dealing with invasive pests have to be worked out on a regional level. I expect that lanternflies, like so many invasive pests, are likely over time to become just another alien species that farmers, gardeners and the rest of us will just have to learn to manage.