Last week, a pretty moth on a flower outside a window caught this reporter’s eye. Closer inspection confirmed suspicion: It was a spotted lanternfly, an invasive insect that New Yorkers are under scientists’ orders to kill without mercy.
By now it is clear that the lanternflies, which can devastate crops like grapes and apples, harm trees and make it unpleasant to sit outside, have embarked on their most robust metropolitan-area invasion since their first appearance here in 2020. And while New Yorkers have taken to bug murder with typical verve, relying on citizens as vigilante exterminators is proving inadequate.
Here is a partial list of the things New Yorkers have seen lanternflies do in the past few days: Crawl skyward past a ninth-floor window on Roosevelt Island. Get squished by day campers in Prospect Park, their carcasses tallied for a competition. Settle on the lapel of a smartly dressed woman in a Midtown cafe. Hang out on a Frosé dispenser in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art. Lie drenched on Rockaway Beach, apparently drowned by waves. And brazenly occupy ledges, screens, trees and terraces across the five boroughs, sometimes evading multiple stomp attempts.
Whistleblowers have posted real-time social-media reports of lanternflies swarming the Nomad Tower at 32nd Street and Broadway, infesting a tree in Woodbridge, N.J., getting crunched up in the maw of a black-billed cuckoo in Central Park, and attempting to hitch a ride at a rest stop in New Jersey. A swarm in downtown Jersey City made the local news.
Since lanternflies, native to parts of Asia, arrived in the United States in 2011 — in a shipment of stones, scientists believe — infestations have been documented in 12 states, including across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, on Long Island, and in the Hudson Valley and Western New York. Sightings of individual lanternflies, tracked by the New York State Integrated Pest Management project, stretch further. The spread brings the bugs within range of upstate orchards and Finger Lakes vineyards — which the adult lanternflies can damage by feeding on leaves and stems.
All of which raises the question: Is citizen bug-stomping really the way to go?
Marielle Anzelone, an urban ecologist in New York, says the question is part of a bigger conundrum about the roles of individuals and governments in tackling sprawling, hard-to-solve environmental problems.
Just as asking individuals to recycle and drive less does not obviate the need for national and global government action to address the climate crisis and protect ecosystems, she said, freelance bug-stompers cannot turn back the lanternfly tide by themselves. In an ideal world, state agencies would do more to fight invasive species.
Still, these agencies tend to lack the personnel and resources, and every little bit of effort helps.
“The sole reliance on individuals is not going to get us there,” Ms. Anzelone said, referring to both lanternflies and the heating planet.
“But maybe individual action is a way of pulling people in,” she added. “It’s not so much about that individual person’s carbon footprint or those three lanternflies they kill in a summer. It’s about educating and engaging and perhaps turning them into the person who calls their council member to ask for more funding for the parks department, or votes for local and national candidates to take real action on climate.”
Lanternflies, Ms. Anzelone said, “invite a lot of participation.” They are easy to identify, they fly clumsily and they show themselves among humans, not just “out in the woods — and there’s something you can do,” she said.
City and state agencies have posted