On Better Understanding
an Insect's Impact
STATEN ISLAND IS BESEIGED. Spotted Lanternflies (SLF) are everywhere. They are on trees, on homes, decks, pools and cars. They are even on us, our shoulders, legs and arms whenever we go outdoors.
Initially, two summers back, the SLF arrived to Staten Island with a flurry of media attention. Early reports anticipated death and destruction. Social media took those first stories to an even wider audience and before anyone had relevant experience researching the new invasive insect, too many self-proclaimed experts continued to share misinformed posts which exacerbated the fear of SLF spreading across the island. Thankfully, the threats of environmental destruction seem to have been greatly exaggerated.
There is no denying that the SLFs are annoying, intrusive, even disconcerting. Their population has exploded and they randomly blanket backyards and patios, fences and storefronts from Tottenville to Tompkinsville. They fly through our neighborhoods. When we try to squish and squash them they can jump, hop and bounce quicker than we can step and swat. We have been plagued by SLF and we need a way to deal with the overwhelming assault on our Borough of Parks.
After three years of experience with the SLF we have learned that early reports were wrong. The SLF have not yet proven to be terribly destructive. The SLF are not going to defoliate our woodlands, drain sap from our trees nor make brown the green leaves of summer. They do not bite. They do not sting. They will not poison our pets. The SLF have a strong preference for one species of tree, the invasive, weedy tree Ailanthus, commonly known as the Tree of Heaven. SLF can be found nearly anywhere, on any tree, and though they do “feed” on a variety of trees and vines in our parks and yards, they do seem to focus their insatiable appetite on the Tree of Heaven. And even when the SLF congregates by the hundreds or thousands, each taking sap from a Tree of Heaven, the tree is weakened but survives. Thus far, the worst we have experienced are the excretions from hundreds of SLF spitting down on the vegetation below the trees. The understory and the base of the trees glisten with the honey dew discharged by the SLF. This discharge encourages the growth of a fungus and prolonged exposure to that fungus may eventually lead to the limited loss of invasive trees and plant life.
So, what shall we do? Do we abide by these SLF for the remainder of time? Is there no end in sight? In 2014, the SLF arrived in Berks County, Pennsylvania. Just like us, the people of Berks County were unprepared for the onslaught. They killed SLF just like us. They even cut down many Tree of Heaven trees. Today, you would be hard pressed to find a SLF in Berks County. The plague they suffered has subsided. The SLF moved on to invade new territories north and west. By 2018, they found their way into the Poconos and soon hitched a ride to Staten Island. This summer, though we still have plenty of SLF on the island, their numbers continue to push northward and westward. They are now in the Hudson Valley, Connecticut and the Ohio River Valley.
Like Berks County Staten Island will soon be remembering the SLF, telling stories of the invasion. Like the gypsy moth invasion of the 1970’s, these invasive pests will move away. Until such time it is important not to spray chemicals in our battle against the SLF. Hose them off your property. Squish and squash them. Have your dog eat them or allow birds and spiders to do the job. But spraying chemicals is always a mistake. Chemicals are bad for our children, our pets, our allies in our quest for a healthier community. If we spray chemicals to kill SLFs we also kill spiders, pollinators and other links in the ecological chain that binds the natural world on Staten Island. Through the fall and winter we can scrape SLF egg casings from trees, decking and siding, but they will be back in the spring; and probably the following year, but soon enough the SLFs will be gone. Apparently, the SLFs are not as devastating as the early reports indicated, they are not dangerous. Dare we acknowledge; they are attractive in all forms, formidable, an insect to be reckoned with.
Let us dial back the rhetoric, let’s scale back the fear. Let us, the members of Protectors of Pine Oak Woods begin to educate our neighbors and let’s start reshaping the stories about these unwelcomed visitors. It is important to let everyone know, this too shall pass.
—Cliff Hagen, Fall 2022